VIDEO: Daniels passes away at 71
Big, strong and firm. And that was just his handshake.
That description fit Mel Daniels in a lot of ways — the way he played, the footprint he left in the ABA, his booming voice and yes, the way he gripped your hand, whether you were a stranger or friend. That way, you could never forget Daniels, whether you saw him play or not.
He died suddenly Friday at 71 and the loss was felt heaviest with the Pacers, the franchise he helped carry to prominence in the ABA which allowed Indiana a seamless transition to the NBA. Daniels is a Hall of Famer who won a pair of MVP awards and was named to seven All-Star teams.
“Words cannot express the depth of my sadness today,” said Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller. “Mel Daniels was a Father figure, brother, consigliore, but most of all MY UNCLE MEL. He helped raise me into the man I am. I hope I made him proud in everything I tried to do on but more importantly off the basketball court. My heart goes out to CeCe and the Daniels family.”
He was a prototypical center who, although undersized by today’s standards at 6-9, played much larger and more physical than his height suggested. Burly and rugged, Daniels led the ABA in rebounding three times and finished as that league’s all-timer in that category with 9,494 in his eight years, six with the Pacers. He was elected to the Hall by the ABA committee in 2012.
Along with the great Roger Brown, Daniels helped the Pacers to three ABA titles and helped place the professional game on the same lofty basketball pedestal in Indiana as high school and college. He won Rookie of the Year and then MVP in 1969 and ’71 and, along with Artis Gilmore, was recognized as one of the league’s most physically-imposing players.
Perhaps basketball greatness was ingrained in Daniels from the start. After all, he was born and raised in Detroit, where the city game thrived, and attended Pershing High School, which later produced Spencer Haywood, Ralph Simpson and Steve Smith, all of whom performed at a high level in pro basketball. Daniels played collegiately at New Mexico and was the ninth pick of the 1967 draft, taken two spots after Pat Riley.
But rather than play for Cincinnati and alongside Oscar Robertson, Daniels chose the ABA and achieved instant success. He played his first two seasons in Minnesota, winning top rookie honors. But the Muskies failed at the box office and owner Larry Shields was so strapped for cash to pay debts that he sold Daniels to the Pacers and later parted with a share of the team to a group of businessmen in Florida, who relocated the franchise to Miami.
Once Daniels arrived, the Pacers soared. By teaming him with Brown, Indiana became one of the ABA’s strongest franchises. It could be argued that the Daniels purchase not only helped Indiana become of the league’s healthiest franchise, but paved the way for Indiana to keep its franchise when the merger with the NBA happened in 1976. Therefore, buying Daniels was akin to buying a winning lottery ticket.
Daniels had only a cup of coffee in the NBA, he played briefly with the Nets in 1976-77. He left and became an assistant coach in college, and once again Daniels’ timing was excellent: He was on the staff at Indiana State when Larry Bird transferred from Indiana.
That relationship would prove beneficial many years later. Daniels left the college game to work in the front office for the Pacers, and when Larry Bird took over the franchise operations, he kept Daniels aboard in a variety of roles, mainly in personnel. Daniels was the team’s director of player personnel until 2009.
Daniels appeared at the Pacers’ home game Thursday. He was an avid horseman and owned a 100-acre horse farm outside Indianapolis. His number 34 hangs in the rafters.
VIDEO: Daniels’ 2012 Hall of Fame speech