Book review: ‘We Changed The Game’

 

 

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By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 12, 2019) — A basketball book featuring jacket-cover quotes by Bob Costas (on the front) and Peter Vecsey and Sam Smith (on the back) delivers a stamp of authenticity that cannot be refuted.

The 2018 book “We Changed The Game” is an important addition to the documented history of the short-lived American Basketball Association, the 1960s and 1970s sports landscape in the United States and the challenges of upstart leagues, the economic realities of the aforementioned era and the ups and downs of the Indiana Pacers financially, as well as the team’s long list of accomplishments.

We Changed The Game was a labor of love for three men connected to the Pacers from their earliest days. Bob “Neto” Netolicky, the late Richard Tinkham (he passed away at age 86 in October 2018) and Robin Miller shared stories, anecdotes, scene-setting narratives and ample doses of game and team facts and stats sprinkled throughout the 174-page text. (Former Indianapolis Mayor and U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar also penned a fascinating short chapter detailing how federal revenue sharing during the Nixon presidency helped secure construction of Market Square Arena, which opened in 1974.)

The three authors say it best by bouncing from topic to topic, not dwelling too long on minutiae. It turns out to be an ideal mix of individuals because of their different roles and associations with the Pacers: Neto the former player, Miller the former newspaper reporter and Tinkham the former team executive.

Thirty-nine short chapters are loaded with memories and packed with a punch.

The authors don’t take themselves too seriously, but accentuate the narrative with serious matters enough to remind the reader of the financial pitfalls the ABA and the three-time champion Pacers encountered.

In other words, real people’s livelihoods, fears and concerns.

We Changed The Game is also filled with a vast collection of historic black and white photos and newspaper images, the latter to provide a glimpse into how the Pacers and the ABA were covered in those days.

What’s more, the book, which supports the Dropping Dimes Foundation, also published historic legal documents, letters and memos to help the average sports fan or reader begin to understand the legal challenges the Pacers and the ABA faces — lawsuits, detailed outlines of the eventual absorption of ABA clubs (Nets, Spurs, Nuggets and Pacers), for instance.

A young lawyer named David Stern, working for the NBA, is involved in a bulk of the legal correspondence.

One of those letters is reprinted over four pages in the book. Written by Tinkham, it begins this way: “Dear David: At the risk of creating yet another ‘document’ in this paper war, I would like to discuss in writing some thoughts that I have about settlement. This letter is sent with the usual disclaimers in that I have not discussed anything which follows with any of my clients. They are my thoughts alone.

“I need not to tell you that the two leagues and the Players’ Association are engaged in a war of attrition from which no party is able to withdraw.”

There’s a delightful mix of fun and games reporting, too.

Such as this passage from early in the book: “There will never be anything like the ABA or those early Pacer days because everything today is too corporate, too professional, and too buttoned-down.

“From 1969 to 1974, the Pacers were a family, a tight-knit group that didn’t have any prejudices or cliques and partied together as hard as they played. They traveled commercial, got $7 a day in per diem, and got paid more in memories than money.

“Bobby Leonard taught them how to win, and the Coliseum rocked louder than when the Beatles played there in 1964.”

Legal counsel Tinkham, as the book noted, operated as the team’s unofficial GM and was a voice of reason as the Pacers and ABA were hoping to stay alive with some shrewd maneuvers and on-the-fly decisions.

***

Stepping back and reading the book with the view in mind that it’s a time capsule that takes the reader back to the wild 1960s and early 1970s gives one a sense of how and why the characters acted, thought and events that happened.

For example, in the preface, Robin Miller, “Jimmy Olsen cub reporter,” reminisces about his experiences being around the team.

“To be a teenage college dropout writing for the largest newspaper in Indiana was almost unheard of in the ’60s. To be nineteen and helping cover the Indiana Pacers was pretty much an unbelievable stroke of luck.

“But, thanks to Pacers general manager Mike Storen and my bosses at the Indianapolis Star — John Bansch and Cy McBride — all the planets aligned back in 1969 and I was given an opportunity that rarely exited then or now. I wasn’t the beat writer; I was the sidebar/feature guy. But Storen sensed my enthusiasm, so he offered to fly me to a lot of the away games and provide me with a room because he wisely knew it was a good investment — I cranked out more positive PR than he could ever buy.

“So the stories weren’t exactly hard-hitting, but it was my entree into learning how to write, interview people, cuss, play poker, talk to a female, and come of age. Slick taught me how to read a racing form, what a good poker face looked like, and why ‘fuck’ can be an adjective, noun, or verb.”

***

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Robin Miller, George McGinnis, Bob Netolicky and Bobby “Slick” Leonard.

And there’s splendid character portraits sprinkled throughout the book.

To wit:

On legendary forward Roger Brown: “Roger was a great talent but kinda laid back and quiet, so you had to find the button to push to turn him on,” said Leonard. “He’d been through a lot and didn’t trust anybody, and I tried the friendly approach but that didn’t work … So I left him home on a road trip and that really got to him. If he wasn’t going to perform, I wasn’t going to baby him, and that changed his whole attitude. It scared him … but it worked, and we were close friends from that point on.”

On star guard Freddie Lewis: “I was gung-ho,” Lewis recalled with a laugh. “I knew Mike (Storen) at Cincinnati and I believed in him, plus he was a good salesman. And it didn’t hurt that he gave me a bonus and a three-year contract and we signed it on a napkin. I was playing behind Oscar (Robertson) and Mike wanted me to be the captain, and I thought the ABA would succeed because there were only ten teams in the NBA then and so many good guys looking for a place to play.”

On dynamic forward Bob Netolicky: “The odds of Bob Netolicky becoming a professional basketball player were about as long as the reach on his 6-9 frame. In truth, he had a much better shot at becoming a pool hustler that drank beer for breakfast. But, in one of those odysseys that made the ABA the improbable league that it was, Neto not only found his way to the Pacers, he became a true basketball star and the beloved free spirit that could make Bobby Leonard cheer and cuss in the same breath. “I had to get on Neto all the time,” Leonard confesses, “and sometimes I wanted to strangle him, but he was clutch and a smart basketball player that I really came to like. He was a big part of our success.”

On Indianapolis native George McGinnis: “I said there had been one more underclass signing that nobody knew about yet and he (Sam Schulman, Seattle SuperSonics owner) yells, ‘What idiot did that?’ I told him it was me,” Tinkham said. “I signed George McGinnis because I was getting nervous, so he said, ‘Okay, but don’t tell anybody.’ ”

On the troubled Reggie Harding: “I was his unofficial bodyguard but I couldn’t keep track of Reggie, nobody could,” says Oliver Darden. “We were playing in New Jersey one night and no Reggie. He told me he was going to get a haircut and he finally shows up at halftime. I said, ‘Where have you been?’ and he said he got talking to a friend and lost track of time. Of course he didn’t get a haircut either.

“Harding was always packing heat; obviously there were no security checks at the airports back then, and his loaded gun created some dramas. ‘One trip he pulled out his gun, the stewardess ran up to tell the pilot and he said he was landing immediately and Reggie had to get off the plane,’ continues Darden. But Coach (Larry) Staverman said he’d take complete responsibility and convinced the pilot not to make an emergency landing.”

On inside anchor Mel Daniels: Offensively, I had carte blanche at Minnesota, so at our first practice I took an 18-footer and Slick stopped practice and screamed: ‘If you take another shot beyond fifteen feet, I’ll break your nose,’ ” Daniels recalled. “He told me to get down on the block. And I did.”

That was the message that Daniels needed to hear. He became a transformative force for the Pacers in the low post, anchoring their three title-winning clubs and record five ABA Finals appearances. He averaged 24 points and 16 rebounds to lead Indiana to its first ABA Finals appearance in Slick’s first season in charge, 1968-69. (Leonard replaced Staverman after a 2-7 start.)

“He was a psychopath in the games and the quietest guy off the court,” Netolicky says of Daniels, a dear friend for decades after their playing days. “He was vicious inside and he thought every rebound was his.

“Mel was Bill Russell with an offensive game. He was just as mean and strong as Russell too.”

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Dropping Dimes Foundation party for George McGinnis’ Hall of Fame election in April 2017.

***

There are also reminders of the Pacers’ brilliance as a battle-tested team during their glory years.

The big numbers — like McGinnis’ 31 points and 17 rebounds and 36 and 18 in Games 3 and 4 against the Utah Stars in the 1973 playoffs — illuminate the bigger picture of a composed, mature team.

Or Brown’s epic Game 4 in the 1970 ABA Finals against the Los Angeles Stars, a 53-point outburst, followed by 39 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in Game 5.

In the title-clinching game, The Rajah erupted for 45 points, nailing seven 3-pointers. Sound familiar? That style of play became a template eventually emulated by the NBA.

And sometimes the tiny details are just as vital. Example: Game 2 vs. Utah, when Lewis buries six consecutive free throws in the last 60 seconds of a tight game.

In an era when numerous teams folded or moved in the ABA, the Pacers were always on the edge of the financial cliff, too. The team didn’t rake in billions in TV revenue. And the original investment price tag to get an ABA franchise was $6,000. The team’s initial TV contract: $2,500 with Channel 4 in 1967.

The book comes full circle in documenting the team’s earliest days in comparison with the big business of the NBA today.

And going back to the Pacers’ serious challenges and times when the team needed a virtual miracle to avoid folding. Local investors and partners helped save the day on more than one occasion.

The fact the team survived the entire ABA era, as the book documented exhaustively, is a testament to the tireless efforts of Tinkham and many others.

The early financial woes, in fact, are spelled out from the get-go in the book. “Win or Turn Off the Lights,” are the words printed right below “Prologue,” and that grabs your attention.

Tinkham is quoted as saying that the team had lost $300,000 in its first year in the ABA.

For the Pacers, Game 7 of their ABA playoffs first-round series against the Kentucky Colonels in April 1969 was a “must win” for the franchise, not only to advance in the playoffs, but to stave off closing up shop. “I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t won that seventh game against Kentucky,” Tinkham says. “I doubt we would have ever become the city and the downtown we are today.”

Decades later, Slick Leonard revisits the night of the memorable victory over the Colonels. “It was a night of great acceptance and a turning point for the franchise,” he says in the book, which reported that the coach was “carried off the floor by jubilant fans.”

That victory was Indiana’s first sold-out crowd since its opener in ’67, and it came at an absolutely necessary time.

“It had a major league atmosphere and we beat our arch rivals. But I wasn’t aware we would have folded if we lost. Nobody said anything to me.”

That was by design, according to Tinkham, who didn’t tell GM Storen either.

“I couldn’t tell anybody because I didn’t know what was going to happen other than we were done. …. The board was playing things day-to-day hoping it would work. I knew it was tenuous because nobody wanted to put in any more money,” says Tinkham, who also stated, “I knew we had to keep winning to stay afloat.”

Years later, a telethon was needed to save the Pacers again.

In 1977, after Indiana had completed its first season in the NBA (36-46 record), the team needed cash. An investor had guaranteed $750,000 to keep the team in Indy, but it came with a big if: 8,000 season tickets for the next campaign.

Only 5,720 were reportedly sold.

Slick Leonard’s wife, Nancy, admitted in the book that desperate times called for desperate measures. “We got into the NBA against all odds and we had no choice but to try a telethon.”

That happened on July 3-4, 1977 (10 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.), at the Indiana Convention Center in the 500 Ballroom. Channel 4 aired the full telethon; Channels 6 and 13 broadcast some of it. Among the luminaries who made “videotaped pleas” were Gov. Otis Brown, Indiana University hoop coach Bob Knight and ABC Sports announcer Chris Schenkel. The entire team was on hand to assist in the efforts.

The plan was to raise money and buy tickets for various charities.

Phone donations trickled in for $5, $10 and $20 mostly, according to the book. But it become truly a multi-generational fund-raising endeavor as “a few kids gave up their piggy banks while a couple others went door-to-door in their neighborhoods collecting pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.”

In the end, those efforts paid off.

The telethon secured 1,300 season ticket donors and beat the deadline.

“It was a pretty emotional situation,” said Leonard, now 86, a Pacers color commentator these days. “But the whole city responded.”

That’s not typical behind-the-scenes material from a book on modern sports in the big-money era. But it’s a powerful reminder that even the big-time teams faced difficulties not so long ago.

***

What resonates in the book’s rapid movement from tale to tale is the definite joy that the participants had and the unique experiences they shared.

David Craig joined the Pacers in 1970 as a 23-year-old athletic trainer. He witnessed the on- and off-the-court antics that made the Pacers the Pacers.

“It was like nothing I expected,” Craig recalled. “At halftime some of our stars were smoking cigarettes along with Slick and sometimes Mel and Roger would pull out their guns and have a quick-draw contest.

“One night I took one of their guns, went outside, aimed at the sky and pulled the trigger and a bullet came out. So I went to slick and told him that guns had to be outlawed in the locker room because it was too dangerous.”

***

On one road trip, Miller, then 20, and Pacers shooting guard Steve “Chube” Chubin were roommates during a stay in Miami. Miller was handed $5 and stepped out to visit the local movie theater; for Chubin, meanwhile, the room heated up: adult activities with a buxom bombshell, Miller recounted in the book.

“One night in Denver, Chube was shacked up with a smokin’ hot stewardess and when I returned from the movies and knocked on the door, he cracked it open and told me to go find Slick’s room number,” Miller recalled. “I did, and when I returned and walked into Chube’s room, there lay a gorgeous, naked young lady — passed out from too much wine.

“Steve’s playing time had decreased in the past couple of weeks, so he decided to get on his coach’s good side and gave him a present. Let’s call her ‘Susie.’ Slick was asleep when I pounded on the door, and Chube handed over this naked stranger and ran back to his room. Slick ordered me to go get her clothes; he poured some coffee into her and called a cab. But Chube’s gesture nonetheless was appreciated, because he started the next night.”

The local night life in Indianapolis is also revisited, explaining how Neto in the Meadows, Netolicky’s new establishment opened in 1970, was a unique nightclub that served blacks and whites in an era when segregated socializing was the norm in Indy. (ABA referees also visited the joint. Of course they were given free drinks.)

***

Brutal honesty sums up the book’s best attributes.

The three aforementioned jacket-cover quotes don’t hurt, either.

Costas, the former voice of the Spirits of St. Louis: “If you loved the ABA as I did, or are simply curious about a fascinating slice of sports history, you will love this book.”

Vecsey: “Demeaned and devalued by NBA snobs and its ill-informed factions, we had chips on our shoulders the size of manhole covers. We were obsessed on gaining equal eyeballs, corresponding appreciation and identical idolatry. The Pacers of Slick, Mel, Roger, George, Neto, Freddie, Darnell, Buse, Keller and company attained all that and had a blast doin’ it.”

Smith: “The ABA never had the finances to compete, but its rollicking history was a blueprint for the freewheeling and fabulous NBA of today.”

There is some unnecessary minor repetition of stories and facts in the book and sometimes they overlap in close proximity, but the overall retelling of the info is often just as good the second time around. The book also stated that David Stern served as NBA commissioner for over 20 years. He ran the show for 30 years before retiring.

We Changed The Game is an essential addition to the annals of basketball history and any sports fan’s bookshelf.

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Forner Pacers teammates Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, Darnell Hillman, Billy Keller, Jerry Harkness, Bob Netolicky, Billy Knight and George McGinnis.

 

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