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:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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.

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

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  • kester

    Nicely put together.

    You know what would be some good news that would overshadow any of this? A decent record right out of the box regular season.

  • http://PacersDigest Naptown Seth

    Dead on Count. I 100% agree on the blow by blow. It’s painfully obvious once you digest the initial shock. The only question I add to it is that perhaps it didn’t start with Mel’s leak, but that his leak was his own counter to whatever dispute was already raging. Who knows how long the core battle that led to this had been going on; maybe Mel was doing my schtick about taking Blair instead and it was getting ugly?

  • wintermute

    Regarding the abruptness of the announcement. Indy Cornrows speculates that Vecsey forced the Pacers’ hand in announcing the firing. It seems very likely that Vecsey’s source (whether it’s Mel or not) leaked that info to him, and he was going to print it. The Pacers found out, perhaps when Vecsey or his editor asked them to comment, and decided to make a preemptive announcement. This sequence of events makes sense to me, though obviously it’s just speculation.

    More of my speculation follows. We pretty much accept that there was tension between Walsh on the one hand and Bird/Morway on the other during the last few Walsh years. It seems reasonable to suggest that the organization divided into a Walsh faction and a Bird faction during that time. When Walsh left he didn’t bring his people with him, so some Walsh loyalists may have been left behind. I would suggest what we’re seeing now is a purge of the die-hards.

    There may have been a specific event that triggered Mel’s rebellion, but it seems likely to me that the tensions have been simmering for a while. Perhaps that leak to Vecsey is a hint of the final straw – maybe there was truth to Bird stepping down, and Mel just couldn’t stand having Morway as his boss. But anyway, my speculation is flying way out now.

    @Seth, man, you’re obsessed with Blair 8-)

  • HCPacerIN

    Nice article, but could you have found a more flattering picture of Bird for us? Having posted that picture, it seems obvious you are trying to sway public opinion towards Mel’s side. I don’t care how big of a Pacer icon Daniels may be, if he was in fact Vescey’s source then I am glad to see him go. I’ll even hold the door open for him.

  • Tim Donahue

    Thanks for all of the comments. Let me address some things specifically (with more of my own speculation).

    Seth…I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been, but I would characterize the Vecsey leak (real or suspected) as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Per Kravitz, there had clearly been tension well before this. Joe Ash has been with the Pacers since the 2003-2004 season. Blair certainly could be a flashpoint, but other disputes could include David Harrison, Shawne Williams, perhaps even James White. Mistakes have been made. I’ll come back to the dynamic when I wrap up.

    wintermute…the faction issue is certainly reasonable, if not likely. I’ve been on both sides of organizational change. It’s not unreasonable for the new leadership to want to run things their way, but they must be careful to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. On the other side, the people from the previous administration need to make a good faith effort to adapt. Rarely is either side 100% right. You seem to be dead on in assuming that Daniels would not have been happy under a Morway administration.

    HC…First, my intention was not to sway public opinion one way or the other. The context of the picture was the credibility of the two parties, particularly within the fanbase. The SI cover is not only iconic of the errors in judgment made by the Pacers Front Office over the last few years, but also in their willingness to stake their reputations on them. That cover, for many, represents a large part of what Bird (the GM) has meant to the Pacers, while three ABA Banners and the #34 hanging in the rafters are what would speak for Mel. That being said, I admit that the use of that particular picture was probably a bit sensationalistic (but, ya gotta admit, it was an elegant contrast.) In any case, I apologize if it misled. Especially because…

    Based on what little public information we have, my inclination would be to believe that Mel was actually the source for Vecsey, and that he had been a consistent and vocal problem within the organization. I have been in situations (professionally) where I’ve given counsel that was rejected or disregarded, that later turned out to be right. I have also driven or supported decisions that later turned out to be wrong. However, there’s a time for debate and a time for getting on board. Call it the “Norman-Dale-This-is-your-team” moment. The easiest thing in the world to do is to break something. The best and most successful people I’ve worked with have loved to be right, but have always been much much more interested in being successful. The most destructive people I’ve worked with have been the very, very smart people who only wanted to be right…even if it meant failing.

    Let’s pretend for a moment that Daniels had wanted DeJuan Blair, as Seth suggested. It’s one thing to go on pacersdigest.com and consistently question the pick. That’s an opinion, and the forum is for discussion. It’s another thing to do the same thing when you are within the organization. The time for deciding the draft pick came and went in June. It’s now the organization’s job to succeed with the players they have. If Daniels, as Player Personnel Director, was still bitching about a pick made four months ago, then he was being disruptive, unproductive, and quite possibly, childish.

    None of us know all of the facts, so I can’t say for sure who did or said what to who. However, there aren’t a lot of scenarios that I can reach where Mel comes out looking like a good guy. I’m sure that Bird, Morway, etal, are not without fault here, but it sure seems to me that Daniels may have been using their bad behavior (real or perceived) to justify bad behavior of his own.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to read 8p9s.

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