The Pacers' Grand Debut

Editor’s note: The Pacers played their first regular season game on Oct. 14, 1967, against the Kentucky Colonels, so today in a sense marks their 50th birthday. The following is an excerpt from Mark Montieth’s book, “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” which details the formation and first two seasons of the franchise. The book can be purchased at retail outlets throughout central Indiana and online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.


And so it began, 14 years after the death of the Olympians and about nine months after the frenetic process of birthing a franchise had begun. Finally, on Saturday, Oct. 14, the Pacers were going to play a real game against a real opponent, the Kentucky Colonels. The fuse had been lit for months, even years, creeping closer and closer to this big bang moment of truth.

The response from the community had been impressive from the first of those summer scrimmages in June, but neither the owners nor front office members knew quite what they were getting into. Would this new team in this new league with these crazy ideas really take off? Would it even survive one season? They were about to find out.

Support had blossomed beyond reasonable expectations. Government and community leaders had jumped to the cause from the start. Indianapolis Star sports editor Bob Collins, although not an investor, qualified as a founder and made sure his department provided coverage that was generous in both quantity and tone. It published a 20-page tabloid insert – perhaps the first of its kind for the newspaper’s sports section – on Thursday, two days before the game.

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The afternoon Indianapolis News was on board as well. Its beat reporter, Dick Denny, reported on every development with enthusiasm, and it ran a rare front-page color photo in its Friday edition featured secretary Sandra Wheatley, Roger Brown and Ron Bonham posing with the ABA ball. Wheatley, wearing a gold sweater, escaped the grind behind her front desk in the 38th St. office long enough to pose for the photo. Brown and Bonham wore Pacer warmup jackets – “outside jackets,” the photo caption called them – and put on their friendliest smiles.

The next day, on the afternoon of the game, the News ran a gung-ho editorial. It was headlined “Good Luck, Pacers,” and finished with a hearty endorsement: “Indianapolis can show that it is strictly big league by giving the Pacers whole-hearted support. The Hoosier capital must stand behind the team if it is to succeed and the community is to attract more professional sports.”

The Star plastered its Saturday game preview across the top of its first sports page with a banner headline and oversized head shots of coach Larry Staverman and all five starters: Freddie Lewis, Jimmy Dawson, Brown, Oliver Darden and Bob Netolicky. The News’ preview, meanwhile, described it as “the long-awaited, and hopefully successful, debut …” The Louisville Courier-Journal, by contrast, merely published a 10-paragraph story under a one-column headline to advance the game, with no photos.

Objectivity clearly was secondary to the cause of upgrading the city’s sports landscape. The newspaper reporters and editors wanted the franchise to succeed as badly as anyone, for their own business and pleasure.

Commissioner George Mikan returned to Indianapolis for the game, one night after the ABA debuted with a game between Oakland and Anaheim in Oakland. The Pacers’ ownership group hosted a dinner for him at the Woodstock Country Club the evening of the game. They didn’t have to rush, because the game wouldn’t begin until 8:30 p.m. (1) Mikan helped himself to two large steaks.

The trip from Woodstock at 1301 W. 38th St. to the front gate of the State Fairgrounds where the Coliseum sat at 1202 E. 38th St. was just 2.7 miles. The Pacers office at 638 E. 38th St. was more than halfway along the way, on the left side of the road heading east. As the members of the founding group made their way to the game in separate cars, they ran into a traffic jam. It didn’t dawn on some of them that the game was the reason for it.

Freddie Lewis

Freddie Lewis goes up for a basket against the Colonels (Credit: Pacers)

Board member Chuck DeVoe, for one, assumed there had been an accident, but Collins, who was traveling the same road from his house near 38th and Kessler, near Woodstock, knew better. He was more attuned to the passions of the fan base in the city, and had experienced his share of vehicular issues getting to a game. “This is the first time I’ve ever enjoyed being in a traffic jam,” he told his wife on the way to the game.

Not so for board member Dick Tinkham. Driving the car in which Mikan was riding, he was doing a slow burn. The Pacers already had a strained relationship with the State Fair Board, which operated the Coliseum, and Tinkham assumed it must have scheduled another event on the fairgrounds that same evening – perhaps a cattle show. What if he didn’t get the commissioner to the game on time?

Tinkham was haunted by another worry, too.

“What happens if we don’t make a basket?” he asked Mikan.

“What?!” Mikan asked, incredulously.

“What if we just don’t make a basket?”

It had been a long, arduous process to nurse the franchise to its season-opener. Hints of paranoia could be forgiven, but a shutout was highly unlikely.

So was a poor turnout. The public’s response to that point had been enthusiastic, and general manager Mike Storen was determined to introduce the team with a splash, no matter what it took.

Merchants within the Eagledale Shopping Center on the city’s west side sponsored the game, and had been given 3,000 tickets to distribute. They also hosted the players on Friday evening, the night before the game, from 6:30 to 7:30, when they would give away most of their allotment. A shooting exhibition on portable goals was scheduled, but rain forced everyone inside one of the stores, where the players signed autographs and tickets were passed out. Tickets also were available for sale at all 22 Tuchman Cleaners locations in the city, and another 150 tickets had been sold at the front desk of the Kokomo Tribune.

Storen further “papered the house” by giving away tickets to various civic groups, youth organizations, police and fire units and military personnel. He had no way of knowing how many of the free tickets would be used, though, or what kind of walk-up sale to expect.

Chuck DeVoe in later years praised Storen for assuring the sellout, even if it meant passing out too many free tickets.

“I’m not sure how much he papered that night, but he was very good at that,” DeVoe said. “That was one of our better smoke-and-mirror deals.”

Storen had honed the strategy in Cincinnati by sending coupons for $1 tickets to schools throughout the area and letting the kids in the back door by the bus-load. One dollar wasn’t much income, but it was more than zero. He always distributed the free or discounted tickets discreetly, so the fans who paid full price wouldn’t be offended. He also made it a point not to provide free tickets to his owners, believing it was important for them to set an example, but offered them the perk of telling their friends they could call the office and receive tickets. Stat crew members, newspaper employees and others connected to the franchise were allowed to pick up tickets for the lesser games and pass them out. One stat crew member, Bob Bernath, learned in later years people tended not to show up when given free tickets, so he charged them $1 and gave the money to the Tabernacle athletic program.

The local newspapers predicted a crowd of 7,000 to 8,000 in the Coliseum, which had a seating capacity of 9,135. Down in Louisville, the Courier-Journal reported about 5,000 fans were anticipated. As it turned out, the passion and hunger of the local fans exceeded the most optimistic hopes, as did Storen’s marketing talents.

Years later, Storen would recall being told on the afternoon of the game a sellout was anticipated. And when Denny dropped off the afternoon News to him at his office at about 4 p.m., it all sank in.

“(Ticket manager) Mel Brown came in and said we were clean,” Storen said. “And I remember getting the afternoon paper and we had this unbelievable coverage. I was sitting in my office alone and I started crying. All this time and all this effort and all this work. There wasn’t anything else you could ask for. It was really emotional.”

Whether Storen could have known in advance the game would sell out is debatable. After all, it was impossible to guess whether all those free tickets that had been passed out would be used. Regardless, he had every reason to be emotional over the birth of this baby. From that initial meeting in Lafayette, where the seeds for a franchise had been planted, the gestation period had included blood spilled by the players in the open tryouts and training camp, sweat from hustling front office members and tears of both joy and sorrow, from players kept and players cut.

A reported crowd of 10,835 fans squeezed into the building, 1,700 of whom had to stand for the privilege of watching history unfold. Another 2,000 or so were turned away according to the Star’s account. Adding to the confusion, Collins stood at a side door and let in friends for free. Other team officials probably did the same. With tickets priced at $4, $3, $2 and $1.50 (and $1 for standing room), and so many of them given away, the proceeds from the game were severely compromised.

This game, however, was more about exposure than profit, and Storen went all out to exploit the public relations potential of the occasion. A pep band of unknown origin played before the game and during breaks in the action. One of its selections was “Mame,” a Broadway hit from the previous year, in recognition of Mamie Gregory, the wife of Kentucky Colonels owner Joe, who would turn 25 the next day. Storen brought over a group of young gymnasts from Hamilton, Ohio – billed as the “Flip Twisters” –to entertain at halftime, having utilized them while with the Royals.

Various local and state politicians were on hand. Team president Joe Bannon, the linchpin of the ownership group, was introduced. So was Mikan. So was Mayor John Barton, who tossed up a ceremonial jump ball at mid-court. Collins remembered being introduced, too, with Storen proclaiming, “This is the man who did it!”

The Coliseum was darkened for pre-game introductions, with players from each team brought onto the court via a spotlight. The Pacers players ran through a paper-covered hoop set at the end of the court to the foul line, where they greeted their teammates. Kokomo’s Jimmy Rayl, introduced ninth, got the loudest cheer according to the Kokomo Morning Times. Even Jim Ligon, the other Kokomo native who had caught on with the Colonels after being cast off by the Pacers, received a warm welcome, and not just from the estimated 500-600 fans from Kokomo who attended the game.

The game lived up to the hype, for Pacers fans at least. All the preparations Storen and his staff had put into this moment – the tryouts in June, the informal workouts in July and August, the demanding training camp in September and the six exhibition games – paid off on the Coliseum’s court that night. Buoyed by the cheers of the raucous sellout crowd and the sheer joy and anticipation of becoming professional basketball players, the Pacers defeated the Colonels 117-95.

Details of the game are sparse. None of the known newspaper accounts recorded who scored the first basket in franchise history, which didn’t seem a big deal at the time. The Star’s article, however, mentioned Rayl scored the 100th point on a driving layup with 3:57 left and Matthew Aitch scored the game’s final points on a 15-footer with two seconds left. The Kokomo Tribune mentioned the Colonels jumped to a 14-8 lead, but the Pacers came back to lead 28-25 at the end of the first quarter behind “fabulous Roger Brown, husky Ollie Darden, spunky Freddie Lewis and hustling Jim Dawson.”

According to the Courier-Journal, the Pacers “gave the Colonels a few lessons in showmanship, shooting, savvy and sound defense.”

Kentucky made efficient use of the three-point shot, hitting 7-of-9 attempts while the Pacers missed all three of their flings, but the Colonels hit just 29-of-105 field goal attempts overall. The Pacers made 49 of their 105 attempts.

The red, white and blue ball and three-point shot went over well with the fans, although the three-point shot caused some confusion for those who hadn’t been following along closely in the newspapers. Mike Richardson, reporting for the Franklin Daily Journal, wrote that one woman asked her husband why one of the Colonels’ shots had counted three points. “This is professional basketball, Martha. They can do anything they want,” he replied.

The Pacers made up for Kentucky’s superior three-point shooting by running, and broke open the game in the second half with fastbreak scoring. The Colonels’ management contributed to that issue, however, by managing to put their players at a scheduling disadvantage in the very first game. Kentucky had played its fifth exhibition game in six nights on Thursday, and had just one day to rest and prepare for the regular season debut. The Pacers had been off for six days.

Bob Netolicky

Bob Netolicky makes a layup against Kentucky (Credit: Pacers)

Pacers fans didn’t know that, and wouldn’t have cared anyway. They gave the players a standing ovation as they left the court. Nobody could possibly have imagined what was in store for the franchise, and nobody grasped the historic merits of the evening. If they had, someone would have recorded the radio broadcast, documented the evening on film, and recorded every possible detail in writing. The prevailing mood at the time, however, was mere survival. One day at a time. And the first day had gone better than anyone could have expected.

“It was absolute bedlam,” Tinkham recalled years later. “It was a happening. Everybody had done something to make it happen, and it just exploded.”

The headline across the top of the Star’s first sports page the next morning declared “Pacers Soar and Over 10,000 Roar.” The article noted the official attendance had been 9,135, with another 500-plus standing room customers, but added “that’s to keep the fire marshal happy. Actually, there were about 10,500 on hand and another 2,000 were turned away at the gate.”

All those in attendance surely were impressed.

“There was no way they could come out and see that game and not like it,” Storen told reporters afterward.

Collins, in a follow-up column that ran on Monday, two days after the game, recalled rushing up to Mikan afterward, “all fired up with prideful provincialism,” looking him “square in the belt buckle,” and saying, “Let’s see you top this, George – any place in the league!”

“Robert,” Mikan replied, “we can’t even tie it.”

Brown was the show’s headliner. Finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds and four assists, he “brought down the house with his dazzling drives down the lane and his knack for getting shots against bigger men underneath,” according to the News. Collins wrote that he “showed all the makings of a genuine superstar.”

Four years removed from his banishment from the NBA and NCAA, and six months removed from working the night shift in a factory in Dayton, the ABA had opened a new life for Brown. At this moment, he felt nothing but gratitude.

“I’m sure glad someone thought of this league,” he said in the locker room. “The guys who never had a chance with the NBA have the chance here.”

Conard, in the Kokomo Tribune, was less restrained, writing: “And man, that Roger Brown … can he do it! Rog’ fluttered, twisted and squirmed for 24 points … and when he fakes, half the other team leaves.”

Dawson was the second-most impressive performer, finishing with 17 points and playing “with an abandon that had to remind old pro fans of Ralph Beard,” according to Collins.

Darden scored 16 points, and Netolicky 13.

“Sure, I was nervous,” Netolicky said afterward. “I was scared to death.”

Kentucky coach John Givens, who had applied for the Pacers’ coaching job and wound up with the Colonels, didn’t take the loss gracefully. Shaking hands with Staverman amid the postgame celebration, he said, “Man, I really got homered tonight.” (2)

It wasn’t what Staverman wanted to hear at such a joyous moment. “What the hell are you talking about?!” he screamed. “I didn’t have anything to do with the goddam officials! What are you talking about?!”

Staverman didn’t stay angry for long. Talking with reporters later, he referred to a sign in the locker room, white with red letters, that read “110 percent effort, 100 percent of the time.”

“That’s our motto,” he said.

It had originated with Storen, and applied to the entire organization. Marvel, the media relations director, had ordered pins that read “110%” and distributed them to players, media, front office personnel and stat crew members, paid for out of his own pocket. Such was the spirit of the day. (3)

The Pacers were officially launched. An unknown but intriguing future awaited.

Footnotes

(1) For the public, the Pacers held a tipoff banquet at the Elks Club on Thursday, two nights before the game. Tickets were $5 per person, and the newspaper advertisement specifically mentioned “ladies invited.”

(2) This was according to Staverman’s memory years later. Staverman, by the way, took home the game ball, perhaps the most historic memento in franchise history. His family still has it. It’s not for sale.

(3) Marvel lived the motto. He worked so hard he had to go to a hospital to be examined because of chest pains the first week of December. Overpeck wrote that Marvel “has spent a lifetime trying to prove that sleep is greatly overrated.” Marvel said he worked 86 consecutive days and stayed in the hospital for a week undergoing tests.


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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