The ABA has long struggled for a legitimate space in basketball's history. Sure, cutesy platitudes about how they "opened up the floor" and "made the game fun" are tossed about. The dunk contest and three-point line are courteously attributed to the league. The large afros, multi-colored ball and the time-traveling Marvin Barnes are fondly remembered, but when it came time for substantive acknowledgement, the crickets began to chirp. The stats, the awards, the accomplishments of the ABA are not kept in the same regard (or kept at all) by the NBA. In a move of Orwellian discourse, the NBA insists the Merger with the ABA was actually the absorption of 4 teams (Nuggets, Spurs, Pacers, and Nets), the liquidation of others and the dispersal of their dozens of players.
Well, let's get some substance on the issue.
After the Absorption-Merger, forty percent (27 of 68) of the NBA's All-Stars from 1977 to 1979 were alums of the ABA. Four of the seven NBA MVPs and scoring titles from 1977 to 1983 went to ABA alums. Five of the rebounding titles in that same span. Prior to the Liquidation-Unification, the two leagues played 155 exhibition games between 1971 and 1975 with the ABA winning 79 times to the NBA's 76 victories. And the best team in basketball from the 1970 to 1973 may not have been the NBA's New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, but the ABA's Indiana Pacers.
George McGinnis, Freddie Lewis, Bill Keller, Roger Brown, Don Buse, Bob Netolicky and other great players streamed through Indiana, but this bunch was headlined by the indomitable Mel Daniels. His enshrinement in the Hall of Fame this year is the beginning of the long-overdue process to recognize the ABA as a legitimate realm of competition. True, Artis Gilmore got the ball rolling last year with his induction, but Daniels is pure unadulterated ABA and bleeds not only red, but white and blue, too.
The polis Mel Daniels began his ABA career in, however, wasn't in Indiana but Minnesota. In one of many moves made to placate then-ABA Commissioner George Mikan, Minneapolis was home to the Muskies. (The league office being in Minnesota was another kowtow to Big George). The team didn't enjoy much fan interest, but had they paid attention, they would have been witnessing a prodigious talent. Daniels averaged 22 points and 15.5 rebounds that season (1967-68), easily captured Rookie of the Year and led the Muskies to 50 wins. Mired in financial peril, though, Minnesota was forced to sell their prized center to the Pacers who proceeded to ride Mel Daniels to the franchise's greatest period of success.
Over the course of the next 6 seasons, the Pacers played in 6 Western Division Finals, 4 ABA Finals and won the title three times. As for individual accolades, Daniels hauled down two rebounding crowns, six All-Star appearances, three All-ABA First Teams, and two MVP awards.
He was the unwavering, defiant rock around which the Pacers were anchored. In Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, the section on Mel Daniels is appropriately subtitled "He Got the Rebounds." During his heyday, Daniels averaged 16.6 rebounds a game, peaking in 1970-71 with 18.0. His offense, although not as refined as his board work, was also a steady force for Indiana with an average of 19.5 points a game. Teammate Bill Keller remembered Daniels being not particularly graceful on offense except when it came to gobbling up offensive rebounds and second chance points, and also on delivering a feathery fadeaway jumper.
On defense, he rotated with ease to cover the mistakes of his teammates, intimidated anyone venturing into the paint, and when scrums broke out Mel would invariably be in the middle of it. Not that he liked roughing people up:
"I know it sounds vicious, but I loved to knock guys down. Freddie Lewis would come up court… and he would run the guy blind-sided into a pick I set."
Oh, Mel, you jokester, oh wait:
"When you went to the boards, you did it with your elbows out."
Oh come on, Mel, you're getting a bit too rough:
"If there was a fight, it wasn't 1-on-1, it was 12-on-12. Hey, the fine for fighting was $25, so what the hell was that? What was 25 bucks? That wasn't going to stop any fights."
Mel and the Pacers saved their greatest fisticuffs for their rivals in Kentucky and Utah, both of which featured premier centers of their own. The Kentucky Colonels trotted out the aforementioned Gilmore, a 7-2 behemoth who could block any shot and drop any hook, while the Utah Stars had NBA turncoat Zelmo Beaty. Although Gilmore was the more physically imposing, the cagey Beaty gave Daniels a harder time.
Their teams met in 4 straight postseasons (1971-74). The Pacers won 2 series, the Stars 2. The Pacers won 14 of the games, the Stars 13. Daniels and Beaty were at the center of the action and mirrored the equality of the matchup overall with both men being 6-9 and 225 lbs. Over the course of their battles, Beaty would stomp on Daniels's foot or squeeze his hip (as if doing the dip) to distract the younger player. But Daniels could still have his way with Zelmo, too. In Game 6 of the 1973 Western Division Finals, Mel did just that by scoring 17 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, but also contained Beaty to 12 points and 11 rebounds.
The Pacers won that game and thus the series and eventually the title for their third and last time. After a 7-game loss to the Stars in 1974, Mel Daniels was traded with fellow longtime-Pacer Freddie Lewis to the Memphis Sounds. A diminished Daniels averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 23 minutes of action, but this was basically his last hurrah. A very brief 11-game tenure with the New York Nets in the NBA in the 1976-77 season was the official last hurrah, but it's probably better if we imagined that never happened.
However, we'll still use our imaginations for a moment. Borrowing a trick from Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill, I'll ask you all to "close your eyes" (but really keep them open, so you can read) for a moment and imagine…
Imagine a player who for 7 seasons averaged 20 points and 16 rebounds. A player who grabbed more rebounds than any other player in that span and scored the 11th most points.
A player whose teams won an average of 50 games a year and captured 3 titles. A player who was Rookie of the Year, a two-time MVP, a four-time All First Team member, and a seven-time All-Star. And throw in an All-Star Game MVP for good measure.
Now "open your eyes" and imagine this was all accomplished by an NBA player.
He'd have been feted and escorted into the Hall of Fame decades ago. Instead, Mel Daniels's ABA accomplishments languished over those decades until now. It is one thing to have an inexplicable lapse of Hall of Fame judgment (see: Moncrief, Sidney), but it's maddening when the achievements were looked down upon not because of something inherent with them, but with where the achievements were done. No 3x NBA champ and 2x NBA MVP would wait this long.
No NBA player who scored 37 points and snagged 26 rebounds … in one half … would have had to wait this long.
Thanks to the Hall of Fame's newly-established ABA Committee, Mel Daniels has gotten his overdue recognition. In the coming years hopefully more ABA greats like a Zelmo Beaty or a Louie Dampier get the same respect and acknowledgment Mel has finally garnered.