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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mel Daniels, Cornerstone of the Pacers' ABA Dynasty Years, Leaves Behind a Rich Legacy

Basketball Hall of Famer, three-time ABA champion and two-time ABA regular season MVP Mel Daniels passed away on Friday at the age of 71. Daniels won the ABA's first Rookie of the Year award in 1968 after averaging 22.2 ppg and a league-leading 15.6 rpg as a member of the Minnesota Muskies but he made his lasting mark during his six All-Star seasons with the Indiana Pacers. Daniels joined the Pacers for the 1968-69 season and he transformed them from a sub.-.500 team to an ABA Finalist. The Pacers then went 59-25 in 1970-71 en route to the first of their league-best three championships. Daniels was a force to be reckoned with in the paint at both ends of the court, providing the mental and physical toughness that all championship teams must have.

Daniels led the ABA in rebounding three times (1968-69, 71). He is the ABA's regular season career rebounding leader (9494) and he ranks sixth in pro basketball history with a regular season rebounding average of 14.9 rpg, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond. Daniels also ranks sixth in pro basketball history in playoff rpg average (14.8 rpg), behind Russell, Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Pettit and Walt Bellamy.

It is considered a big deal nowadays when a player averages 20 ppg and 10 rpg in the same season; Daniels was nearly a 20-16 player during his six Pacer seasons, averaging 19.4 ppg and 16.0 rpg with Indiana from 1969-74. Daniels clearly deserved to be a Hall of Famer years before Jerry Colangelo finally pointed the Basketball Hall of Fame in the right direction regarding the ABA and I was so happy when he received the long overdue Hall of Fame call but Daniels always deflected talk about his own great career so that he could shine some light on his teammates.

Daniels provided one of my favorite quotes about the inimitable Roger Brown, who Daniels played with on each of those Indiana championship teams: "Those who did not see Roger Brown or didn't know him, missed a treat. He was so good one-on-one that I remember defenders actually screaming for help. He actually dislocated or broke eight guys' ankles (with a) crossover dribble move. He would look at you and put the ball down and look at you again and if you made a move, he would react opposite to that move and get to the basket. Sometimes it was so easy for him, he would laugh at people and miss the layup because he was laughing."

As you can tell from reading that vivid description of Brown's playing style, Daniels had a way with words; he wrote over 20,000 poems. Daniels' favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe, is also my favorite poet. I was very excited when I first had the opportunity to speak with Daniels more than a decade ago and learn about his perspective on basketball. When I initially contacted Daniels to discuss the ABA in general and Roger Brown in particular, I had not been a credentialed sportswriter for very long but he did a lengthy phone interview with me. He also was generous with his time one on one, face to face on multiple occasions. I miss being able to pick his brain about players old and new. I have always admired Daniels' no-nonsense approach. He spoke the truth, whether or not that made anyone uncomfortable. You never had to wonder where you stood with Mel Daniels. He looked you in the eye, gave you the firmest handshake you will ever feel in your life and he told you how things are.

Rest in peace, Big Mel, and thank you for taking the time to share your stories with me when I was just getting started in this business.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Saturday, October 31, 2015 4:41:00 AM, Anonymous CR said...

I consider myself a big time hoops fans and had never heard of Mel Daniels until his unfortunate passing, which is both sad on my part and on the NBA's part as well.

It seems like the NBA has not done a very good job celebrating its ABA past, which is odd considering so many entertaining characters and elite players came from the league. The NBA owes much of its present day entertainment value to its ABA roots and that league's exciting style of play. It would be nice to see those players and teams celebrated more by the league.

 
At Saturday, October 31, 2015 10:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

CR:

I agree with you that the NBA should do a lot more to celebrate the ABA. The one piece of good news is that since Jerry Colangelo became Chairman of the Basketball Hall of Fame Board the Hall of Fame has finally started inducting worthy ABA players who had been overlooked for decades--including Daniels. Unfortunately, the NBA itself does little to nothing to promote/acknowledge the ABA and the NBA still segregates ABA statistics from NBA statistics--unlike the NFL, which merged AFL numbers with NFL numbers when the two leagues merged.

 
At Tuesday, November 03, 2015 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Do you think they'll ever start acknowledging ABA statistics or titles? While Mel Daniels wasn't quite a Pantheon level guy he deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the Patrick Ewings and Robert Parishs of the world, and it'd be nice if guys like him (and Roger Brown, and Willie Wise, and Warren Jabali, and Don Buse, and...) got their due. The ABA was arguably the most important thing to happen to basketball in the 70s (although it started in the 60s), and yet these dudes are all swept into, as you so perfectly put it, an Orwellian memory hole.

Out of curiosity, and if have time, what would your All-Time All-ABA team be? I feel safe in assuming Doc and Artis Gilmore, but I'm curious who your guards/4 would be?

For my part I'd probably go with Louie Dampier, George Gervin, Doc, Issel, and Artis myself, with a second team of Jabali, Thompson, Brown, Barry (fudging positions slightly here, just like with the real All-xBA teams) and either Daniels or Zelmo Beaty as the 5... probably Daniels just based on titles. Third team Silas, Buse, Wise, Hawkins, and Beaty... but it seems somehow wrong to leave off George McInnis, among others.

 
At Wednesday, November 04, 2015 11:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I hope that the NBA comes around on this issue. It took decades for the Hall of Fame to wake up but, under the leadership of Jerry Colangelo, long overlooked ABA players--including Daniels--finally were inducted.

I have not formally drafted an All-ABA team. That is a good article idea but I don't have the time to do that piece right now. You are correct that Erving and Gilmore are locks, though. Based purely on ABA numbers/achievements, Gervin is not a lock for the first team, especially since he spent part of his ABA career at forward and thus has to compete with Erving, Issel, McGinnis, Barry and Hawkins (among others) at that position. I would not leave McGinnis off of an ABA All-Time Team.

One challenge in putting together such a team is that the ABA only last nine years and some of the league's impact players only played in the league for a few years, so what should the minimum games played/years played standard be for inclusion on the ABA All-Time Team? Hawkins, Haywood and Cunningham had great but brief ABA careers.

In 1997, a 50 person group of media members, former ABA executives and former ABA owners selected the ABA's All-Time MVP (Erving 46, Daniels 2, Gilmore 1, Hawkins 1) and a 30 member All-ABA Team. Brown, Dampier, Daniels, Erving, Gervin, Gilmore and Issel were the only unanimous selections (which still would not make Gervin a lock for the first team, because Erving and Issel played forward while Brown played forward and guard). McGinnis was next in line with 44/50 votes. The unanimous choices are all now in the Hall of Fame, though most of them were not in the Hall of Fame in 1997.

These are just food for thought comments off of the top of my head and not a definitive statement on the subject, though I will stand by Erving and Gilmore being locks for the ABA All-Time First Team.

 
At Thursday, November 05, 2015 3:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think that the NBA's refusal to acknowledge the ABA in any major way is partly due to sour grapes over the deal with the Silna Brothers?

 
At Friday, November 06, 2015 12:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

That may very well be a contributing factor. The NBA also resents the ABA for driving up salaries, convincing NBA stars to jump leagues and for signing underclassmen.

 

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