Mel Daniels didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 17-years-old. And even then, he had to be forced by his high school coach, Will Robinson while walking the halls of Detroit Pershing in Michigan.
“If you’re not in the gym by 3:30,” Robinson told Daniels. “I’m going to kick your (butt).”
“Will taught us the true fundamentals of basketball,” said Daniels, 69. “The more efficient you are, the more effective you can be on the floor. You’re not wasting energy so everything you do is in a positive manner, so that has to be a carry over from defense to offense.”
That lesson is what carried Daniels to where he is today: the first Indiana Pacer to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame thanks to his days in the American Basketball Association. His credentials make some wonder, what took so long? He won three titles with the Pacers, was a two-time ABA MVP, Rookie of the Year and made seven All-Star teams. He led the ABA in rebounding three times and is the league’s leader in rebounds (9,494) and second in career rebounding average (15.1).
“Mel Daniels is one of the original enforcers,” former Pacer Reggie Miller told the Recorder. “This is a guy who could get it done on both ends of the floor, but when you’re talking defensively, you’re talking about one of the greatest shot blockers people have probably never heard of. His timing was so impeccable. When you talk about being in sync defensively, it was all anchored because of Mel Daniels’ voice and his ability to communicate with his teammates. This is long overdue.”
When Miller came to the Pacers after being drafted in 1987, he was coming to a city where he knew no one. The second person he saw was Daniels. He took the rookie to Steak ‘n Shake and the two talked basketball for hours.
“He taught me to leave it all on the floor. Don’t leave anything in the reserve tank,” he said.
Now the mentor and mentee will enter the Hall of Fame together in September.
“It’s unbelievable. I am honored to be the second Indiana Pacer going in because it’s only right that (the first) is Mel,” said Miller.
When Daniels received the call that he was going to be inducted, he thought it was former teammate Bob Netolicky playing a practical joke. He didn’t believe it until a representative called to discuss travel arrangements. For Daniels, being inducted was something he never thought about.
“It means I did my job as efficiently as I possibly could. It means I played with guys who put me in this position to be honored,” he said. “I accept it on their behalf. Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Roger Brown undoubtedly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. There are Pacers and other players from the ABA who deserve this honor along with me.”
The ABA days
Daniels and other members of the ABA Pacers were honored in a special ceremony this week at half time during the current team’s regular season finale against the Chicago Bulls. Players Darnell Hillman, Billy Keller, Freddie Lewis, Netolicky and George McGinnis along with coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard joined Daniels for a recognition that Miller called, “long overdue.”
One of the unique aspects of the team is that many still live in Indiana. Although the public hasn’t seen the team all together at one time, they still talk and see each other often.
“We know we have each other’s back; even today, 40-something years later,” said Daniels. “If somebody needs something, it’s done. We still indirectly rely on one another.”
It’s a testament to Leonard, who paced the sidelines and led the team to the three banners that hang in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The teammates were friends on the court and off it. Sure, there was chaos at times but Lewis or the late Roger Brown often stepped in to squash any potential problems.
“We were definitely family,” said Keller. “All of our players were really close and we had fun as a team. You have your ups and downs but with family, no matter what the situation is, family has each other’s back. No one cared who scored the points. Winning games was our main focus.”
The Pacers won championships in 1970, ’72 and ’73 – all on the road. They were considered the best team in the ABA with the best big man in Daniels. And fans have Lewis to thank for turning Daniels into a rebounding machine.
“I had pretty good anticipation skills,” said Daniels. “But, when I came here from Minnesota, I once told (Freddie) to pass me the ball. He said, ‘Let me tell you something. My wife is making me crazy, my children are running all over the neighborhood and my dog is biting people; if you want (the ball) go get it off the backboard.’ And that is how the aggressiveness started.”
Daniels’ aggressiveness and passion for the game – “he hated to lose more than anything,” said Keller – inspired the team.
“I hated when the season was over because there was no more basketball to play,” said Daniels. “That’s why we always wanted to be the last team playing. Two days after we won the championships, we’d be together shooting. That’s how much we loved basketball.”
The Black cowboy
Daniels has always had a love for horses. A passion started by his mother that continued while he was in college at the University of New Mexico and as a Pacer. While other teammates owned car washes and nightclubs, Daniels was breeding horses.
“I always said if I was able to own a horse, I would,” he said.
Daniels owns a 109-acre farm in Sheridan, Ind., with 14 horses.
“I’m the only cowboy on the ranch and I enjoy it,” he said. “For me, it’s a form of exercise, it keeps me in a routine and it occupies my mind.”
Daniels is also a Western history buff and writes poetry. He has written thousands of poems, he says.
The tranquility of his farm and ease he feels taking care of the horses is what Daniels credits to his healthy lifestyle. Eighteen years ago he had quadruple bypass surgery and six years ago had a stroke.
“I feel good,” he said. “Riding has helped tremendously.”
Daniels is happy he made the decision to stay in Indiana.
“It’s comfortable,” he said.
And although he’s too humble to toot his own horn on the way to the Hall of Fame, others are proud to do it for him.
“Mel has been my mentor since the day I set foot to play for the Pacers; and even today, if I need something I call him,” said Hillman. “He’s such a beautiful person internally. There aren’t enough words to describe his character. He may be big in stature, but to us, he’s really just a teddy bear.”