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LOPRESTI: ABA Pacers, bound by championships, wait for next one

February 8, 2014

mike lopresti sportsThey watch from the other side of turning 60, the old Indiana Pacers keeping track of the young Indiana Pacers, and seeing something of themselves.

The young Pacers long to make history. The old Pacers own history.

Mel Daniels, Darnell Hillman and George McGinnis played for the 1973 Pacers team that brought a third ABA championship to Indianapolis. It’s 41 years later, and no professional basketball team has done that since. A drought to cross centuries and generations.

“I would have bet my life,” McGinnis said, “that the Pacers would have somehow found a way to get a championship in those 40 years.”

But the new bunch is drawing high praise. So what are the old Pacers thinking?

Daniels: “I think we set the table. Now we’re the old guys waiting for the young guys to come to the table and do what we did, and expand on it. We’re like the daddies and we want to see the sons come to the forefront. I think it’s coming.”

Hillman, as a member of the front office: “That’s one of the reasons I’m working for the Pacers. I want that last ring.”

The 1973 team won a turbulent seven-game final series with the Kentucky Colonels, taking Game 7 in Louisville. Daniels’ recollection of that day includes how tipoff neared with no sign of star Roger Brown, who was driving to the game himself.

“Roger was late. It was a madhouse. He drove a pink Cadillac and was wearing a pink suit and he comes in, and Slick [Coach Bobby Leonard] does his threatening thing. But Roger told him, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this.’

“We won the game, he took a shower, got back in his pink Cadillac, and left.”

Forty-one years later, they look at a hot, young team and it all comes back. The Pacers of now seem to have a chemistry that keeps them safe from division and harm. The Pacers of then were held together by Super Glue.

“Our camaraderie was one of our key strengths,” Hillman said. “It’s really fun to see that with these guys. This team has brought back some of the memories I have.”

Same for McGinnis, MVP of the 1973 finals. “I think we spent 70 percent of our time off the court doing things together. From what I’ve read, these guys do things like always showing up for someone’s birthday. … I think it indicates they like each other, and that’s not easy in professional sports.

“The Pacers have been through a lot. The city fell in love with a group, with Reggie, and then had that awful incident at the Palace. It’s taken a lot to get the fan base back, but this group has really made a huge difference, not only from the type of basketball they play but the type of people they are. I think they’ve really touched a nerve. I got so tired before of everywhere I went, it was, ‘Thug this and thug that.’ … But now these are truly good guys, and people seem to like them. And it’s their time.”

Is it? The first half of the season was glorious. But it was the first half.

“After the All-Star break, this team will face a little more of a challenge,” Daniels said, “and it depends on how well they attack that challenge. They’re the target now.

“I love David West. I think he’s a professional and a leader. I like Paul George’s athleticism. I like the rhythm of the team. I wish Roy [Hibbert] would do more in the middle, but it takes time for a big guy to get into it.’

McGinnis: “The way they’re playing, they’re probably going to have the best record in the league. In my mind, I think they’re the best team, and I think Miami knows that and I think San Antonio knows it and Oklahoma City knows it.”

And the addition of Andrew Bynum?

Hillman: “I’m going to hold my comments on that. The jury’s still out.”

McGinnis: “I guess it depends on if he wants to play. Being on this type of team might make a difference for him.”

They still see one another often, their togetherness not dulled by time. They are eager to find out what happens in 2014, while never forgetting what happened in 1973.

Hillman: “It’s a proud and honorable moment for me when I walk out there and see those banners. Being that [a championship] hasn’t happened, people ask, ‘How far do you go back?’ You go all the way back to ’73, and there we are.”

McGinnis: “When you accomplish something, as you get older, you get sentimental about it. The lies get a little bit bigger. What you have is your memories, and they’re awfully important.”

Thus, the generation gap. The young Pacers are trying to make championship memories. The old Pacers already have them to cherish.

“We’re the Indiana Pacers, and that will never, ever change in life,” Daniels said. “Because we started the book.”•

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Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mlopresti@ibj.com.

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