Ex-Pacers have fond memories of Coliseum
Bill Byrd's memories remain as vivid as ever.
Sitting a couple of rows from the end of the court for a few dollars. Billy Keller going 9-for-11 from 3-point range. Darnell Hillman's Afro waving in the air as he took off on a breakaway
Being close enough to hear Mel Daniels and Zelmo Beaty under the basket. Coach Bob "Slick'' Leonard's wild wardrobe.
Those images are from the early days of the Indiana Pacers and their first home court, Pepsi Coliseum on the Indiana Fairgrounds. The Pacers called it home from Oct. 14, 1967, through the 1973-74 season.
"There's just something about basketball in Indiana that resonates with a lot of us," said Byrd, a Manual High School graduate
who began attending games with his wife Vicki in the late 1960s.
"They were close with the fans. You could go to the airport and welcome home the champs. I remember standing in the mass of humanity and the players walked through the crowd. (Bob) Netolicky and Daniels came through, and I'm looking at their elbows. There was just a real closeness."
The Pacers, who return to the Coliseum tonight for their preseason opener against New Orleans, were exceptional in the early days. During those seven seasons in the coliseum, they won three American Basketball Association titles, lost in the finals another time and reached the equivalent of the conference finals two other seasons.
They beat teams led by players such as Connie Hawkins, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore and George Gervin.
It was more than winning, though, much more, to the players and fans.
"It was almost like all of Central Indiana was one big high school and we were the high school's players," Netolicky said. "You could almost look into the stands and recognize everyone. You might not know their names, but you could wave to them and feel like you knew them."
The Pacers' stars were Daniels, George McGinnis and Roger Brown. Five retired numbers hang from the rafters at the Pacers current home, Conseco Fieldhouse, and four trace back to their glory days at the coliseum: Daniels, McGinnis, Brown and Leonard.
"It was unsurpassed loyalty," Daniels said of the bond players felt with fans. "It's almost hard to get that unless you're a Green Bay Packer or somebody who had the tradition we had back in the day."
The ABA used the red, white and blue basketball. The Pacers had plenty of personality. Leonard's wardrobe was always entertaining
. The coliseum was almost always packed, especially after the Pacers lost to Oakland 4-1 in the 1969 ABA finals, a year before beating the Los Angeles Stars 4-2 for their first title.
The coliseum, a bandbox with nary a bad seat, was jumping.
"It was standing room only," said Leonard, now a broadcaster with the Pacers. "You could smoke there then and it was smoke-filled. Beer was about 30 cents a bottle, so the fans could come in early and by game time, they were ready to rock and roll. It was so much fun.
"Larry (Brown) wore some stuff that was off the charts, too. Dr. J and Darnell had the two biggest Afros in the league. Leisure suits were very popular, and I had about a half dozen of them, all different colors."
At the 1997 ABA reunion, Hillman received a plaque for the biggest ABA Afro.
"It was slightly bigger than the basketball," Hillman said. "When I'd run down the floor, it'd move. I showed Julius how to grow and do his."
Even the entertainment was memorable. The Pacers often brought in "Dancing Harry," who had a routine to the song "Long Tall Glasses," that he ended with a pointing gesture that was considered "putting the whammy on the opponent."
Leonard won 529 games
, but an unofficial game remains one of his best memories.
After the 1973 season, the ABA champion Pacers played the NBA champion Knicks at a time when the leagues were competing for players.
"It was basically a grudge match," Leonard recalled.
The Knicks of Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley won the NBA title, beating the Los Angeles Lakers with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
"The Knicks came into town the night before and we had a little event, and Bill Bradley got up and kind of made fun of Indianapolis and the Pacers. The night of the game, Roger Brown said, 'Let me have Bradley.'
"Roger hit him with 26 points in the first half and by the end of the third quarter, we had that famous New York Knick team down 17."
The Pacers won. They moved to Market Square Arena for the 1974-75 season and in 1976, the ABA and NBA merged.
The connections to the coliseum remain.
Byrd, now 62 and a Web designer for an insurance company, still plays pickup basketball in his driveway. Just don't expect him to use anything other than his red, white and blue ball.