Spring was running a fast break into Indianapolis last week. Budding leaves clustered in fuzzy nodes on the plentiful elms along Meridian Street and the temperature rose, fleetingly, into the 70s. A sure sign of even warmer days to come was the appearance on the streets of Indianapolis pace cars, the white convertibles the Speedway hands out to race officials and reporters to drive during the hectic weeks of preparation for the 500. It would have been easy to assume that Memorial Day was just around the corner except that those holdovers from winter, the ABA's Eastern Division champion Indiana Pacers, were still playing regular-season games.
The ABA season, which began with exhibition games six months ago, is the longest in sports, and there is little likelihood that the Pacers will stop playing anytime soon. Their frontcourt, consisting of a poet, Mel Daniels, an Indiana-style bachelor swinger, Bob Netolicky, and Roger Brown, who used to shoot baskets for an undertaker, is the best in the league and should lead Indiana through the ABA playoffs, which finally begin this week. If it does, there may be pro basketball games in Indianapolis up until race week and, considering the length of the grind, the winners should be awarded a checkered flag as well as a trophy.
The Pacers are already winners in Indianapolis. Only Milwaukee among pro basketball's young franchises can match Indiana's success, and the Pacers, who drew 8,100 fans a game this year, could finish as high as fourth in attendance among teams in both leagues. The NBA clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia will outdraw the Pacers, but each has at least four times the population of Indianapolis.
Most of the credit for Indiana's rapid development as a franchise goes to 34-year-old Mike Storen, the general manager. "In the beginning we directed our efforts to building a strong foundation," Storen said last week. "We wanted to develop wide community support and start putting together the players for a good team." That groundwork paid off last year when the Pacers came out of last place early in the season and won the Eastern playoffs 4-1. The team also showed a profit, first in the ABA. This year Indiana clinched its division with a 52-17 record, recorded even higher attendance and was awarded lucrative television and radio contracts. And the boom seems likely to last.
The Pacers also struck the first blow in the draft war with the NBA this spring by signing home-stale hero Rick Mount, the automatic gun from Lebanon, Ind. and Purdue. Mount should be a high scorer on the floor and at the gate, and his acquisition triggered a successful ABA drive aimed at forcing the NBA to merge. Last weekend the two leagues reached a tentative agreement on the main points of the merger, including a number of conditions surprisingly favorable to the ABA.
No one is more relieved by the success of the new league than Roger Brown, who was working the night shift as an injection-machine operator in a Dayton, Ohio General Motors plant when Storen signed him as the first Pacer. Brown played in the Brooklyn high school league with NBA All-Stars Billy Cunningham and Connie Hawkins, and the debate persists on the playgrounds in New York City over which of the three was the best. Brown, like Hawkins, was accused of associating with gamblers when he was a freshman in college. Although no charges were pressed against him, he was, again like Hawkins, banned by the NBA. Brown left college, became a factory worker and played on AAU teams, one of them sponsored by Jones Brothers Mortuaries. "I knew there would be two leagues sometime," Brown says. "I didn't know whether it would come in my playing years. When the Pacers offered me a contract, I was leery about signing. It meant losing my seniority at the plant and, if the new league folded, it meant I'd be back where I started. My wife and I had just had a child and it wasn't an easy choice. But I had a hunch that the time was right."
Storen, who had no office at the time, signed Brown late one night in an Indianapolis bar. The deal has been a good one for both. At 6'5", Brown is the Pacers' high scorer, ranks in the ABA's top 10 in every category except rebounding and three-point goals, and is recognized as one of the smoothest one-on-one players in the pros. Bob Leonard, the supercharged Indiana coach who has done a fine job since taking over a last-place team early in the 1969 season, says, "When we clinched our championship this year, we were only scoring about four more points a game than we were giving up. We won about 90% of our close ones mainly because we have a guy like Roger. Late in a close game we can isolate him one-on-one at one side of the court and we know he'll work in for a high percentage shot or pass off to give another guy a layup."
Last summer the NBA surrendered without firing a shot to Hawkins' threat of a lawsuit. It not only allowed him to jump from the ABA to the NBA, but paid him one of the largest reparations since the Treaty of Versailles. Although Brown, who owns stock in the Pacers, does not plan to switch leagues, he has filed a similar suit for damages. "I would expect that any merger would have provisions which would cover Roger's suit," says Storen. Since Hawkins will be paid more than $25,000 a year for 24 years beginning at age 45, Brown may well grow old as the best-heeled former injection-machine operator around.
The circumstances of Storen's negotiations with Bob Netolicky, one of the few high draft choices the ABA signed in its first season, were hardly more auspicious than those accompanying Brown's. Storen drove his five-year-old Falcon station wagon out to the airport to pick up his new recruit, who showed up flying his own plane. When Storen made his first contract offer, Netolicky, the son of a well-to-do Iowa surgeon, replied, "I get more than that for an allowance." According to Netolicky, the final negotiations were not that tough. "I'm a beach nut," he said. "I was drafted in the second round by San Diego, too, but I was on my way to Hawaii for the summer and I figured I might as well sign and get it over with."
Despite his average of more than 20 points and 10 rebounds, Indiana fans feel that Netolicky is not sufficiently competitive and he is the only Pacer ever booed at home. It has even been suggested that he rests up during games for his late-night stands at his new bar, Neto's.
Netolicky's main offenses against Midwestern proprieties, other than occasionally missing his driving hook shot, are that he is the only person ever pulled over in Indianapolis for driving a dune buggy with improper registration and that his steady date, Gail Gibson, a local girl who attended college on the West Coast, wears long straight blonde hair, elephant bell-bottoms and Indian headbands. He does not have a llama rug in his apartment or a bottle of Scotch in his glove compartment. He is strictly a beer drinker. One lady fan said of him recently, "Neto's got the sexiest teeth in the ABA," whatever that means.
The trade that brought 6'9" Mel Daniels to Indiana from Minnesota was the most lopsided in the ABA's short history. The Pacers gave up two players who are no longer in the league, a draft choice and cash for Daniels, who immediately turned Indiana into a contender and was last season's Most Valuable Player. He is the second best re-bounder this year behind Denver's Spencer Haywood and he shoots fall-away jumpers with exceptional accuracy.
Daniels does not have all the extraordinary physical assets of the best NBA centers, but he is a fiercely competitive, driven man who often finds it difficult to sleep after games. Between 3 and 5 on those restless mornings Daniels has written nearly 300 poems about subjects like growing up—which he did in a tough section of Detroit—or the attractions of Albuquerque, N. Mex., where he attended college and lives in the off season.
"I read two of my poems on the radio a while ago and a couple of hundred people wrote in and asked for copies," Daniels says. "I had them printed up and sent them to the people, but I'd rather not do that. My poems are personal, too personal to publish. They're just a means for me to clear my mind. My favorite poet is Poe. He's my man. He was able to show how common people feel. The Bells, that's my favorite poem of his."
With Rick Mount, the poet, the swinger and the undertaker's rep, the Pacers are going to ring a lot of bells around the league for a long time.