The Indiana Pacers, whose fans like to think of their team as the Knicks of the American Basketball Association, and the Los Angeles Stars, who until a month or two ago were considered the nix of the ABA, finally met over the past two weeks to play for the league championship. The absurdity of the match-up initially seemed to fit perfectly with the notion that there was anyone left in the country who still wanted to watch basketball during the last week in May. Yet, after six games, it was clear that the hot, summery weather in Southern California and Indianapolis had dazed a lot of fans into forgetting what time of year it was, and the surprising Stars had put the heat on the stunned Pacers as well.
Indiana, which won the ABA's Eastern Division with a 59-25 record and had taken its two preliminary playoff series by winning eight of nine games against Carolina and Kentucky, figured to defeat Los Angeles in four, certainly no more than five, games. The Pacers were on schedule after the first two meetings in Indianapolis, as they won 109-93 and 114-111 on second-half scoring bursts by Center Mel Daniels and Forward Bob Netolicky. The play then shifted for two games to the Stars' old home, Anaheim Convention Center.
The 7,800-seat center, which is one of the trimmest arenas in the country, was not the Stars' base this year. They played in the huge Los Angeles Sports Arena before crowds which were usually in absentia. "When I got out of the hospital after having pneumonia in February and the doctor told me to stay away from large groups of people I knew just where to go," said Merv Harris, Southern California's guru of basketball. "I started to go to all the Stars' games at the Sports Arena." Two years ago, before the team moved to its burial ground in L.A. (the franchise will almost certainly shift to Salt Lake City next season where it will have an opportunity to try out a place called the Salt Palace), it regularly played in Anaheim. Trivia buffs will recall that the team was then called the Amigos.
Schedule conflicts prevented the Stars from using the Sports Arena for the first two ABA playoff games in California and necessitated the return to Anaheim. The switch could turn out to be a happy accident for pro basketball fans in the area who have grown tired of the No. 2 Lakers. Attendance both nights beat the Stars' previous high by a wide margin, and the second game was played before a crowd only 700 under capacity. The fans, unlike the blasé sorts who sit on their hands at Laker games, were loud and long on patience with the home team. After the Stars trailed by as much as 21 points in the first half, they rooted them home to a 109-106 win. "The fans were a big lift for us," said Los Angeles Forward Tom Washington. "During the regular season I was always glad to go on the road. It didn't make any difference that the away crowds weren't for us. It was just good to be playing in front of some people."
The Stars won by coming from behind, as they had done consistently for the past two months, and the hero, Forward George Stone, who scored 27 points in the second half, was, as usual, a player almost no one had heard of. The most celebrated man on the Los Angeles team, which starts a lineup of unknowns—Mack Calvin, Bob Warren, Merv Jackson, Craig Raymond and Stone—does not play at all. He is Coach Bill Sharman, who was All-NBA seven times with the Celtics.
On March 1, when the Stars were purchased for a token sum by Denver cable-TV man Bill Daniels, they were seven games out of the lowest playoff spot, riding a six-game losing streak. They then won 17 of their next 21 games. Los Angeles trailed Dallas 2-1 in the first playoff series—971 fans, approximately half of them using free tickets, showed up for one of those games at the Sports Arena—and still won 4-2. Denver, with Spencer Haywood, took a 1-0 lead in the Western Division finals and then lost the next four games to the Stars.
Sharman's two best players, the 6'6" Forward Willie Wise from Drake, and Calvin, a super-quick guard from Southern Cal, are both rookies and were nearly ignored by the pros. Wise made the Stars as a free agent and Calvin was a 12th-round draftee. During the season, 7' Center Raymond was acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade. Only one of the current Stars was in the starting lineup for the team's first game this season, but Sharman brought his inexperienced players along rapidly. During the playoffs Los Angeles shot well, scrambled effectively on defense and, with Calvin leading the way, ran very hard.
"I'll tell you—the change in management helped this team, too," said Wise. "You play better when you know you don't need to worry about your paycheck. Under the old owners, the checks used to be a few days late lots of times, I mean lots of times."
It looked like the Stars' hopes for $4,000 winners' paychecks at the end of the playoffs were gone after the fourth game when Roger Brown, the 6'5" Pacer forward who is the best clutch player in the ABA, set a playoff scoring record of 53 points and Indiana won 142-120. Brown, who had been assigned to guard Stone the night before, was subtly prodded before the game by Indiana Coach Bob Leonard. "Roger," asked Leonard, who had mentioned that he might start old pro Tom Thacker to hold down Stone, "do you think you can cover that guy?" Brown replied, "I've got him." Along with his 53 points. Brown had 13 rebounds and six assists. Stone scored 19 points, but 10 of them came in the fourth quarter after the Pacers already led by 20. "The man is bad," said Mel Daniels after the game, referring to Brown in the curiously inverted current form of praise.
Bad Roger has felt less subtle jabs from Leonard before. Leonard took over the Pacers when they were in last place early in the season a year ago and one of his first maneuvers was to leave Brown home during a road trip. "I told him to stay home and decide if he wanted to play basketball," says Leonard. "He was good enough to make the all-league team without trying. He wouldn't take his outside shot at all. He'd drive into the middle, and so many people sagged off on him that he'd end up traveling half the time. All he had to do was take an outside shot once in a while so they'd have to cover him close." In the same week Indiana General Manager Mike Storen had tried to trade Brown to every team in the league. There were no takers.
The Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis was packed to 1,400 over capacity for the fifth game, and Los Angeles pulled off another of its comebacks, winning 117-113 in overtime. If anyone ever doubted it, the game proved that Hoosiers love basketball any old time and that the Pacer franchise is one of the best in professional basketball. The crowd of 10,548 was the 14th sellout of the year for Indiana, despite the fact that five miles away 40,000 fans were gathered at the Indianapolis Speedway to watch qualifications for the Memorial Day race. In addition to the 500, last Saturday's game had to compete with the heat, which was 85° outside but nearer 95° inside where the TV lights warmed the court. The ventilation system in the 31-year-old coliseum consists of 32 slowly rotating fans.
The young Stars' rush for a championship this year was halted Monday night, appropriately at the L.A. Sports Arena, when Indiana won and took the series 4-2. Whether they play next season in Salt Lake, Albuquerque or Anaheim (the latter two still have a chance), the Stars should be strong. Zelmo Beaty, late of the Atlanta Hawks, will be playing with them then, giving the Stars a center to match Indiana's Daniels. They will also have rare depth at that position since Raymond is already better than many of the reserve pivotmen in the NBA.
Still, realists in the ABA like Bob Leonard concede that the older league remains much superior. ABA centers, including Daniels, have not begun to dominate games the way NBA pivotmen do and the ABA's starting guards are smaller, too much so for their quickness to compensate. Even more noticeable on both sides in the Los Angeles-Indiana series was the absence, aside from Brown, of truly complete players, who are usually found in twos and threes on the better NBA teams.