The Indiana Pacers brought a lot of vaudeville and a touch of class to the finals of the ABA Western Division playoffs last week. On the sidelines they conducted a mock hanging and a funeral, in the stands their fans rocked to the moves of a pep squad called Dancing Harry and the PaceMates and in the frontcourt they displayed a nifty rookie with amazing grace and a dancing bear of a superstar. The effect was hardly entertaining to the Denver Nuggets, the favorites for the ABA title and a team with a mile-high attitude now in danger of falling off its mountain.
The combination of high jinks and high-caliber forward play resulted in a 3-2 edge for Indiana in the best-of-seven series. Even Denver's emergency call to Robota The Rent-A-Witch on Sunday failed. The Nuggets were looking for magic, but the Pacers knew all the tricks. During the fourth period they got six straight baskets from George McGinnis, including a pair of three-pointers, that broke the game open, and then some deceptive moves from silky rookie Billy Knight to keep it that way. The two Indiana forwards finished with 55 points in the 109-90 win. Outside the Denver Auditorium-Arena it was snowing. Inside the Nuggets were crying.
A week earlier the usually charged-up Nuggets began the playoffs with a win, but their play turned desultory after that. They fell behind 2-1. Then they got a boost from Byron Beck, a 6'9", 30-year-old forward. Beck is one of 12 remaining players from the ABA's first season (1967-68), and his teammates call him "Old Man" because he looks like a 1950 Buick that never has been put in the garage. "I know I look 38," says Beck, understating his case. "When I was in junior college people thought I was 30."
Fortunately for the Nuggets, Beck's jumper is not wan or wrinkled. During a 12-minute stretch in the second half of the fourth game he made eight of 11 shots and, more important, sent McGinnis to the bench in foul trouble, enabling the Nuggets to score a 126-109 victory that seemed to put them back in control of the series. "This team is just like a fist," said Beck with premature confidence. "When things get tough, we close together." Back in Denver two days later, the fist lost its grip.
The Pacers, who had won the ABA championship two of the previous three years, came into the series with a history of reaching their apex in the playoffs. Still, Denver was favored because it had run away with the Western Division championship, winning 65 of 84 regular-season games. Even though Indiana had finished third, 20 games behind the Nuggets, the Western finals did not shape up as a mismatch. Discounting a slow start during which the Pacers tried a myriad of lineups and forgetting a stumbling ending after they had their playoff spot wrapped up, Indiana won 41 of 66 games. And during the regular season Denver had been unable to stop 6'7" Forward Knight, the Pacers' No. 1 draft pick from Pitt. He had averaged 26.5 points, shot 55% and floated through the air like a hang glider against the Nuggets.
Even with Knight on hand, the pacemaker for Indiana remains the 6'8" McGinnis, who is built like a Patton tank and packs just about as much firepower. The Nuggets could have used Audie Murphy armed with a bazooka in the first game at Denver, as McGinnis scored 39 points and bent one of the basket rims with a slam dunk. McGinnis' career record now includes three broken rims. which helps to explain the trepidation opponents feel when the 230-pounder careens downcourt. "Rims bend, bones break," shrugs McGinnis.
Still, the Nuggets won the opener 131-128, proving again that their house is not a home for visitors. The victory ran their record on the Denver court this year to 44-2.
The home-court magic failed in the second game, even though McGinnis complained of feeling weak, perhaps from excess rim bending. He said it was the mile-high altitude, but Indiana Coach Slick Leonard had other ideas. He checked the locker room for traces of kryptonite. McGinnis played only 27 minutes, but Knight and Bill Keller more than took up the slack in the 131-124 win. Knight, who scored 44 points on 18 of 22 shots, repeatedly was left open by Denver's double-up defense and received passes for easy shots underneath. Keller had 21 points in 23 minutes, giving the whirling 5'10" guard 43 points in 46 minutes in two games.
Denver was shocked by the loss of its treasured home-floor advantage, and the Nuggets were almost jolted again traveling to Indianapolis for the third and fourth games. They ran into a violent electrical storm that dribbled their plane across the sky. Coach Larry Brown is normally a light drinker and smoker, but suddenly he was taking jittery puffs on a cigar and asking the stewardess to keep his wine glass filled. "I change my coaching habits when we're playing thunder and lightning," whispered the ABA's Coach of the Year.
And the loss had made him more distressed than usual over the Nuggets' missed opportunity to add All-League Forward Willie Wise to their roster early in the season. Wise eventually signed with Virginia, and Brown was so openly infuriated with Denver's principal owner, Frank Goldberg, that he almost lost his job. "Goldberg said he offered Wise more money than most people make in a lifetime," said Brown. "What's that mean? A lot of people don't make $100,000 in a lifetime. Goldberg was gambling we could win without Wise."
In Indiana the Pacers and a whole stateful of fans were waiting for the Nuggets. Their motto was "Hang 'Em a Mile High." The club's switchboard operators were answering the phone with that salutation, and it seemed everybody was wearing a button proclaiming the slogan.
For Game Three 15,496 people poured into Market Square Arena. Before the tip-off a mock funeral was held and an effigy of a Nugget was lowered from a catwalk. The PaceMates, a group of pistol-toting, spangled cowgirls who dance at games, paraded with wanted posters of the Denver players. And then there was the ubiquitous Dancing Harry, the itinerant hoofer who first surfaced on the sidelines of Baltimore Bullet games years ago. Since then he has been with more teams than Rick Mount.
Harry's picture was on the cover of the Pacers' playoff program, and for the third game he was dressed in a gold lamé cape and gloves, a feathered cap trimmed with two rows of white fur, a gold turtleneck shirt and brown high-heeled shoes. By the end of the game, Harry and a surfeit of rock music had people dancing in the aisles. At one point he grabbed the public address microphone to urge everyone to return for the fourth game to see him and the Pacers again. All that was missing was a trained seal with an ABA ball on its nose.
"I think it's great," said Leonard. "We had a wrestling bear at halftime of one game and the fans loved that, too. I know I'd hate to have Harry put his famous whammy on me."
The Nuggets were having as much trouble with Knight's shots as they were with Harry's whammy. He scored 16 of his 26 points in the second half, two of them big baskets at the end. The first came when McGinnis drove, and the Nuggets swarmed him. Mac hit a wide-open Knight for a jumper. The second occurred when the rookie broke between Denver Center Mike Green and Forward Bobby Jones and scored a shovel shot that gave Indiana a five-point lead with a minute left and sealed a 118-112 win.
"George can see me so well and get the ball to me so quickly that all I have to do is keep moving," said Knight, whose performance was amazing for a player who was so erratic during the regular season that he did not receive a vote for Rookie of the Year.
At a brief workout the next day Brown changed his defensive strategy, ordering his players to sag, jam the middle and play McGinnis man-to-man. It was a wise move, since Indiana has one of the best and deepest young front lines in basketball. Joining McGinnis and Knight are 6'9½" rookie Center Len Elmore, who scored 22 points in Game Three, and Darnell Hillman, who had 22 points in the first half of Game Four, many of them on shots from across the street. Indiana was on top 64-61 at halftime.
Then ol' Beck went on his scoring spree and brought the Nuggets into the lead midway through the third quarter. His continued hot shooting, along with Green's swishing jumpers and the rebounding of Jones kept Denver ahead the rest of the way.
Before the game the Nuggets were given a telegram signed by 16,700 fans, reaffirming their support. The next day a group of 1,000 backers showed up at the airport to welcome them home. Young Indiana would surely fade now. There was plenty of laughter when the club hired Robota, who arrived complete with broom, to stir a cauldron at mid-court before Sunday's game. She even stuck pins into a poster of McGinnis.
But George was no donkey. While he went on his deadly fourth-quarter shooting spree, Denver was in the midst of one of its worst periods this year. The Nuggets hit on only six of 25 shots during the quarter, a collapse that indicated hexes apparently don't work as well as whammies.