One of the best players in the history of the American Basketball Association died suddenly on Friday when Mel Daniels, a three-time ABA champion with the Indiana Pacers, died at the age of 71. Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, the 6-9 center excelled over eight ABA seasons and spent one year in Italy before his lone NBA season after the merger with the New Jersey Nets in 1976-77. Daniels made the ABA All-Star team in all eight of his seasons and won two MVP awards. The Pacers retired his No. 34 jersey in 1985, and he remains one of the greatest players in franchise history.
The circumstances of Daniels's death have not yet been publicized. Peter Vecsey, who first reported the story on Twitter, noted that Daniels had "recently undergone open-heart surgery."
A Pacers.com article on the sad news features several statements from franchise luminaries, including these:
"The tremendous outpouring of prayers being sent our way is overwhelming," said [his wife] CeCe Daniels. "We are so grateful for all the love. His charisma, poise and passion for life - be it horses, basketball or friends - is a template for us all, his family and his fans."
"I join our extended Pacers family in offering my sincerest condolences to CeCe and Mel's family," said Pacers Sports & Entertainment owner Herb Simon. "We will miss him greatly, but when we look at that Hall of Fame banner in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, we will be forever reminded of what he meant to this franchise." [...]
"Words cannot express the depth of my sadness today," said fellow Hall of Famer and former Pacers great Reggie Miller. "Mel Daniels was a father figure, brother, consigliere, but most of all 'MY UNCLE MEL.' He helped raise me into the man I am. I hope I made him proud in everything I tried to do on, but more importantly off, the basketball court. My heart goes out to CeCe and the Daniels family."
"I am saddened by the news that Mel Daniels has passed away," said Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird. "I have known him since I was in college and he was one of my coaches. His competitive attitude reflected his success on the floor with the Pacers and the ultimate recognition, a well-deserved induction into the Hall of Fame. I offer sincere condolences to CeCe and his family."
The Pacers have already planned a moment of silence for Saturday's home game against the Utah Jazz and will announce further tributes at a later date.
Current and former Pacers players and officials joined in on Twitter with fond memories of Daniels:
RIP to Mel Daniels always had words of wisdom for me during my 7 years with the @pacers. Firmest handshake ever!
— Roy Hibbert (@Roy_Meets_World) October 30, 2015
Saw Mel Daniels at Pacers' game last night, got the vice grip handshake. Hand still hurts. Glad it does. God bless him and his family.
— David Benner (@PacersDMB) October 30, 2015
rest in peace mel daniels, crazy was just walking through the locker room yesterday...
— Solomon Hill (@solohill) October 30, 2015
Daniels entered the ABA in 1967 after three excellent seasons at New Mexico, turning down an offer from the NBA's Cincinnati Royals, who had made him the ninth pick in the NBA draft. He joined the Minnesota Muskies and thrived immediately, leading the league in field goals made and attempted and total rebounds while putting up averages of 22.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game. The financially insecure Muskies traded Daniels to the Pacers that offseason, which allowed his career reached its greatest heights. He captured his first MVP award in 1968-69 and his first championship in 1970 on great teams that featured fellow Hall of Famers Roger Brown on the wing and Bobby "Slick" Leonard as head coach.
The Pacers also won titles in 1972 and 1973 and are remembered as one of the best teams in ABA history. Daniels went on to hold several titles with the franchise and served as one of Bird's assistant coaches during his time at Indiana State in the late '70s.
Apart from his on-court exploits, Daniels is remembered as a warm personality with a legendarily strong handshake. Longtime Indianapolis reporter Mike Wells, now with ESPN, remembers him fondly:
Anybody that met Mel Daniels quickly found out he had one of the strongest handshakes. But in reality, he was just a big giant teddy bear
— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) October 30, 2015
Our Kelly Dwyer added over email that working Pacers games always carried the added bonus of hearing Daniels tell amazing stories in the press room. The man contained multitudes — former Pacers exec and current consultant Donnie Walsh indicates that Daniels was preparing to release a book of poetry, and the official website's article also mentions his skills as a horseman. Vecsey confirmed the same with his own tribute:
2 of my horses have been under Mel's expert care 4 yrs. An accomplished poet, he'd just written poem 4 my wife about friend, 62, who passed
— Peter Vecsey (@PeterVecsey1) October 30, 2015
The basketball world will be less interesting without Mel Daniels. Our condolences go out to all those who knew and loved him.
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