Fifty years later, the details are as foggy as the postgame locker room air that was filled with cigar smoke and champagne spray. They won it all, and that’s all that matters now.
It was all that mattered then, too, but the underlying and unpleasant drama that nipped at their collective heels throughout the season made the experience feel more like a slog than a strut. Until it was over. Then it became a ride—in a victory parade.
The Indiana Pacers’ 1972 championship, clinched on May 20 in Uniondale, New York, was the second of the three captured by the franchise in the ABA, bookended by those in 1970 and 1973. All were distinct, but this one stands apart for its multitude of subplots. It also serves as a reminder not to take all that happy talk about humility and harmony too seriously. This team proved talent is the most essential element of success, regardless of the workplace.
“We had the players to do it,” team captain Freddie Lewis recalls.
They also had an abundance of good fortune, often the second-most-crucial element of success.
A soap opera
This team likely was the best of the Pacers’ trio of ABA champions because of its blend of skill, hard-won experience and frisky youth. It included three future Naismith Hall of Fame players (Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and rookie George McGinnis); two players who had been selected to multiple ABA All-Star teams (Lewis and Bob Netolicky); the first recipient of the national award for best college player under 6 feet tall and a proven pro (Bill Keller); a three-time college All-American who was emerging as a solid pro (Rick Mount); and an explosive rookie straight out of the Army who later won an NBA slam dunk contest (Darnell Hillman).
They were the only players to appear in the team’s 20 postseason games. Other players who filled the roster at various points of the season were either too old, too injured or simply not good enough to help when it counted most. But eight was enough. Eight, in fact, was nearly too many.
None other than New York Nets star Rick Barry had seen it coming the previous summer when he told an Indianapolis reporter, “You’ve got too much talent, particularly up front, to keep everybody happy. There simply won’t be enough playing time.”
The soap opera played out publicly in the newspapers throughout the season. Keller, sharing time with Mount in the backcourt, aired a mild complaint about his playing time in the Indianapolis News on Jan. 20. Ten days later, Mount dropped a bomb in the Sunday edition of the Indianapolis Star.
More accurately, Star sportswriter Robin Miller pulled the pin. At Miller’s urging, Mount let out some of his festering anger about his inconsistent playing time. The banner headline was startling: “Mount fed up with Leonard’s excuses.” For those too young to understand the impact of such a boldfaced proclamation against coach Bobby Leonard, a later equivalent would have been, “Reggie fed up with Bird’s excuses.”
Netolicky was increasingly frustrated by losing playing time, and eventually his starting spot, to the oncoming train that was McGinnis, and his play sometimes reflected his feelings. Brown, meanwhile, kept his game on cruise control through most of the regular season, as was his habit. Two days short of 30 years old when the season ended, his body already was wearing out.
“I’ll be there at money time,” was his stock reply. He wasn’t the only procrastinator, though. The Pacers’ core of veterans had won a championship and been a serious contender for two others the previous three seasons, so regular-season games had become an annoyance.
The fans were part of the drama as well. They booed the players on occasion, particularly Netolicky (for inconsistent effort) and Lewis (for taking playing time from hometown favorites Mount and Keller). Leonard fired back at them in January in a story in the News headlined “Leonard blasts Pacers critics.” Daniels got in a volley of his own in February after a home-court loss to Kentucky in which the fans booed Lewis.
“I just want the season to be done as soon as possible so I can get back to New Mexico and people who understand one another,” Daniels said, adding, “Every game’s a road game from now on.”
The Pacers finished with a 47-37 record, winning 11 fewer games than the previous season. Kentucky, meanwhile, won 68 games and Utah won 60, leaving the Pacers in the unfamiliar role of dark horse in the championship.
Leonard was blunt in his assessment.
“We should have finished this season 10 games better,” he said before the playoffs began. “We lacked enthusiasm, consistency and mental attitude.”
Hardly reads like the blueprint for a championship team, does it? What the Pacers had, however, was an abundance of confidence and playoff experience. They also were about to get lucky.
They eliminated Denver in the first round with a 91-89 Game 7 victory at the Coliseum and then Utah in the second round with a 117-113 Game 7 victory in Salt Lake City. That brought on New York, which had won just 44 games, three fewer than the Pacers.
The Nets had momentum, having won 16 of their final 21 regular-season games, including two over the Pacers. They went on to upset Kentucky in six games in the first round and Virginia—led by rookie Julius Erving—in seven games in the second round. They were good but weren’t the most talented team in their division.
The Pacers got another break from scheduling. The Nets had to play two days after their victory in Virginia with a difficult travel schedule the previous day. The quick turnaround was necessitated by the ABA’s desire for the game to be broadcast nationally by CBS on a Saturday afternoon. The Pacers, who were coming off a three-day break when the series opened, won Game 1 124-103 as Lewis scored 33 points.
Every other game in the series was close, with no final margin greater than six points. The turning point came at the Coliseum in Game 5, which remains one of the most dramatic in franchise history.
The Pacers trailed by 20 points in the second quarter and by 15 at halftime. They caught up midway through the third period, but the Nets regained a four-point lead with 27 seconds remaining. Keller followed by hitting a 3-pointer off the dribble from 30 feet over an unsuspecting Ollie Taylor to make it a one-point game, and Lewis followed by stripping the ball from Taylor at midcourt and drawing a foul on a driving layup. With three chances to make two free throws, as was the rule then on shooting fouls, Lewis rimmed out the first attempt and swished the next two to give the Pacers a 100-99 lead with nine seconds left.
After a Nets timeout, the Pacers got another break when the inbound pass from midcourt sailed through Barry’s hands and out of bounds.
“That was a total and complete giveaway,” Barry says of the game today.
The best break of all for the Pacers, however, had occurred with 3:37 left in the game. Nets rookie guard John Roche, who had scored 22 points to that point and had surpassed 30 five times in the Nets’ playoff series, severely sprained his left ankle. He had to be carried off the floor and ruled out for Game 6, when the breaks continued to go the Pacers’ way.
Barry, another future Hall of Famer, had injured his left shoulder in practice the previous day and then aggravated it in pre-game warmups. He left the game early in the first quarter to get a shot of Novocain in the locker room and returned late in the quarter. He finished with 23 points on 6-of-14 shooting, 10 below his average over the previous five games of the series.
The Pacers won, 108-105, but it was by no means all luck. Brown, once again living up to his reputation for clutch play, scored 32 points. He also hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 1:31 left. Daniels came up big as well, scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds on a badly sprained ankle.
“You can’t bother with the pain at a time like that,” he said afterward. “This is a championship and there’s nothing like a championship. Nothing.”
‘Sugar on a sour year’
There’s nothing like redemption, either. Lewis had been fueled all year by what he considered a snub the previous season, when Leonard brought him off the bench for the final three games of a second-round playoff series loss to Utah. Those memories stayed with him throughout the 1972 playoffs, particularly in the finals when he averaged 22.8 points and 5.3 assists and was voted most valuable player.
“I felt like I had a lot to prove,” Lewis says today. “I was really hyped up for it. I was very disappointed the year before; I was heartbroken. I didn’t feel it should have happened that way.”
Ultimately, the 1972 championship was a team effort. They certainly looked like a happy group during the raucous locker room celebration. But the smoke and spray served only as temporary cloud cover for all that lurked within.
Even during the finals, Mount and Netolicky had gone public with their desire to be traded. Mount told a Newsday reporter he should never have signed with the Pacers and wanted to be traded to Kentucky. His comments were picked up in the Indianapolis papers and he took his turn being booed by the home fans when introduced as a starter for Game 5. Netolicky also expressed a desire to play for Kentucky around the same time in an interview with a reporter from the Des Moines Register, the newspaper that had covered his college career at Drake.
“This has been a dismal year,” Netolicky said. “The team is poorly managed and I’m not the only Pacer who is dissatisfied.
“If we win, all it will do is put some sugar on a sour year.”
The fans didn’t need to know all that, however. About 4,000 of them, eager to let bygones be bygones, greeted the team at the airport the evening of the final game. Lewis had the honor of carrying the championship trophy. One week later, they were honored in the 500 Festival Parade, receiving the loudest cheers of all the celebrities, according to news reports.
Two months later, however, Mount and Netolicky got their wish. Mount was sold to Kentucky and Netolicky was sold to Dallas. And one year later, after a couple of other roster tweaks, the Pacers won a third championship, defeating Kentucky in the seventh game of the finals in Louisville. It was a boring season by comparison.
The legacy of the 1972 team, however, will stand for the harsh truth it presented. Barry still sees it through the mist of the passing years: “The bottom line is, what’s happening off the court doesn’t mean s— if you’re getting it done on the court.”•
Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer.