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Solid hit in the funny league

The NBA may scoff, but Indiana is one ABA team that can sneer right back. It has money and players

By 5 p.m. on the day of the final play- off game, the office staff of the Indiana Pacers was sputtering like an Indy race car with indigestion. The secretaries, smiling bravely, clutched at telephones that had been ringing since early morning. The ticketsellers, having stood for eight straight hours to handle the demand of fans who lined up out the door and halfway to Evansville, were sorely worried about their feet. They all sounded like recordings: "Sorry, the tickets are all gone. Standing room goes on sale at 6:30 tonight at the Coliseum. Sorry...."

Three hours after the shop had closed, a nasty spring storm was well on its way to flooding Indianapolis. The real soaking, though, was done by scalpers, the first in the history of the American Basketball Association. The prices were not Dallas or L.A. or New York—$25 for a $5 ticket—but this was the ABA, not the Cotton Bowl. By tip-off time, which was delayed 10 minutes to get everyone safely inside, 9,111 were seated—that's capacity—and another 1,894 stood. The 11,005 spectators were by far the largest crowd so far in the ABA playoffs and some 4,000 more than Los Angeles and Atlanta of the NBA drew in their playoff that same night in Atlanta.

As always, the home-towners were quite ready to do whatever was necessary to help the Pacers: boo, pelt the floor with paper cups, even come out of the stands for some strategic punching. Happily, this time the Pacers had enough strength in uniform. They beat the Kentucky Colonels from down the road 120—111 to win the best-of-seven playoff four games to three and advance to the semifinal round. After the game, while horns blew and women cried and Pacer Coach Bob (Slick) Leonard was carried off the floor college-style, euphoric Indiana partisans grabbed visitors by the arms and demanded face-to-face, "There isn't a better pro franchise anywhere, is there?"

Yes, there is—but as loth as that other league would be to admit it, the funny old ABA with the red, white and blue ball has a real winner in the Pacers. After losing $210,000 last season, they will make money this year. At home during the season they averaged 6,109 spectators a game, tops in the ABA and fifth best in all pro ball, which means 10 NBA teams were behind them. They have a vigorous coach in Leonard, they have a star player in Mel Daniels and they perhaps have the league's most perceptive executive in round Mike Storen, the general manager. If Lew Alcindor put the ABA in its grave, nobody knows it around the Pacers.

Indianapolis has always been a basketball town, the vroom-vroom Speedway notwithstanding. Back 20 years ago, when the NBA was a pretty freaky thing itself, the Indianapolis Olympians with Alex Groza were one of the league's hottest draws.

Then the basketball scandals broke over the Olympians, some of the best of whom were accused of shaving points while in college and barred from the NBA forever. Indianapolis was out of it until the Pacers came to town. Given the ABA two years ago and its unhappy knack for fussing, floundering and filibustering, the people of Indianapolis had a decision to make—either ignore the team, an antidote used with considerable success in Pittsburgh and Teaneck, N.J., or say, so what, it's all we've got, let's make the best of it.

Led by a couple of young local sportsmen named John DeVoe, 34, and Dick Tinkham, 36, Indiana fans took the latter course. To their credit, they admitted what they did not know about basketball and hired Storen, who had been laboring at various administrative jobs with the Cincinnati Royals and the Baltimore Bullets.

The ownership of the Pacers was, and still is, entirely a community thing. Nobody holds more than 10% of the stock, and the owners, who have expanded in number from 10 to 30, agreed to put up the money, keep their mouths shut and let Storen run the team. None of the owners, even DeVoe, a member of the board of directors and president of the club, was so much as allowed in the dressing room after games without Storen's express consent. "We gave Mike a free hand," says Tinkham, an attorney who also handles the ABA's legal business, "and we've been patting ourselves on the back ever since."

Storen quickly established a reputation for shrewd dealing. He signed 6'9" Bob Netolicky of Drake, the No. 2 draft choice of the San Diego Rockets of the NBA. He dug up Roger Brown, once a promising star at Dayton until the second wave of scandals ended his college career. From Miami he got Mel Daniels, the former New Mexico All-America and the No. 1 draft choice of the Royals, in exchange for what amounted to a couple of cups of coffee. Only in his own home was Storen a prophet without honor, mainly because his effervescent wife, Hannah, is apt to judge players more on their smiles than on their talent.

"When I traded Mike Lewis," says Storen, "I came home and Hannah said, 'Oh, how could you trade that cute Mike Lewis?' Then when I traded Steve Chubin, she didn't speak to me for days. If Hannah had my job, I don't know how many games we would win, but we'd sure have the cutest team in the league."

This season began tragically for the Pacers. Not only did they lose seven of their first nine games, leading Storen to remove his young coach, Larry Staverman, and hire Leonard, but on Dec. 14, during a home game against the Houston Mavericks, John DeVoe pitched over in his seat and died of a heart attack. His row of courtside seats was permanently removed, the Pacers affixed black patches to the left straps of their jerseys and DeVoe's brother Chuck, an outstanding tennis player and a member of the board of directors, became the club president.

Leonard was selling class rings and yearbooks when he took the Pacers' job. He and Storen had known each other in Baltimore, where Leonard, the old set-shot artist from Indiana University, coached the Bullets for a brief and undistinguished period.

Known as "Slick" because of his splendid sartorial habits, Leonard won the fans over as much with his colorful epithets and pirouettes off the bench as with his coaching ability. At the end of games the perspiring Leonard, with his tie loosened and his sport coat wadded up, bore little resemblance to the well-groomed Leonard of tip-off time, but he started getting results. The Pacers reached the .500 mark shortly after mid-season, then won 23 of their last 36 games to make the playoffs. Somebody named Leonard coach of the year, and everyone named Daniels the league's most valuable player, but no sooner had the fans started congratulating themselves than the Pacers were almost out of the playoffs.

Matched against the Kentucky Colonels, the Pacers dropped three of the first four playoff games—zip, zip, zip—largely because their defense failed to stop the long-distance bombing of Kentucky's guards, Louie Dampier and Darrell Carrier. Among the ABA's better innovations is the award of three points for baskets made from outside a 25-foot arc painted on the floor. The rule was designed to put the little man back in the game, which it does, and to give basketball a big play, like the home run in baseball, which it does. Together, Dampier and Carrier combined for 324 three-pointers during the season and together they almost shot the Pacers right into oblivion.

Starting with the fifth game, the Pacers responded to Leonard's goading. The guards, Freddie Lewis and Tom Thacker, began picking up Dampier and Carrier all over the floor. Underneath, Daniels and Netolicky, both possessed of soft shooting touches and hard strength, began to overpower the Kentuckians. And whenever the Pacers needed two points badly, there was mustachioed Roger Brown, still able to go one-on-one and get two points anytime.

The Pacers won the fifth game 116-97 in Indianapolis, then traveled down the road to Kentucky's Freedom Hall and demolished the Colonels 107-89 to even the series. The outcome of the final game, with all of those crazy fans, was predictable. Inflamed by a prolonged standing ovation before the game, Netolicky scored 32 points and got 16 rebounds. Brown added 29 points, his playoff average, and Daniels, despite getting in foul trouble and sitting out 23 minutes, added 16. But the people's choice was Thacker, the former Royal and Celtic whom Storen found late in the season working as a substitute schoolteacher in Cincinnati. He scored 19 points, a career high as a pro, held Carrier to only 16 and even helped Leonard coach in the huddles. "What I like about these guys," said Thacker after the game, "is that they listen. They don't get the big head."

Last Sunday night the Pacers opened their semifinal series against Miami, which eliminated Minnesota in the first round. The game was held 35 miles from Indianapolis in the Anderson (Ind.) High School gym, because the circus forced the Pacers out of the fairgrounds and Butler University refused to rent out its 15,052-seat gym, apparently for fear of invoking the wrath of the NCAA. This situation might have started cries of "bush" at other places, but nobody in Indianapolis viewed it as anything more than a minor annoyance—especially after the Pacers won 126-110. "You can't compare this league with the NBA right now," said Thacker, who has seen them both, "but give it another year or so. The fans in Indiana are the greatest I ever played for, just as good as the Celtic fans. We've got a good team, a good coach, a good administration. I think we'll go a long way."