The closest ABA and Detroit Pershing legend Mel Daniels got to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame came in 2009 when New York Post columnist and professional shit-stirrer Peter Vecsey, in his own Hall of Fame induction speech, randomly and incoherently started shouting out names. Here was Jeff Pearlman’s recap of that speech, which Pearlman referred to as the ‘worst ever:’
He seemed to have no notes. No thoughts. No … nothing. He began not by expressing his appreciation, but by rattling off all the shunned players he believed belonged in the Hall. From there, he just … babbled. About this. About that. He seemed to be drunk, but I don’t think he was. The man was just, well, lost. He used language one doesn’t use in a Hall speech. He called out people’s names (“Calvin Murphy! Tiny Archibald!”), and you could literally see the men squirming in their seats.
Vecsey’s clumsy delivery that night overshadowed an important point that he made in the midst of his rambling: ABA legends were often overlooked by the basketball Hall of Fame. Vecsey clarified this point in a column he wrote in 2011:
During my Hall of Fame enshrinement speech two years ago, in a rare coherent moment, I admonished the association for slighting Jamaal Wilkes, Dennis Johnson, Chet Walker, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Tex Winter, Roger Brown and others.
Like Vecsey or not, his staunch support of those under-appreciated players has paid off. Johnson, Gilmore, Walker and Winter have now all been enshrined and this year, Daniels and Wilkes will join them.
Daniels’ name is a forgotten one in the statewide hoops scene, mainly because his college and pro success were elsewhere. He was a star at the University of New Mexico and was a part of some Indiana Pacers teams that were arguably the most dominant in the entire history of the ABA. He may be more closely tied to other areas of the country now, but make no mistake: Daniels is one of the best basketball players Michigan ever produced.
Here is a news release from the University of New Mexico on Daniels’ enshrinement:
At the University of New Mexico, Daniels led the Lobos in scoring for three straight seasons and was the Western Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player in 1967. He was drafted ninth in the 1967 NBA Draft, but chose to go play in the ABA instead. Following his ABA Rookie of the Year award in 1968, he went on to earn All-ABA First Team four times and Second Team once. After his professional career, which concluded as a member of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, Daniels joined the coaching staff at Indiana State, where he coached future Hall of Famer Larry Bird. He was also a member of the Indiana Pacers front office for over 20 years.
Daniels is currently 10th all-time in scoring at UNM with 1,537 points, and he is third in rebounding with 853.
If there is anything bittersweet about the moment, is that Daniels is the only member of those teams so honored. He hopes his selection will open the door for his former teammates and especially Coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard.
“I don’t think one would exist without the other,” Daniels said. “Bobby Leonard deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He should’ve been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. Without question, Roger Brown, George McGinnis, Fred Lewis, Bob Netolicky and a host of other guys. Hopefully, hopefully the recognition will come them as it has come to me.
“I think they’re finally recognizing the fact that there were two professional basketball leagues and there were some very good basketball players in our league. They see the value of what we brought to the table in the American Basketball Association, especially the four teams that became NBA cities. After the merger, 15 of the 24 all-stars were from the American Basketball Association. So we’re getting our dues — not toally, but they’re coming.”
In Terry Pluto’s fantastic oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls, Daniels’ teammate, Billy Keller, described him like this:
Mel Daniels was emotional, dramatic, hardworking, and intense. As a coach, you can look at certain players and instantly know, “There’s a guy who can help a team win.”
Mel was that kind of guy.
He played a man’s game inside. He set picks, he got the rebounds, he blocked the shots, and he was in the middle of every fight. He scared people out of driving the lane against the Pacers. If he went for the ball and ended up with someone’s head in his hands, he was just as likely to put a headlock on the guy as let him go.
I would much rather this post be an unfettered celebration of what is a true honor for one of Indiana’s own, but it is almost impossible to ignore the years of waiting. We are just a few weeks short of the 36th anniversary of the Indiana Pacers’ final ABA game, and a few more weeks short of the 39th anniversary of the Pacers winning their final ABA title. There are only 17 current players who were alive for the former, and just four alive for the latter. It has been 35 years since Daniels’ retirement, and Mel has been eligible for 30 years.
Via Indianapolis Star reporter Mike Wells, Larry Bird had this to say about Daniels:
“It’s really too bad some of the young kids didn’t get to see Mel Daniels and Roger Brown play because they were very good,” Bird said. “I’m glad (the Hall of Fame) is looking a little bit harder at the ABA players because I was fortunate to play with some of them and I know how good they were.”
Daniels played for the Pacers from 1968-74 and led them to three ABA championships and was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1969 and ’71. He also played in seven ABA All-Star Games.
“The Pacers had a very good basketball team, but when they made the trade for Mel, that changed their whole world,” Bird said.
Writer Alan Paul interviewed Daniels for SLAM Magazine and Daniels talked about a staple of his game no doubt picked up in his home state: he would fight you.
SLAM: And you had a reputation as one the ABA’s fiercest brawlers.
MD: Well, like I said, I was a nut. I was a head case but I knew my limitations. It was part of that macho thing in both leagues. If you showed that you were apprehensive or afraid to mix it up, people would take advantage so you had to initiate the contact, be the aggressor. Otherwise, people would take you for weak and try to dominate you.