History Lesson: The Indiana Pacers were elite in the ABA

Bobby "Slick" Leonard, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Bobby "Slick" Leonard, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

The Indiana Pacers have been a good, but not necessarily elite, NBA franchise in their time in the NBA. Many in popular culture and media see the Indiana Pacers as a team that is perpetually in the middle. What many fans may not remember or know, is that the Pacers were an ELITE ABA franchise.

The history of the ABA, or American Basketball Association, is one filled with rich history and intrique, and it is worth reading about it here. One of the original franchises that was a consistent rock in the ABA, however, was the Indiana Pacers.

The ABA was an exciting and innovative league that was a main challenger to the NBA in the late sixties and seventies. They incorporated many of the things that we today take for granted as part of the NBA such as the three-point line, a slam dunk contest, as well as the one-and-done rule college players deal with today. The league prioritized offense, entertainment, and up tempo playstyles from their teams.

Out of the eight championship games, the ABA Pacers went to five of them (62%). And of those five they went to, they won three. To put that into perspective, that is 3 out of 8 seasons the Indiana Pacers were ABA Champs (37%). To put that into perspective, that’s almost as many percentage-wise as the Lakers and Celtics have combined in the NBA (42%).

The Indiana Pacers were the Lakers or Celtics of the ABA.

They were led for many of those seasons by Mel Daniels, arguably the best player in the ABA during it’s history (2x ABA MVP, 3x ABA Champion, 7x ABA All-star). Mel Daniels snubbed the NBA, by choosing to play in the ABA rather than pursue playing in the NBA as a first-round draft pick. While, we cannot put into words just how valuable Mel Daniels was to the franchise, it is safe to say that he is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) reason that the Indiana Pacers exist today and survived a start-up league that was full of financial issues. Mel Daniels played a big role in keeping the Pacers afloat and allowing them to make it to the NBA during the merger.

While history has largely forgotten the ABA and it’s importance to the game of basketball, it is important that us Pacers fans not. Franchise icons such as Mel Daniels and Slick Leonard should never be forgotten in the hearts and minds of Pacers fans. We owe them our fandom.

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