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BENNER: Hall of Fame selectors are finally honoring ABA greats

March 17, 2012

Feel free to congratulate former Indiana Pacers star Mel Daniels on his long-overdue selection to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Pat him on the back. Send him a note or e-mail.

But whatever you do, don’t shake his hand. I’m warning you.

Daniels, you see, has a powerful grip. And he likes to use it on unsuspecting greeters.

Shaking hands with Mel is like putting your hand into a vice and tightening it.

“Hey, Mel, how are you doingeeeee-ooooooooowwwwwww!”

And the big guy just grins.

One of the great pleasures of my professional career was to be a young guy just a couple of years out of college when I was assigned to cover the Pacers for the local daily. I was there for the Pacers’ last two years in the late, great American Basketball Association and their first three in the NBA.

Unfortunately, my stint as the Pacers’ beat writer came on the heels of their three ABA championships and after Daniels had been traded to the Memphis Sounds. Two seasons later, his playing career was over but Mel returned to Indy and was a long-time fixture in the team’s front office.

In his prime, Mel was 6-9, 220—good size, sure, but he played larger and stronger.

He never, ever backed down from anyone at any time and never saw a rebound he didn’t think he could grab. Most of the time he did. Mel averaged 15 rebounds a game in a career in which he was the ABA’s rookie of the year, a seven-time All-Star and two-time most valuable player.

The Pacers acquired Mel in a trade from the Minnesota Muskies (love that name) and he was the perfect piece to complete a championship puzzle that already included the likes of Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Bob Netolicky and Billy Keller. Some forget (or never knew) that the Pacers won their first ABA title in 1970 before George McGinnis joined the team for subsequent championships in 1972 and 1973.

If Peyton Manning was the driving force behind the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium and Reggie Miller served a similar role for Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse, then Mel and the fellas were the catalysts for Market Square Arena. It is impossible to underestimate how the popularity of the Pacers set the stage for all Indianapolis eventually would become.

On a national basis, ABAers have long been overlooked by Hall of Fame selectors, an oversight partially corrected a year ago when a committee was appointed to “direct select” ABA vets. Kentucky Colonel center Artis Gilmore was the first so designated.

Though they should have gotten in long ago on their own merits, I’m hoping that the ABA committee will provide the avenue for the league’s greatest coach, the Pacers’ own living legend Bob “Slick” Leonard, and the late Roger “the Rajah” Brown, to be immortalized.

That Slick—NCAA champion as a player at Indiana University; 529 wins and three ABA championships as a coach, and long-time color commentator on Pacers’ radio broadcasts—has been passed by to this point is a sad joke, especially when people of far fewer basketball credentials (Nike CEO Phil Knight being the latest example) are being enshrined.

And in his prime, no one in the ABA or NBA could go one-on-one like Roger Brown.

In addition to Gilmore and now Daniels, other primarily ABA players in the hall are Dan Issel, David Thompson and Connie Hawkins. Rick Barry, Moses Malone, George Gervin and Julius Erving are others with ABA roots who are in the Hall, but probably more for their NBA credentials.

The ABA Hall selection committee also might offer up a possible spot for Southport’s own (and erstwhile Kentucky Colonel) Louie Dampier, who was the ABA’s all-time leading scorer. I just wish McGinnis would have stayed a Pacer and stayed healthy longer and he, too, might have had his ticket to the Hall of Fame punched.

Other ABAers who should be considered are Willie Wise, Mack Calvin, Zelmo Beatty, Ron Boone and James Silas.

In any case, it’s wonderful to see the stars of the ABA finally being recognized and Mel Daniels is a worthy recipient of the honor.

Just don’t offer a handshake to congratulate him.

And hopefully, at the NCAA Men’s Final Four next month in New Orleans, we will learn that Reggie Miller will join Mel in the Hall. Miller is a finalist this year after being passed over in his first year of eligibility last year. It’s time to right that wrong.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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