This has been a confounding spring for everybody's experts: with the ABA and NBA playoff action continuing, Milwaukee's Bucks and Kentucky's Colonels have been plowed under and Boston's Celtics have been cleanly knicked. And while these most likely challengers have turned into nothing more than likable patsies, two upstarts from New York have been every bit as brazen as the ushers at Madison Square Garden. Only out in the ABA West, where the Utah Stars and the Indiana Pacers have been at each other again, has tradition and order been maintained. Whenever the Stars and Pacers meet it seems not so much a matter of who wins or loses, but how close the two teams can make it. Theirs is the sweetest matchup since the Doublemint twins.
The Utah-Indiana rivalry has been the tightest in the pros ever since the two teams met in the 1970 playoffs, which was back when the Stars were shining in empty arenas around Los Angeles. Their battles the past two weeks in the Western finals have brought them even closer together. After the first six games of the series, the teams were tied with three home-court victories each. Utah had outscored the Pacers by two baskets: 682 points to 678. In the 43 games since the action got white-hot two years ago, the Stars had won more games, 22-21, but Indiana held the edge in scoring. Some edge. After more than 34 hours on the court, the Pacers led by a free throw—4,821 to 4,820.
But the twin image ends with the statistics. For two teams so neatly matched in competition, the Pacers and Stars are vastly dissimilar in temperament. It is said that Bill Sharman is actually trying for two professional championships this season, one with the NBA Lakers whom he now coaches and the other with the Stars, the team he directed to the ABA title a year ago.
Sharman's stamp is seen clearly on the Stars. His team always practiced on game days. His successor, former Utah State Coach Ladell Andersen, tried making such sessions optional—but soon found that most of the Stars opted to stay in bed. So mandatory drills are back. Half of Utah's plays still arc the same ones used under Sharman, and the team's style remains unaltered—a consistent, brisk running offense combined with equally consistent aggressiveness when rebounding and defending.
But Utah, like most good teams, reflects the moods of its best players as much as its coaches, former and present. The top Stars, Center Zelmo Beaty and Forward Willie Wise, are both purists who operate without a hint of flamboyance. Beaty has even perfected a sort of on-court hauteur; he strides about with his lengthy carriage militarily erect, his head cocked back and his eyes peering down in apparent disdain at the swarm of underlings milling about him. No ABA center is more deft than Beaty at applying subtle force under the basket. He will nudge an opponent far enough to put him out of range for a rebound, but rarely so far that a referee might notice. Like a pickpocket working in a crowd, Zelmo can rip off his prey without mussing the victim's suit—and still keep an eye out for the cops. "Overall," observes Beaty, "we are a pretty mild group."
By retaining the Stars' old system and adding Guard James Jones to quarterback the offense, Andersen directed Utah to its best season ever. The Stars won three more games (60) this season than last and also took their division title for the first time. They have been consistent on the road, where they won a record 10-straight games, and at home, where they have not lost since Groundhog Day.
Lack of consistency has been Indiana's principal problem. Although the Pacers came within one victory of splitting their regular-season games with Utah—even during midseason both teams approach each other with playoff fervor—they still finished 13 games behind the Stars in the standings.
For months the Pacers have seemed more like a rodeo than a basketball team. Collectively, they own about as many horses as the Whitneys. While most star pivotmen in the pros drive Bentleys or Maseratis, Indiana Center Mel Daniels, that noted cowboy from the sidewalks of Detroit, prefers a Ford pickup truck. He leads the Pacer horsey set with five mounts all his own and was among the members of the team still galloping around on days off during the playoffs.
It may be mere good fortune that no Pacer was injured falling off a runaway stallion this year, but it is surely a miracle that none of them shot each other. Last week Forward Roger Brown, who also doubles as an Indianapolis city-county councilman, whipped out his nickel-plated, snub-nosed .38 Colt police special in the locker room. Happily, before he cocked the gun and started chasing his teammates around, he was thoughtful enough to unload it. But Forward Bob Netolicky, who had forgotten his own rod, would not be outdone. He reached into the pocket of his Levi's jacket (standard attire for some Pacers) and pulled out a handful of flat-nosed bullets for his missing .44. "These things aren't designed to maim you—they're designed to kill you," he chuckled as he tossed the ammunition in his palm like a handful of jelly beans. "If I hit you in the shoulder with one of these it's like as not going to take part of your fanny with it, too."
Considering such spirited high jinks, it is not surprising that Indiana has had a skitterish year. As recently as two seasons ago the Pacers were clearly the class of the ABA. Their strong front line of Brown, Daniels and Netolicky was considered the new league's only answer to the NBA. But some other teams, like Utah, have caught up with the Indiana veterans, and so have some new Pacers. With the addition of two good, young cornermen, George McGinnis and Darnell Hillman, who both made the ABA All-Rookie team, Coach Slick Leonard appeared to be operating this year with an overabundance of talent. McGinnis often started, knocking Brown or Netolicky from the lineup or forcing Brown to play guard, an unfamiliar position, to the dismay of the other Pacer back-court men. Hillman also has been used as a starter, and the shifting has left the Pacers grousing about Leonard behind his back. The coach responds that his players are unwilling to appraise their own performances and admit when someone else has played better.
Leonard feels being a starter has become too big a thing for the Pacers. "This is a seven-or eight-man game," he says. He believes the only player in the closing months of the season who regularly came off the bench to help was rookie Hillman. Once overshadowed by McGinnis, the muscleman who led the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and then quit Indiana University last spring to join the Pacers, Hillman now calls himself "the sleeper of the year."
At 6'9", he well may be the jumper of the year. In high school Hillman practiced by slamming the soles of his sneakers—with his feet in them—off the bottom of the backboard. In college he high-jumped seven feet, and in the pros he is one of the few players who can explode from a flat-footed stance and still out-reach opponents crashing on the run from the outside.
As the playoffs rolled along to the sixth game, it was Hillman's rebounding and defense, and even his shooting, which had not been too impressive before, that played a big hand in Indiana's survival. The Pacers, despite their year-long aimlessness, had typically pulled themselves together again to face the Stars.
In the seventh game Monday night they pulled hardest of all, breaking Utah's home streak and seizing the division title. The next stop for the Pacers is the finals—and any oddsmaker who puts a line on that contest had better add in the vagaries of a confounding spring.
WHEELING PAST Utah star Willie Wise, Indiana Pacer George McGinnis drives for basket.