He’s one of the most underrated basketball players in the state’s history, except to those who saw him play and know the game. Someday, perhaps, the Pacers will be willing to admit they have been guilty of an oversight.
The three Pacers from the ABA era whose jerseys are retired are Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and George McGinnis. All are clearly deserving. Lewis is equally deserving, but his number (14) has yet to be lifted to the rafters in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Think about it. He was the starting point guard on all three ABA championship teams, in 1970, ’72 and ’73. He was the MVP of the ’72 playoffs, and might have won it again in ’73 if he hadn’t been injured in the second half of Game 7 in Louisville. McGinnis took over in the fourth quarter to lead the Pacers’ victory, and received the award. Lewis also was a four-time All-Star and the MVP of the All-Star game while playing for St. Louis.
All of that doesn’t capture his impact, though. He was a leader, too. He was the captain of all the Pacers’ championship teams; in fact, he was the captain of every team he ever played on, because he was a natural. He recalls in this conversation being picked up at the airport in St. Louis after being traded from Memphis and being told his new teammates had already voted him captain. You’ll hear examples of his leadership with the Pacers, too. I’ve seen him at various events in recent years, and he still takes charge when he’s with his teammates.
He should be an obvious choice for jersey retirement, but circumstance interfered. The Pacers decided to retire numbers in the Eighties – partly because some players deserved it, and partly as a marketing gimmick to attract fans while the team was suffering through losing seasons. A questionnaire went out to local media members who were asked to list their top three choices for the honor. That guaranteed only three players would be singled out. Problem was, there happened to be four who deserved it from the ABA seasons. Lewis wound up the outcast. The Pacers never went back and added him, and the matter was forgotten as the years passed.
Some question Lewis having his jersey number retired because it might create more controversies. If him, what about others, too? Bob Netolicky? Billy Knight? Rik Smits? No, there’s a clear dividing line between Lewis and the Pacers’ good players who played in All-Star games. Again, Lewis was a starter and captain of three championship teams and the MVP of a playoff series. He was every bit as important to the great Pacer ABA teams as Daniels, Brown and McGinnis.
Lewis was in town to attend a banquet when I talked with him. I picked him up at his hotel and drove him to the studio. He brought along his young nephew. From this conversation, you’ll understand why he was always a team captain, and perhaps why he deserves more recognition.
First aired 2010
Tagged with: ABA All-Star, ABA finals MVP, Freddie Lewis, Indiana Pacers