Once upon a time…
No ABA team drew more fans, won more games, won more titles or had more stability than the Indiana Pacers. They won ABA titles in 1970, 1972, and 1973. They lost in the 1969 and 1975 finals, so they played for the title in five of the ABA’s nine years.
That’s from Terry Pluto’s definitive work on the ABA – Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association. It’s in the opening to the chapter dedicated to the Indiana Pacers, describing them as the “Boston Celtics of the ABA.”
The Pacers were, without question, the class of the ABA. Yet, until yesterday, the only member of any of those Pacer teams that had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame was Gus Johnson. Gus was a great player, a favorite of my brother and brother-in-law, who regaled me with stories – legends, if you will – of Johnson’s heroics. However, Gus’ glory was earned as a Baltimore Bullet, and his stint on the 1972-73 was as a 15-minute per game player at the very end of his career.
But with yesterday’s announcement that Mel Daniels was a Direct-Elect induction into the Hall of Fame, that is no longer true.
Mel Daniels’ number 34 is hanging high above the floor in the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse as one of the franchise’s four retired numbers, and he holds the Pacer records for highest career PER (20.1), Defensive Rebounds (5,461), and Total Rebounds (7,643). With leads of more than 1,600 in those final two categories, it seems likely that Mel will hold those forever. He also starred on all three ABA title teams, played in seven ABA All Star games, named to five All ABA teams (including four first team nods), was named ABA Rookie of the Year, and was a two-time ABA Most Valuable Player.
But he was so much more than that. My words are insufficient, so I will use those of his teammate, Billy Keller, also from Loose Balls:
Mel Daniels was emotional, dramatic, hardworking, and intense. As a coach, you can look at certain players and instantly know, “There’s a guy who can help a team win.”
Mel was that kind of guy.
He played a man’s game inside. He set picks, he got the rebounds, he blocked the shots, and he was in the middle of every fight. He scared people out of driving the lane against the Pacers. If he went for the ball and ended up with someone’s head in his hands, he was just as likely to put a headlock on the guy as let him go.
Players like Dale Davis and Charles Oakley are direct descendants of Mel Daniels. Every time you see a big man play with force, or step to the aid of his teammates, he is playing like Mel Daniels and those of his time and ilk. Mel played at an extremely high level for as long as his body allowed him. He is a player that coaches knew could help them win, and who players wanted on their side.
His inclusion in the Hall of Fame is well earned, and it is a cause for joy. I am thrilled for Mel, and I offer him my heartfelt congratulations.
But, it remains bittersweet.
I would much rather this post be an unfettered celebration of what is a true honor for one of Indiana’s own, but it is almost impossible to ignore the years of waiting. We are just a few weeks short of the 36th anniversary of the Indiana Pacers’ final ABA game, and a few more weeks short of the 39th anniversary of the Pacers winning their final ABA title. There are only 17 current players who were alive for the former, and just four alive for the latter. It has been 35 years since Daniels’ retirement, and Mel has been eligible for 30 years.
It is almost impossible to ignore the fact that he is (at present) the lone representative of the core of those great Pacer teams in the Hall. That George McGinnis – as dominant and productive a player in the ’70s as virtually anyone in either league – still waits. That Roger Brown – Rajah, an ABA Finals MVP – has been dead for 15 years, but isn’t even considered. That Bobby “Slick” Leonard coached 529 winning games in the ABA & NBA along with three ABA titles is on the outside looking in. That Mel is alone as someone whose career and accomplishments exist primarily in the ABA. That players like Louie Dampier, Mack Calvin, and Freddie Lewis aren’t there to greet him.
It is almost impossible to ignore the way he finally was inducted – as a Direct-Elect from the ABA Committee. I recognize and appreciate that this is an attempt to rectify the problem. I also recognize that such a committee probably means that the belated honor will be coming for many, if not all of those mentioned above. However, this still has the feel of being invited in through the servants’ entrance. These men deserve better.
Well, what should have been a congratulatory post has become a complaint. No one is to blame for that but me. It seems to me that Hall of Fame voters, hidden behind a veil of anonymity, focus too much on keeping contributors out and not enough in making sure that no one who is deserving is left out.
There is no formula set in concrete that marks a “Hall of Famer.” It is, after all a Hall of Fame, and fame is a subjective thing. My thought is that those who have made basketball special are those that belong. Mel Daniels – and his Pacer and ABA brethren – made basketball special for a lot of people.
They made it special for me, and I will be eternally grateful.
In any case…congratulations, Mel. I hope you aren’t alone for long.
I was looking for Mel Daniels highlights, but as you can imagine, there is not a wealth of those – or ABA highlights – available. So…I put this together with clips from the ABA Pacers I could find. Seems somehow more fitting. I think Mel would like the fact that he would be sharing this with his teammates. (Click Here for No Music version)