The natural tendency is to believe black professional athletes live on an island free of racial bias. They are well-paid and generally beloved if
they are performing well, so who would react to them negatively simply because of their race?
Those who have worn the Pacers uniform say that isn't always the case, however. From the beginning of the franchise's history in 1967 black members of the team have experienced racism in both subtle and blatant forms away from the cocoon of the locker room. The timeline of their experiences reflects progress, but also the need for more of it.
What's clear from conversations with several black Pacers is that Indiana has a reputation for not always being accommodating to them.
"As soon as you get to Indiana and talk to people who have lived there for a long time, you're told right away there are certain parts of Indiana you don't go to," said Antonio Davis, who played for the Pacers from 1993-99. "You know that right off. They talk about the KKK once marching in Indianapolis and you hear the stories about a lot of different things.
"But I can honestly say in being there, I didn't have bad experiences other than minor things. You feel it a lot, but I don't know that I have a story where experienced it."
That wasn't the case when the franchise began operations in 1967 after the American Basketball Association was formed. Some of the players on the inaugural team experienced one of the most fundamental issues of race: housing.
While some of the black players bought houses in predominately black neighborhoods close to downtown, two attempted to rent an apartment farther away. Guard Jerry Harkness inquired about one in a new complex in the Meadows area but was rejected. He had to connect with a local white man, civic leader Bill McGowan, who made a call to another apartment complex on his behalf. When McGowan said he was looking for a place for a Pacer, he was told, "We already have one!"
"One," meaning a black player. That was forward Oliver Darden, who had been granted an apartment at a building on North Keystone after being turned away at three or four other places. Darden got an apartment because he threatened to sue and a Pacers front office member had intervened on his behalf. Harkness later got an apartment at 38th and Post Rd. through local real estate developer Robert Welch, who owned the building.
"I didn't think it would be that hard," McGowan said. "I didn't realize how bad it was."
It should be mentioned, however, that neither Darden nor Harkness say they had memorable issues with other residents after moving into their apartment complexes.
The Pacers had as many as eight black players in their first season, more than any other team in the ABA or NBA. That didn't go over well with some fans. Larry Staverman, the Pacers' first coach, recalled hearing complaints from fans in the stands whenever he had five black players in the game at the same time. The front office must have heard them, too, because there was a dedicated effort the following season to "whiten" the roster. Whereas five white players played for the team in the first season, 11 appeared in games at various points the following year.
The gradual roster transformation finally met with a blowback when general manager Mike Storen tried to release black backup center George Peeples after white guard Steve Chubin had been acquired. According to Jimmy Rayl's account, one acknowledged by Storen, Peeples was called into a locker room before practice one morning and was told of his release by Storen and coach Bob Leonard. When Roger Brown learned of it, he walked into the locker room and filed a complaint. Moments later, Rayl — a white former Mr. Basketball from Kokomo — was called in and told he was being released due to the size of his contract.
Brown, a future Hall of Famer, experienced a more direct form of racism following a Game 7 playoff loss to Utah at the Coliseum in 1971. He had led the Pacers to the league championship the previous seasons but had not performed as well in this series. According to newspaper reports, a few fans hurled beer and racial slurs at him as he headed toward the locker room.
"Afterwards, the usually unemotional Brown was shaken up," Robin Miller wrote in the Indianapolis Star.
"It was a sad scene. Here was a man who almost single-handedly beat the Stars in last season's championship series. He just didn't have the stardust this year. He was solid but not spectacular. As a result he'll probably be scorned for the rest of the summer."
Star sports editor Bob Collins devoted most of his column to the incident a few days later, constructing it as a letter of apology to Brown.
"But morons aren't real long on memory," Collins wrote. "In any basketball crowd you'll see a few drunks who couldn't find the men's room without a map. So, they took it out on you. And they hit you where it cut the deepest. But at the same time they displayed the limits of their vocabulary, to say nothing of their mentality."
Mel Daniels was perhaps the most inclusive of all the early Pacers. Having played for an integrated high school team in Detroit, a rarity in that era, and being a natural empathizer, he was a natural for bridging the gap between races. His personality was such that Billy Keller considers a postgame talk with Daniels after a road loss during his rookie season the exact moment he felt like an accepted team member.
That didn't shield Daniels from bigotry, however. Although his experiences as a Pacer were mostly positive as a two-time league Most Valuable Player on teams that won three ABA championships, he did recall — with laughter — a letter he received from a fan that stated something along the lines of, "We believe that white ballplayers are better than black ballplayers, but we like you. Can we have your autograph?"
George McGinnis says he also was denied an apartment after signing with the Pacers in 1971 following his sophomore season at Indiana. He and his girlfriend, Lynda, went to a complex on 56th St. and were told by the office manager, "We don't rent to coloreds." He rented an apartment near Castleton instead.
McGinnis says he didn't hear racial slurs from fans at the Coliseum as Brown had, but often heard them from fans in other cities, especially in the south.
"It was a different time back then," he says. "It happened all the time."
He did have a brush with bigotry following an exhibition game against the Kentucky Colonels at Columbus North High School in September of 1972.
He and Darnell Hillman headed to a Columbus restaurant after the game for something to eat, but were denied service. Not only denied but laughed at by the man in charge.
"I have some friends in Columbus and they told me that guy joked about it for 15 years," McGinnis recalls.
McGinnis says he didn't inform Leonard of the incident, instead airing a more general complaint.
"I don't like it down here," he told Leonard. "If we come back here for another game, I'm not coming."
McGinnis says Leonard replied, "You don't have to worry because the ------- promoter stiffed us out of our money. We won't be coming back."
Hillman had some bad experiences of his own. Visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following his rookie season in 1972, he was taken to the first turn to watch the action. Passing by the Snake Pit, he heard fans shouting the N-word at him.
"I was like, 'OK, this won't be a race I'll be coming back to anytime soon," he says.
Hillman was reminded there were other places to avoid during the playoffs in 1973, when the Pacers played Kentucky. Leonard allowed the players to drive to games in Louisville if they wanted, so Hillman drove his new Corvette.
Heading home after one game, he took the Whiteland exit in search of a gas station. He soon noticed a car full of young white males following him, talking among themselves and gesturing toward him. Farther into town, a police car began following him as well. The kids soon pulled off, but the police officer continued to follow him. Giving up on finding a place to refuel, Hillman headed back to the interstate. The officer followed him for a while before taking an exit ramp. Hillman barely made it to a station on the south side of Indianapolis before running out of gas and was later lectured by Daniels about staying out of smaller towns outside of Indianapolis.
Generally, however, their status as a Pacer helped players in their encounters with police officers.
Hillman, who drove sports cars and motorcycles during his playing career, was pulled over occasionally often for speeding. After the officer looked at his license, the common response was something along the lines of "Slow down, Darnell, we want you around to win basketball games."
The more blatant racially motivated incidents go back many years, but Hillman experienced one after the new millennium while in French Lick for a summer golf outing. He was walking into a store in town when a car of young white men drove by and shouted the N-word at him.
Travis Best had a similar experience as a rookie with the Pacers in the 1995-96 season. The memory of being at a gas station on N. Keystone Ave. and hearing the N-word from some people in a passing car remains fresh in his memory — partly because it had never happened before.
"That was the first time it had ever been said to me," said Best, Best, who grew up in Springfield, Mass. and attended college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "That was a jolt.”"
These incidents have become more isolated over the years. It's not as though the Pacers' black players have heard racial insults whenever they leave home, and at some point housing discrimination faded into oblivion for them.
"I've been pretty fortunate in that way," Best says. "Not too many (negative) things have come my way. I'm pretty sure there have been things, but I've always been in a position where I haven't had to ask anyone for anything. So, I haven't been in position where somebody could talk down or berate me in any way."
Davis had the added benefit of being 6-foot-9 and more easily identified as an athlete than the 5-11 Best. He says he felt more racial resentment while playing in other U.S. cities as well as parts of Europe, but he says he felt uncomfortable in certain environments in Indianapolis.
"Believe me, there are times where you are out and people don't know who you are...” he said. "I moved to Zionsville and I felt it there sometimes. You know what I mean? Some people didn't know me or thought I shouldn't live where I lived. It was just something I felt."
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at email@example.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.
Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.