They’re all in now, their careers preserved for eternity within the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. And to think they all played for the Pacers at or near the peak of their careers.
For a little while, anyway.
George McGinnis’ induction into the Hall earlier this month made it a clean sweep for the best frontline in franchise history, joining Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. Together, they comprised one of the few pure Hall of Fame frontlines in ABA or NBA history in the early Seventies.
“A tremendous milestone,” their coach, Bob Leonard, calls it.
The scarcity of such combinations reveals the long odds of gathering two forwards and a center who wind up with basketball’s greatest individual honor. Boston had a couple of legendary frontlines with Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and Tom Sanders in the Sixties, and then Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the Eighties. The Minneapolis Lakers had Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelson and George Mikan in the Fifties. The New York Knicks had Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
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Compiling such lists can be dicey. Sometimes future Hall of Famers merge for only a brief time, and sometimes one or more of them is well past his prime when it happens. There’s no guarantee of chemistry, either, because great players don’t like to ride in the backseat.
Daniels, McGinnis and Brown all played together in near-peak years of their careers with the Pacers, and played on two championship teams, in 1972 and ’73. But while they helped bring glory to the franchise, they also served as a reminder of how difficult it is to keep elite talent together, even within the course of a season, and that doing so hardly guarantees success. Because other teams have talent, too.
Reflective of the good fortune that surrounded the Pacers in their formative seasons, the front office didn’t have to make a savvy draft pick or spend a fortune in free agency to land any of the Pacers’ future Hall of Famers, heretofore known as the “Naismiths” for the purposes of this article.
Brown was working in a General Motors factory in Dayton when the ABA was formed, signed a non-guaranteed contract, and revitalized his basketball career at the age of 25.
Daniels was acquired for $100,000 and a couple of players who would never play again when the Minnesota Muskies needed quick cash after the inaugural 1967-68 season, one of the greatest heists in the history of basketball swaps.
McGinnis was signed in 1971 after his sophomore season at Indiana University. The Pacers were on their way to finishing the regular season with the ABA’s best record and wouldn’t have been in position to draft such a marquee player under ordinary circumstances, but the ABA was constantly in survival mode and rarely operated within the boundaries of ordinary circumstances. If a team could sign a promising player, it signed him, draft position be damned.
The Naismiths, however, started fewer games together in their three seasons as teammates than one might suspect. And when they did, the team’s success wasn’t as great as one might assume.
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They started together across the frontline in 70 regular season games, from 1971-72 (McGinnis’ rookie season) through ’73-74 (before Daniels and Brown were traded). The Pacers were 41-29 in those games. They started together in another 24 games in the playoffs, in which the Pacers finished 13-11. All three started together in another 24 games when Brown was moved to guard and McGinnis and Daniels started on the frontline, usually with Bob Netolicky. On those occasions, the Pacers were 9-5 in regular season games and 6-4 in the playoffs.
In other words, they didn’t dominate as much as you probably were guessing.
The trio came together in the 1971-72 season, when McGinnis, having just turned 21, joined the Pacers as a rookie. By then, Brown already was 29 years old, past his considerable prime because of all those games played on playground asphalt in New York and Cincinnati, and his poor health habits. Daniels was 27, a veteran of his two league MVP seasons, with only three more productive seasons ahead of him.
They started together for the first time in the 13th game of the season. McGinnis was proving to be a quick study of the pro game, and showing constant improvement. He scored 29 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in 36 minutes off the bench in the 11th game, on Nov. 5, earning a starting assignment for the following night’s game.
“I can’t keep him out,” Leonard said. “George makes things happen. Now it’s a matter of him having poise and doing things the right way and the easy way.
“I want to see him become an accomplished player. It’s up to him. He can be a great one.”
McGinnis finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds the following night against Utah, but Daniels sat out with a strep throat and the Pacers lost by one point in overtime.
The planets finally aligned on Nov. 9, at Pittsburgh. It would be nice to report it as a turning point for the season, if not for the franchise, but it wasn’t. The Pacers, struggling to get healthy and find chemistry within a roster too deep for its own good, lost their fourth straight game, 133-123. Offense wasn’t a problem, though. McGinnis finished with 26 points and 25 rebounds (and 11 turnovers). Daniels had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Brown had 19 points and seven rebounds. The backcourt was equally potent. Rick Mount scored 27 points in 33 minutes and Freddie Lewis had 23.
McGinnis, Brown and Daniels started for five consecutive games, but the Pacers won just two of them. A primary “problem” was Netolicky, who had been all ABA All-Star in all four of the league’s seasons prior to that one. Removing him from the starting lineup was awkward, especially for him. He scored 30 points off the bench in 22 minutes in the second game of that five-game stretch, a blowout victory over Pittsburgh, and had 17 points and 14 rebounds in 32 minutes off the bench in the fifth one, a loss at Utah.
Leonard then returned Netolicky to the starting lineup, and brought McGinnis off the bench again. McGinnis sprained an ankle shortly after that, missing four games, returned to play off the bench again, then reinjured the ankle, was put in a cast and missed six more games. He later returned to the starting lineup, but with Netolicky playing the other forward and Brown starting at guard.
The Pacers ran off six consecutive victories with that lineup, which provided the team’s best combination of talent and experience. Think of it: three future Hall of Famers and a four-time All-Star in Netolicky, not to mention another multi All-Star in Lewis, who in a later season with another team would be named the All-Star game’s MVP.
Brown, however, preferred to play forward, and tended to match up better defensively with other small forwards. Leonard spent the rest of that season matching up to opponents, juggling the lineup frequently, with various combinations. He did go back to the Naismith frontline later in the season, but Brown injured his hand after three games and missed the next three games.
Leonard utilized the combination along the frontline just once in the final 23 games, in a homecourt win over Virginia, then moved Brown back to guard. He didn’t put the trio together again until the final playoff round against New York, where matchups favored it.
The Pacers won the series in six games, but not because of their future Naismiths. Lewis, the point guard and captain, was voted MVP of the finals, and combo guard Billy Keller was instrumental as well. Truth be told, the Nets’ starting frontline of Rick Barry, Tom Washington and Billy Paultz outscored the Pacers’ frontline by two points over the six games. The Pacers’ trio came through in the series-clinching game in New York, though. Brown outscored Barry, 32-23, Daniels finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds and McGinnis with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Netolicky and Mount, unhappy with their lack of playing time, asked for and were granted trades after the season, clearing up roster congestion and removing one of the obstacles to playing the Naismiths together. Brown, McGinnis and Daniels started 32 of the first 36 games in the 1972-73 season, but Brown went down with a hand injury for a few games and didn’t start again the rest of the season. Darnell Hillman, like McGinnis a second-year forward, took his place in most of the games.
Brown was recalled to the starting lineup in Game 4 of the first-round playoff series with Denver, after the Nuggets had won Game 3 to pull within 2-1. The Pacers won, although Brown scored just nine points. They won the following game as well to clinch the series. Daniels finished with 29 points and 23 rebounds, McGinnis with 27 points and 10 rebounds and Brown with 10 points and five rebounds.
Brown continued to start in the first four games of the second-round series with Utah, but had to sit out Game 5 with an injury and came off the bench in the Game 6 closeout victory.
The Naismiths then started the first three games of the final series with Kentucky, but the Pacers fell behind 2-1 after losing Game 3 on their homecourt. Brown played off the bench the rest of the way, and was merely a supporting player. Leonard talked of returning him to the starting lineup for Game 7 in Louisville, after the Pacers had failed to win the championship on their home court, but didn’t. That might have been because Brown skipped practice the day before the game and didn’t arrive at the team hotel until the morning of the game, rather than ride the team bus, although Leonard denied that after the game. Hillman had played too well to be taken out of the starting lineup, he said.
Series MVP McGinnis dominated the Game 7 victory with 27 points, 13 in the final eight minutes of the third quarter, leading the Pacers to their third and final ABA title. Daniels, limited to 18 minutes by foul trouble, finished with nine points and nine rebounds. Brown, still a clutch player, scored 10 points off the bench, hitting two crucial jumpers and scoring six points in the final quarter.
By then, it was obvious McGinnis was the team’s centerpiece, while Brown and Daniels – especially Brown – were fading. There was talk Brown might retire after the season, but he didn’t. The Naismith’s last season together, in 1973-74, brought mixed results in the 30 regular season games they started. The first one came in the 20th game, a 118-114 win over Kentucky, and served as an omen. McGinnis was magnificent with 37 points and 20 rebounds, but Daniels had just three points and four rebounds in 18 minutes and Brown went scoreless in his 18 minutes. They were outscored by Kentucky’s starting frontline – which included future Hall of Famers Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel – 64-40.
They occasionally recaptured their magic, however. The Nets, now with Julius Erving instead of Barry at forward, seemed to bring the best out of them. In a March victory in New York, with Leonard back home with the flu, McGinnis had 29 points and 17 rebounds, Daniels 23 points and 12 rebounds and Brown 18 points and eight rebounds. In a later game in New York, Daniels had 30 points and 17 rebounds, McGinnis 25 points and 24 rebounds and Brown 25 points and five rebounds. Julius Erving, though, had 39 points for New York in its double-overtime victory. In an even later game, in Indianapolis, a Pacers victory, McGinnis had 34 points and 25 rebounds, Brown had 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists and Daniels had 20 points and 13 rebounds – enough to overcome Erving’s 41 points.
The Naismith’s started throughout the opening-round, seven-game series victory over San Antonio, and outscored the Spurs’ frontline 58-21 in the decisive game. They started the first two games of the second round against Utah, too, but Brown sprained his ankle in the third quarter of Game 2 and missed the next game. The Pacers fell behind 3-0, then Lewis scored 40 points in Game 4 to throw a lifeline. They won the next two games, too. McGinnis and Daniels both finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds in Game 5, and McGinnis added 10 assists to the mix. Then, the McGinnis-Daniels-Hillman frontline outrebounded the Stars 60-45 and Brown scored 15 points off the bench in the Game 6 victory.
The last hurrah came in Game 7, and it was anti-climactic. The Stars won easily, 109-87. Brown came off the bench to lead the scoring with 21 points, hitting 6-of-9 field goals, playing mostly at guard, but it wasn’t enough.
What does it all mean? It’s difficult to get a combination of great players on one team without some serious luck. It’s equally difficult to get them at the right time and to keep them together for long. They offer no guarantees, either.
But they can help you win a championship or two. And if they happen to reconvene in the Hall of Fame? They become even more legendary.
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