Indiana and Utah clashed in 19 regular-season and playoff games last year. The Pacers scored 2,085 points in winning nine of those contests and the Western title by one game. The Stars scored 2,105 points to take the other 10. Their one-up margin came in the last game of the Indiana-Utah playoff series, after which the Stars surged on to defeat Kentucky for the ABA championship. Never has there been a closer race in the pros, and this season promises more of the same—a happy circumstance for both teams. Both struck box-office gold whenever they met last year.
With 10 days remaining in the exhibition season the Pacers were clear favorites for this year's division title. While Utah stood pretty much pat, Indiana bulged with new muscle in the front-court, most of it wrapped around the 235 pounds of college (Indiana) dropout George McGinnis. The Pacers already were loaded up front with Center Mel Daniels and Forwards Bob Netolicky and Roger Brown, but McGinnis is so strong and talented that Coach Bob Leonard tried moving Brown to guard during preseason games. Although the experiment was not an unqualified success, Brown may occasionally play in the backcourt, both to give McGinnis more game time and to shore up the guard corps, where the Pacers are either small or inexperienced. And this is not the only new job Brown may take on during the season: he also is favored to win a seat on the Indianapolis City Council in the November elections. Brown, whose icy on-court stare and far-from-conservative Fu Manchu mustache make him an intimidating player, is running as a Republican and hopes to bring two-party politics to the usually Democratic black community of Indianapolis. "I'm sure not doing it for the money," he says of the $3,600-a-year position.
But Indiana may not be able to afford the luxury of a player-politician. Utah made one late—and large—change by signing All-League, 6'4" Guard Jimmy Jones. Jones used to be a Memphis star, but that team's front office made a clerical error which allowed him to get away. The Pros failed to notify Jones in writing that they intended to pick up his option, and Jimmy achieved the status every veteran player dreams of: he was suddenly a free agent. He received $250,000 to join Utah and will combine with Glen Combs and Merv Jackson to give the Stars a deeper, bigger and better backcourt than Indiana. Utah cannot match the Pacers' front-court depth, but its starting line of Red Robbins, Zelmo Beaty and Willie Wise—who is now the ABA's best all-round forward—allows rookie Coach LaDell Andersen to match Indiana's first string.
The West's remaining three teams are outclassed by the two title contenders. Texas failed as a regional franchise, changed its name back to Dallas and will play all its games around Big D. The new Chap Coach, Tom Nissalke, was the Milwaukee assistant during the Bucks' three-year building period, but there are no cornerstones like Kareem Jabbar in Dallas to start any construction with. The Chaps do have an excellent set of guards in Don Freeman and Steve Jones (another Memphis star turned free agent), and these two might be enough to give Dallas third place.
"Last year Denver was a disaster. It started with disaster and got worse," says new Rocket General Manager-Coach Alex Hannum. "The franchise went from top to bottom in one year. Now we turn it around—there's only one direction to go."
Indeed, Denver should go up a notch, perhaps two, now that future star Ralph Simpson is a season closer to maturity. But Hannum's toughest problem may be drawing people. The Rockets were once the darlings of Denver—before the Spencer Haywood fiasco and generally crude handling of the paying customers by Owner Bill Ringsby and his son, the former general manager, destroyed that affection.
Last season Memphis had a name problem: there were three Joneses on its roster. Now that the two best have been allowed to wander away, the Pros have a much worse name problem. Will Jones is still around, and so is husky Wendell Ladner, a surprise All-Star as a rookie last year, but almost nobody knows who they—or any of their teammates—are. The one exception is Maravichesque rookie Johnny Neumann, who quit the University of Mississippi after scoring 40.2 points a game as a sophomore. Unfortunately for Babe McCarthy, the marvelous coach who has three times brought his undermanned teams into the playoffs, Neumann is not the third coming of Bob Cousy, at least not yet. Thus, the only practical solution to Memphis problems came from team members themselves. They suggested a publicity stunt: have Center Gerald Govan, a good rebounder and defender who is not exactly a celebrity, change his name. Now that someone called Jabbar plays center in Milwaukee, the recommended new name is obvious: Lew Alcindor.