Mel Daniels Itching for Shot at NBA Stars, 1971

[In late 1967, about two weeks into his rookie season, Mel Daniels and his Minnesota Muskies were in Teaneck National Guard Armory to face the New Jersey Americans. A young reporter named Ira Berkow ambled over to Daniels and asked, “What do you think of playing in the ABA?”

The ABA was brand-spanking-new, and Daniels was the only NBA first-round draft choice the year before to opt for the new league. Daniels hemmed and hawed and finally admitted it was, well, different “One thing is that red, white, and blue basketball,” Daniels said. “It’s hypnotizing to watch it rotating in the air. Kind of psychedelic.

“Another thing is that three-point rule for shots past 25 feet. I’m usually around the basket and never get out that far.” Daniels, paused, then broke into a smile, “Besides, I probably wouldn’t have the strength for it.”

Daniels would grow into the ABA and become one the league’s most-celebrated stars, though the average pro basketball denizen never got to see him play. ABA towns were mostly too small and too far between, and the league rarely appeared on national television. And yet, the comparisons between the NBA and ABA were non-stop, like comparing American and Soviet athletes during the Cold War.  

The interleague comparisons continue in this 1971 article on Daniels, now with the Indiana Pacers and in his fourth season shooting that mesmerizing basketball. Daniels is no longer bothered by the “different” league, and he’s anxious for the expected merger with the NBA. He wants to shoosh all the carping critics about the superior NBA big men just waiting to eat him up. 

Where Daniels actually rated among all the greats of this era, we’ll leave for the experts to settle. But there’s no doubt that Daniels, who passed away in 2015, felt overlooked and probably underappreciated for his stellar-turned-championship play. This article, which ran in the March 27, 1971 issue of The Sporting News, is written by a reporter who knew Daniels well. Dick Denny covered the Pacers for the Indianapolis News.]

Praise is sweet to Mel Daniels’ sensitive ears, especially when it comes from his rivals who have voted him Player of the Year in the American Basketball Association in a poll conducted by The Sporting News.

Yet, the Indianapolis Pacers’ star knows, more than anybody else, that if he never gets a chance to match his skills against those of Lew Alcindor, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, and Nate Thurmond, there always will be doubt in fans’ minds whether Mel Daniels really is a great center. 

That’s why the former University of New Mexico All-America is pulling so hard for a quick union of the two leagues. “I could hardly wait for a merger,” said the 26-year-old Daniels recently as he lay stretched out on a leather divan in the den of his luxurious home. The house is tastefully decorated with a mixture of African and Spanish artifacts gathered by his wife, Cecilia. 

Before elaborating, Daniels stressed, “I don’t think of myself as being the best center in the world, and it’s not my goal to play the NBA.”

That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Daniels explained why. “I don’t have any regrets about signing with the ABA. Good things come to him who waits, and good things are coming to me. The reason I’d like to play the NBA is not necessarily to prove anything, but just to show the world that basketball players are basketball players, whether they are in the NBA or the ABA. 

“Look at [quarterback] Len Dawson. They kinda snubbed him in the National Football League, then he got a chance to prove himself in the American Football League and won the Super Bowl. Len Dawson was a mind-changer, and that’s what we’re going to have to have. I personally think we’ve got ‘em in the ABA, if we only could have a merger to show it.”

What irritates Daniels more than anything is the preponderance of publicity the NBA receives. He recoils every time he hears the New York Knicks referred to as “world champions.” “It’s really disheartening to look at all the literature and see us (the ABA) pushed back in the end of magazines, while up front you see all about ‘the great NBA players,’” Mel said.

“And that Howard Cosell. He’s got to go. When he announced last year after the Knicks had beaten the Lakers, ‘You are truly the world champions of professional basketball,’ I had to turn off the TV. He had his own party, cake and ice cream, like the Knicks were the only team in the world. I said, ‘Oh no!’”

“Slick (Indiana coach Bob Leonard) said it’ll be another three or four years before we’re on the same level with the NBA, but I think we’re ready now. When the Pacers (who were champions of the ABA last season) are right, the Knicks would have a hard time beating us. Really, I don’t think we should have to establish the right to play the NBA. Why can’t they want to play us?”

Even today, with all of his honors and last year’s title, Daniels realizes his own reputation is suspect to many when writer after writer punches away at the same old bromide: “The ABA is guard-oriented and lacks the good big men that populate the NBA.”

Mel can’t quite forget how one magazine said he came to the Pacers from Minnesota for what amounted to “a cup of coffee.” It is this kind of slam that has goaded Daniels into continuous hard work to improve himself. 

“Mel is playing great right now,” said Leonard. “He keeps improving and improving and improving, and the reason is because he’s a competitor, a winner. I had Walt Bellamy at Baltimore, and he’s a loser. Mel is a winner. 

“When he isn’t playing good offense, he’s playing good defense. And when he isn’t playing good defense, he’s playing good offense. And when he’s not playing good offense or good defense, he’s rebounding. Mel mixes the three together as much as you possibly can. 

“He definitely is one of the top 10 pivotmen I’ve seen, and we’re going back 20 years. I’m thinking about guys like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor, George Mikan, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, and Clyde Lovellette.

“Chamberlain can’t shoot as well as Mel, and he doesn’t have his desire. I’ve been here three years, and Mel never has dogged it once. I’d say Mel also is as good now as Thurmond was at the same age.”

How does Daniels think he would do against NBA pivotmen?

“I think I can play on a par with centers in the NBA,” he said. “I don’t think they would dominate me. A merger would remove all doubts in the minds of the fans and writers. I read an article that said Willis Reed would completely destroy me. Well, I figure Reed doesn’t weigh any more than Tom Hoover, and I did okay against him for two years. 

“I think I’m just as strong as any of ‘em, and I feel I could hold my own against Alcindor and Chamberlain, as well as any other centers in the NBA. And I would have a small advantage over Chamberlain, because he doesn’t come out and play the centers. I think I have a fairly decent jump shot. 

“The question I keep asking myself is: ‘Can they play against me?’ That may sound cocky, but they haven’t proved a thing to me. They’re just players playing against other players, which has been my point all along. 

“They say guys like Darrell Imhoff and Walt Wesley have proved themselves. That’s awful. Westley Unseld. Ugh!  That really kills me. And Elvin Hayes is my age, but he means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t think he knows any more about the game than I do. He has played against Alcindor, Reed, and Chamberlain, and that might be the only thing he has on me. 

“Of all the NBA centers, because of their mobility along with their size, Alcindor and Chamberlain are the ones I respect the most.”

Daniels said he has no burning desire to be a superstar. “Bill Russell was a true superstar,” he explained. “He didn’t score a lot, but he got the job done. I have a lot of admiration for him.

“If I want to be known as anything, it’s a rebounder, not a scorer. Scoring just comes, but not rebounding. You have to work at it. I just want to be part of a winning team. Last year was the first time I’ve been with a winner, and it was a great feeling.”

Daniels’ rebounding credentials are blue-ribbon. On February 15, he became the first player in the ABA to reach 5,000 rebounds when he got 22 against Texas in the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. After his 17th, which Mel grabbed off the offensive board to stuff a shot with 58 seconds left in the third quarter, referee Joe Gushue stopped the game and awarded Daniels the game ball. 

Only three other players reached 5,000 rebounds by their fourth pro seasons—Chamberlain (Wilt did it in his third season), Russell, and Bellamy. Thurmond and Reed didn’t gain that plateau until their fifth seasons. 

Through that Texas game—his 295th in regular season play as a pro—Daniels had 5,005 rebounds for a 16.9 average. His average this season—his best—is 18.5. 

ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph announces that Daniels has been selected MVP of league’s 1971 All-Star Game.

When he talks about his contract negotiations with Cincinnati, the NBA team that drafted him, his smile crosses Daniels’ face. “Now it’s a big joke,” he chuckled quietly, “but it wasn’t then. I remember it was rainy and miserable when I got to Cincinnati from Albuquerque, where the sun was shining. I wasn’t feeling well. 

“When I sat down to talk contract with Pepper Wilson, who was the general manager then, I really got sick. They offered me $14,000 in salary [today worth $114,000] and $6,000 in bonus without a no-cut contract. Pepper said it was the best they could offer, don’t ask for anything more.

“When he said $14,000, I said, ‘Is that bonus?’ He said, ‘No, that’s salary.’ I had to ask him again. I was hurt, shattered, completely destroyed. You have a vision in college that you’re pretty good, and I thought being All-America was worth a little more than $14,000. I left before my three days were up. 

“When I got home, I talked with Cecilia . . . we weren’t married then (they became man and wife on October 2, 1967) . . . and we decided to start high with Minnesota. So I asked for $35,000. I signed for $29,500. It was a three-year contract with a salary of $22,500, a no-cut and all the business.  

“Money was the No. 1 reason I signed with the ABA. No. 2 was the league was new and, after that, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the NBA centers. I just wish Cincinnati would be the first team we play if a merger comes and that Pepper would somehow be with the club.”

Daniels won’t say what he’s making now. He renegotiated his contract last season, and it’s estimated his salary is between $40,000 and $50,000. “I don’t know what the NBA players make,” he said. “I came out of college at a bad time. But I’m just as happy with my pay as they are with theirs.”

“I don’t want to rob the game, because this is how I got my start. If it wasn’t for basketball, I’d be working in a factory or be in jail. Before basketball, I was a thief. Not an out-and-out thief, but I would steal hubcaps, things like that. My parents were good., it was just the group I was with. 

“When I was in high school (Pershing in Detroit, the school that also turned out Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson), I began looking like a Class A hood, with my hair all plastered down. 

“One day in 1961, I turned the corner in the hall and bumped into Will Robinson, the basketball coach. He said, ‘Son, where have you been? You’re going to play basketball.’ He gave me a size 14 pair of sneakers, told me to cut my hair, and ordered me to come to practice the next day. 

“I was pathetic. The only thing I really loved was music. But Will Robinson kept after me, and now I try to teach the same things he taught me to my team of 11-to-16-year-olds in Albuquerque. “It’s not just black people,” Daniels emphasized. “It’s not just Indians, and it’s not just whites. It’s all people who need help.” 

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