Mel Daniels Fired, Drama Returns to Conseco

The abruptness of Mike Wells’ opening sentence was befitting of the jarring news:

Mel Daniels, whose ABA number is retired by the Indiana Pacers, was fired as the team’s director of player personnel.

In today’s message-conscious world, the word “fired” isn’t something you expect to hear associated with Mel Daniels. Mel was — and still is — a Pacers icon. He led the franchise to three ABA titles and has been in the front office in various capacities since 1986.

It seems to me that someone of that import to the organization and the community would merit more than an apparently hastily prepared 71-word report. The Pacers press release used softer language, but did nothing to indicate that this action had been well-planned:

Oct. 23, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers today confirmed that Director of Player Personnel, Mel Daniels, is no longer with the organization.

“Mel was a great basketball player who helped make the Pacers a well-known franchise”, stated Larry Bird, President of Basketball Operations, “and we wish him well.”

The Pacers are working with Mel, and we are hopeful we will be able to make a joint statement in the near future.

The way the news is being reported, and the fact that the Pacers are confirming that Daniels is no longer employed, leads me to believe that these are relatively rapidly changing events, rather than a pre-planned, cost-saving reduction or termination.

Many Pacer fans, including myself, were somewhat dazed by the move. Events took a further turn when Peter Vecsey unloosed a volley at the Pacers in his blog for the New York Post. Some of his more inflammatory comments included:

Owner Herb Simon and team president Larry Bird should be ashamed for not superseding GM David Morway’s decision to hatchet one of Indianapolis’ most revered sports figures, something he’s wanted to do for months; conveniently he was out of the office, in Orlando, when the execution was implemented.

… and …

Donnie Walsh should be embarrassed he ever hired such a paperweight as Morway, a former player agent whose basketball opinion rings hollow at his own family dinner table, to understudy him.

At first blush, I had to wonder why Vecsey, or anyone outside of the immediate Pacer community, would take any notice of Mel’s termination. Secondly, it struck me odd that he was so vitriolic in his comments. Almost immediately, however, I realized that this wasn’t the first time this week that Peter Vecsey had led off his column with a story about the Pacers. On Sunday, October 18, he published a piece headlined, “Sources: Bird set to go at end of season.” In the piece, he said two sources, a  former and a current employee of the Pacers, had said that Larry Bird would step down at the end of the season. The reasons given were health and “lack-of-enjoyment” issues.

For those who have followed the Pacers, this is an entirely plausible scenario. Though he was a successful coach, Bird’s post-basketball career has never even approached the success he experienced as a player. The humiliation this franchise has suffered (much self-inflicted), along with the paucity of talent and scarce financial resources, can’t make that job pleasant for anyone. However, Vecsey did not stop at that. Perhaps the most potentially incendiary comment came towards the end, quoting an unnamed source:

One thing’s for sure, “Our players were sick when they heard about the extension,” someone on the scene accentuated.

Of course, “the extension” refers to the Pacers decision to pick up the 2010-2011 option on head coach Jim O’Brien’s contract. If this news was in fact true, in part or in total, it would be very reminiscent of the dysfunction that’s plagued the Pacers for years.

In any case, the nature of Daniels’ firing, coupled with the quick response from the distant Vecsey, led me to strongly suspect that Mel Daniels might be his source inside the Pacer organization.

This story is far from completely told, however. While I was writing this piece, Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star posted a column on Daniels’ ouster. In it, he notes others’ speculation that Daniels was the source for Vecsey’s story, but he also mentions that Daniels denied that charge on the record. He gives the outline of political infighting in the Pacers’ front office. This is hardly news. Anybody who has worked in a corporate setting has witnessed this type of feuding first hand.

While he notes that the biggest battles were between Daniels and Pacers’ GM David Morway, he does cite that Daniels also apparently had ongoing disputes with Coach Jim O’Brien and Director of Scouting Joe Ash. Mel, unsurprisingly, was apparently loud and unapologetic in voicing his dissent. I clearly do not know this specific dynamic first hand, but I can tell you that the value of that particular approach in a management setting is variable, at best.

Both the Pacers and Daniels are being relatively mum on the subject. The only person Kravitz quoted in his column was former Pacer Bob Netolicky, a long-time teammate of Daniels:

Netolicky believes Bird and Morway wanted to be surrounded by yes-men and they chafed when Daniels had the temerity to disagree.

“Mel’s basketball knowledge is so great, he knew more about the game than all of those (front-office) people put together, especially in terms of seeing a player and understanding how he’ll fit in,” Netolicky said. “All I know is, some people just dance to the beat, and Mel made the mistake of voicing his opinion.”

Netolicky had also been let go by the Pacers in May. He had been with the team for 10 months, and they told him “it was a cost-cutting thing.”

Kravitz finishes his piece with the following dark words:

The wounds are deep. The anger is real.

So real, it wouldn’t shock me if Daniels demanded his jersey be taken down from the fieldhouse rafters.

We haven’t heard the last of this.

Now, Kravitz, like Vecsey, loves the drama, and isn’t above valuing a provocative comment over any actual truth or substance. That could certainly be the case here, but this news is coming to the Pacer nation pretty hard and pretty fast. The problem that Bird, Morway, et al, face is that all of the issues occurred behind closed doors. This isn’t a GM with a history of bad moves or a coach with a long losing record. The Pacer community as a whole will never really know what happened. So what it will come down to is what — or more accurately, who — people are going to believe.

Who’s got more credibility with the Pacer faithful: The guy whose number is hanging in the rafters or the guy in this picture?

Artest Cover

There are so many ways that this can go, and almost none of them are good for the franchise.

If what Vecsey, Kravitz and Netolicky are claiming is true then the Pacers have replaced an old dysfunction (the apparent inability for Bird and Walsh to reach mutually acceptable decisions on personnel) for another (a front office unwilling to listen to opinions it doesn’t want to hear). And even if the sentiments expressed by those three prove exaggerated or simply untrue, but Daniels decides to play the victim, a large portion of the fanbase will be alienated. That, in some ways, could be just as bad or worse than a dysfunctional front office, because we’re talking about the absolute hardcore fans here — and even they only have so much patience.

In either case, the Pacers, as usual, are screwed.

If I were to speculate (which I’m gonna do), I’d guess that Mel had effectively become more trouble than he was worth. I’d also say that it seems likely that Bird and Morway believed that he was Vecsey’s source, despite his denial. (Given Vecsey’s response, I’d consider that to be reasonable speculation.) I’d have to believe they had some pretty strong motivation for letting him go, and for doing it now. Unless they’re completely naive, Bird and Morway would have to know that this would get an ugly reaction from a PR-standpoint. The timing couldn’t have been worse (effectively eclipsing the positive image surveys by Frank Luntz), and the handling could not have been more ham-handed. (I should probably wait on making that judgment until this all plays out. It can always get worse.)

I’m beginning to wonder if the Pacers should forgo trying to come up with a new slogan each year (this years’ tagline is “Passion. Pride. Pacers”), and simply contact Dorothy Parker’s estate and acquire the permanent rights to “What fresh hell is this?”

If that’s too high-brow, perhaps “D’oh!” will be more appropriate.

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Tags: Bob Netolicky David Morway Jim O'Brien Larry Bird Mel Daniels Peter Vecsey

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