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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