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Jan 15, 2021

To mark the start of the new season for the Indiana Pacers , we will time travel more than 50 years back to explore the history that led up to their debut game against the Kentucky Colonels in the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. The new team was part of an upstart professional league, the colorful American Basketball Association (ABA), and before any of the players had even scored a point, much civic, social and sports history already had been made.

Mark MontiethTwo previous pro basketball teams based in Indianapolis had died. One of them, the Indianapolis Olympianswent down in scandal.

Efforts at putting together the Pacers team had met a variety of challenges. Unsuccessful attempts had been made to woo household names in Indiana - including former high school basketball sensations Oscar Robertson and identical twins Tom and Dick Van Arsdale - to be part of the Pacers organization. And some of the African-American players who had been signed to the team encountered challenges finding housing in the Hoosier capital due to the racial discrimination that was unfortunately common at the time.

To explore the rich history of the early era of the Pacers - including the years immediately following the team's first game in 1967 - Nelson is joined in studio by veteran sports journalist Mark Montieth in this encore of a show originally broadcast in 2017. As a boy growing up in Indy, Mark listened to the debut Pacers game on the radio. He is the author of  Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis (Cardinal Publishing Group).

In the early 1960s, Mark writes, the Hoosier capital was growing, "yet it had no national sports identity beyond the Indianapolis 500."

Pacers guard Freddie Lewis engages a referee in polite conversation during a timeout in the Pacers' second season.Civic and business leaders wanted to change that. The result was a team that won three national championships in the ABA, which eventually merged with the National Basketball Association (NBA). As a sportswriter at The Indianapolis Star, Mark Montieth covered the Pacers for 12 of the team's NBA seasons.

Early games in the ABA often were raucous, and fighting among the players was common. Several of the early Pacers were regarded as wild characters, including fan favorites Bob Netolicky and Mel Daniels.

The starting salaries of early Pacers players? According to Reborn, one aspiring Pacer signed a contract for $10,000 (that would be about $78,000 in 2020), with the possibility of a $2,000 bonus.

The ABA was distinctive for its red, white and blue basketball and the introduction to the pro game of the 3-point shot. "The Pacers were born and raised in a league and an era unlike any other in the history of professional sports," Mark writes in Reborn.

The future of the team and of the league were considered so uncertain that Bobby "Slick" Leonard (the former high school basketball star from Terre Haute who later coached the Pacers to the national championships) was so wary of giving up a secure job as a salesman for class rings that he didn't initially seek the coaching opportunity.

Some early players were essentially being offered second chances to achieve hoops glory. In high school and college, Netolicky was "more motivated to have fun than to play basketball" and had exotic pets such as an ocelot and a boa constrictor, according to Reborn. His eventual teammate Roger Brown had taken a factory job on the night shift after his links to a gambler ended opportunities as a player in college and with the NBA.

Other Pacers history facts:

  • Although Reborn indicates that it remains unclear who originally suggested "Pacers" as the team's name, initial announcements referenced the harness horse racetrack at the Fairgrounds near the Pacers' home court at the Coliseum (a pacer is a type of racehorse). Initial reports also referred to the Indy 500, which features a pace car.
  • The team's colors, blue and gold, have remained the same for 50 years and are a tribute to the state's official colors - as seen, for example, on the state flag.
  • Seven of the 12 players on the starting roster were African American. "That amounted to a bold statement in 1967," Mark writes in Reborn. "Most NBA teams were adhering to an unspoken color barrier that kept rosters half-white at the bare minimum. Even the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, representing the nation's largest and most cosmopolitan cities, conformed."