The Pacers’ march to the 1970 ABA championship


The Pacers’ first ABA championship firmly embedded the franchise in the hearts of central Indiana basketball fans, both furthering and reflecting the game’s meaning to the sport’s culture.

The Pacers had dominated the regular season, finishing with a 59-25 record that was by far the best in the league and remains the second-highest win total in franchise history – although it’s worth mentioning the ABA schedule that season consisted of 84 games, rather than the current 82. They were 52-17 at one point, then finished 7-8 after they had the top seed locked up.

The ABA was an 11-team league that season, so the playoffs consisted of just three rounds. The Pacers breezed through the first two with just one loss, so there was a week-long gap between each round.

The Pacers’ starting lineup in the playoffs consisted of Roger Brown and Bob Netolicky at forward, Mel Daniels at center and Freddie Lewis and John Barnhill at guard. Rookie Bill Keller was a regular off the bench, as was forward Art Becker.

It was a heady time for the Pacers . They had established themselves in the community the previous season with a late-season push to the league finals and were the ABA’s most popular attraction. Reports of serious negotiations for a merger with the NBA were making headlines in the newspapers, efforts were underway to build a new and larger arena to contain the city’s love for the team and Purdue All-American Rick Mount had already signed for the following season.

It was a special time in the city’s history, too. The franchise was in just its third season, the fan base was not yet jaded, and hope for even better times ahead reigned above all.

(All photos are from the game described.)

Round One: Pacers vs. Carolina

Game 1

April 18, 1970

Fairgrounds Coliseum

Brown proves himself a money player

While it’s common today for nostalgic older fans to believe the players of long ago played professional basketball “for the love of the game,” that’s a blatant falsehood. They played for money, too, and it was every bit as important to them as it is for today’s players, quantity differences aside.

Nobody ever made that point clearer than Roger Brown, who led the Pacers to a 123-105 victory in the opening game of their first-round playoff series with the Carolina Cougars. Brown scored 26 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, passed out seven assists and defended Cougars forward Doug Moe into a woeful shooting performance, giving the first hint of the historic postseason that awaited him.

“Money, money, money is what fires me up,” Brown told Indianapolis Star reporter Robin Miller after the game. “And after all, it’s playoff time and I’m hungry.”

Brown, who hit 10-of-15 shots, held Moe to 6-of-19 shooting. Moe finished with 16 points but scored just four in the first half and had most of his success in garbage time.

Brown’s performance was so complete that Star beat writer Dave Overpeck gushed  over it in his game story:

“They should have taken movies of Brown yesterday. They could be used at any clinic in the country on how to play forward. All the speaker would have to say is, ‘Watch this guy. That’s what it’s all about.’

“Brown was simply magnificent. You won’t see a finer game of basketball played anyplace by anybody. … When the Pacers wanted a bucket they cleared the floor for Roger. He got the basket or he went to the line for two. It was a matchless performance.”

Nobody knew it at the time, but it was only the beginning.

Brown’s performance overshadowed that of the other starters, all of whom scored in double figures. That was particularly true of guard Freddie Lewis, whose entire career with the Pacers was overshadowed by future Hall of Fame players. Lewis played exceptionally well, scoring 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting and limiting Cougars guard Bob Verga – who averaged 27.5 points during the regular season – to 19 on 9-of-23 shooting.

Lewis’ performance went relatively unnoticed amid all the fuss made over Brown, although not by Brown. “I wasn’t the person who put it away – it was definitely Freddie,” Brown said in the postgame locker room.

The game was representative of ABA basketball at the time for its extracurricular activities. Lewis’ aggressive defense of Verga nearly incited Verga and Carolina forward Hank Whitney into a fight. And, toward the end of the game, Pacers coach Bob “Slick” Leonard walked all the way down to the Cougars’ bench while the game was ongoing in an apparent act of intimidation.

When Cougars coach Bones McKinney jumped up and protested to referee Norm Drucker, Drucker said, “Hey, Bobby, get back there.”

“OK, Normy,” Leonard said calmly and returned to his bench.

The biggest curiosity of the game, however, might have been the meager attendance. It was listed officially as 6,123 but Overpeck reported “at least 1,000 came disguised as empty seats.”

The afternoon start time (2:10) might have had something to do with the attendance. A greater factor, though, was the competition from the game played across town later that evening at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where college all-star teams from Indiana and Ohio were meeting in an annual event sponsored by the Sertoma charity. Purdue All-American Rick Mount, who already was under contract to play for the Pacers next season and was wearing the black low-cut shoes they favored at the time, was the featured attraction and the primary reason 10,622 fans showed up for the game.

Mount didn’t disappoint. Having scored 45 points while hitting seven three-pointers the previous night in Columbus, Ohio, he scored 41 points in this one, a 109-106 victory for the Indiana team.

Just one more reason for Pacers fans to be excited.

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