For a rousing finish to the longest-running schedule this side of Amtrak, the American Basketball Association staged the matchup nobody quite expected. There were the newest darlings of all the pros, the New York Nets, trying to cop a championship with destiny playing the backcourt, attempting to put the last twist on that mystique of Long Island where the Mets and Jets before them had won titles that even Jeane Dixon could not have predicted. And there were the Indiana Enigmas, that team otherwise known as the Pacers.
The Pacers are big, fast, mean, skilled, experienced, strong and some other good things—but all season they had played at a speed indicating they were trying to live down to their nickname. "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," said Sir Winston Churchill and also Indiana Coach Slick Leonard. All the Pacers had to do to win the ABA title was to survive the Nets, fate, rhyme and themselves, not to mention a season that finally ran to eight months and 113 games, plus playoffs that lasted longer than the Fast in the Desert. Indiana did it, without mystery, in six games.
The Pacers won because they outplayed the Nets in the backcourt, the position where New York was supposed to have been strongest and Indiana weakest. The Nets had all the guards in this series: All-Star Bill Melchionni, All-Rookie John Roche, All-Guts Ollie Taylor. The Pacers had only disappointing Rick Mount, small (6') Freddie Lewis and even smaller Billy Keller. New York's backcourt men had shot down the supposedly invincible Kentucky Colonels and helped bomb out the Virginia Squires. The only noteworthy bombing the Indiana guards had done came when Mount cannonaded Leonard in the press for not giving him enough playing time. Their critics—frequently including Leonard—took potshots of their own, generally rating the Pacer guards as mere spear carriers for the team's five-man batch of superior frontcourt men.
Indiana's front line includes Center Mel Daniels, twice the ABA's MVP; Forwards Roger Brown and Bob Netolicky, former all-league selections; and two precocious rookies, 6'8" George McGinnis and 6'9" Darnell Hillman. The Pacers were favored over the Nets because of them, but once the series started they often fell into foul trouble and struggled to outrebound the smaller Nets. The result: they were outscored by New York's frontcourt, not only because Rick Barry poured in 32 points a game, as expected, but also because vastly improved Center Billy Paultz led the Nets in rebounding and averaged nearly 20 points himself.
May 28, 1972
This sort of action served to reverse the usual Pacer pattern. "We're a good team because of our big men," said Keller, "but when we break open games it's often the guards who seem to get the points. It's like the only thing we need to win is for the guards to get hot for a few minutes because the guys up front will keep us even the rest of the time." Against the Nets, it was more often the Indiana backcourt fighting to keep the Pacers in games until the bigger players would get around to exploding. In the finals the Indy guards outscored New York by 56 points and even passed for more assists.
Twice Indiana received the sudden electricity it needed in the frontcourt and both times the result was a Pacer victory. In the third game—and the first of the final series played before the hysterical, standing-room-only crowds at the Nets' new Nassau Coliseum—McGinnis scored 30 points and took 20 rebounds as Indiana edged to a 2-1 lead. For the rest of the series, McGinnis, a bullish young man uninhibited by any apparent thirst for consistency, was too frequently on the bench in foul trouble. On the court he was as impressive in error as he was in accomplishment. In the fifth game, for example, McGinnis mistakenly thought the buzzer ending the third period was about to go off when he landed after pulling a defensive rebound with one hand away from three less forceful Nets. Displaying the strongest—and wildest—young right arm since Nolan Ryan, he turned with the ball palmed and effortlessly flicked a pass downcourt. It soared high, barely missing the lights, sailed over the backboard at the far end of the court and drifted 10 rows or so into the stands. Nice lob, George.
In the sixth game Brown, a consummate playoff performer of days past, broke loose for what used to be a typical postseason game for him. He ripped Barry and other New York defenders for 32 points as his teammates frequently drew their men to the other side of the court to leave Brown all alone to toy with his man one-on-one.
But it was the Indiana guards who played most consistently and who rallied the Pacers to their victory in the pivotal fifth game. Mount was merely steady in his best moments of the finals, but Keller was explosive and Lewis—who led all the Indiana scorers—was the team's top player.
The series was tied 2-2 when game five began. The Pacers started off in mid-season form—at one point during the regular schedule they had managed to lose 20 games in six weeks despite the League's most formidable roster. By midway through the second quarter, New York held a 20-point lead and the over-capacity crowd of Pacer fans was making loud noises reminiscent of Philadelphia. At halftime Lewis was the only Pacer with more than six points (he had 14), and McGinnis, Daniels and Hill-man were all in foul trouble. Just before the intermission, however, Lewis made a move that would set the pattern for Indiana later in the game. As Roche paused, dribbling, at the top of the key—waiting for the clock to run down before New York ran a play for the final shot of the half—Freddie stripped the ball away from him and floated in for a layup that cut the Nets' lead to 15.
In a two minute span early in the third period Keller swished three long, three-point baskets that turned the game from a rout into the most exciting one of the series. Those shots, mixed with jumpers by Brown, McGinnis and Daniels, cut New York's lead to only three points after four minutes of the second half. Keller's 25-footers were not rash gambles. He had popped in nine in a row the day before in practice.
Still, while his shots revived the non-cheering Pacer fans, they failed to decisively rattle the Nets. In the closing 18 minutes of the game the score was tied or the lead changed hands 21 times. In fact, New York seemed to have salvaged the game when Barry made two free throws with 27 seconds left to give the Nets a four-point lead. Then Keller and Lewis went to work. Billy headed for his favorite three-point spot and, although closely guarded by Taylor, swished a jumper. Still, all New York had to do to preserve a one-point win was hold the ball until the end of the game. Lewis solved that problem with a clean steal from Taylor as the Nets attempted to bring the ball upcourt. He drove in for a layup, was fouled and made two free throws to give Indiana a 100-99 win.
Lewis, a member of the Pacers since the founding of the ABA, has been Indy's only captain and has appeared in all but a handful of Pacer games. He played one year in the NBA but joined the new league because he felt there would be better job security there for a small man. In his own mind, that security has never materialized. "I have had to come to training camp every year with the attitude that I'm trying to make the team, that I'm trying to win a job," he says.
Lewis is short and he is not extraordinarily fast. Nor is he a pinpoint outside shooter. But compared to some of his teammates, he is a marvel of consistency and he has learned to do little things very well—among them shooting foul shots and making steals when they are imperative.
"I've had trouble matching up our guards against other teams," says Leonard. "Rick's not a particularly good defensive player and Freddie and Billy are small. Lots of people thought I was criticizing them as players, but I was just concerned about their size. It was a misunderstanding."
There have been plenty of misunderstandings on the Pacers this year and even while he was gulping champagne in the locker room after the title-clinching victory, one player said, "I intend to be right back here doing this again next year, but it sure ain't gonna be with this team." Mount and Netolicky are almost certain to be traded, and others may go with them. It is indeed unusual for a team with a pronounced undercurrent of discontent to win a championship, a factor that might explain why the Pacers, who won their last title only two years ago, celebrated their victory with a far greater display of champagne-squirting enthusiasm than even recent first-time winners like the Los Angeles Lakers or Milwaukee Bucks.
"Winning sure solves a lot of problems," said Indiana Assistant General Manager Bill Orwig during the bubbly blitz. It also helps to clear up a few enigmas as well.