INDIANAPOLIS – May 25th is a special day for the Indiana Pacers.
It’s the day the franchise clinched its first ABA championship, considered the first major professional sports title for the city of Indianapolis.
“That 1970 championship was kind of a break-through for the city, the first big team championship,” said Pacers.com writer Mark Montieth.
The story of the Pacers ’70 championship began the year before in Oakland where the Oaks beat Indiana for the 1969 title.
“We were heartbroken in ’69,” recalled guard Freddie Lewis who played on the team from 1967 to 74 and then again in ’76-77. “We were just determined to come back with a better and a stronger attitude.”
That attitude led to the best record in the league and the top seed in the playoffs. The Pacers swept Carolina in the first round. Then beat their biggest rival, Kentucky four games to one to advance to the finals against the western division champ, the Los Angeles Stars.
“We just got better as the year went on,” remembered Bob Netolicky, a forward on the team from ’67-76. “We just had the chemistry. We all knew our role and we all complimented each other.”
The Pacers won game one at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum behind 22-points from Lewis.
In game two, Netolicky had 32-points, 15-rebounds and Hall of Famer Mel Daniels contributed 31 and 27, the first of two 27-rebound games for Daniels in the series as Indiana went up 2-0 in a nationally-televised game.
“The lighting was all different,” laughed Lewis. “The atmosphere was a little different and we just felt like we were on center stage.”
The scene then shifted to Southern California. The Stars took game three, setting up a pivotal game four where Hall of Famer Roger Brown would take control with a little motivation.
“This guy came over and passed this note to Roger from some very good-looking girl in the stands and it said on the note, ‘the first time you touch the ball shoot a three’,” Neolicky laughed. “Mel knew who to tap the ball to. Literally, Roger took two steps and shot a 40-foot three and he made it.”
It was the first three points of 53 total for Brown, a Pacers’ playoff record.
“He always came up big and he would tell you, when money’s on the line, I’ll be there,” said Pacers’ Hall of Fame coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard.
“You get Roger on a roll. Nobody in the world’s going to stop him,” Netolicky added.
The Pacers won by 22 to take a commanding three-one series lead. They returned to Indiana with a chance to clinch.
“We had every thing ready in the locker room. We had champagne. The fans were excited about the win,” remembered Billy Keller, a guard on the team from ’69-76.
But it didn’t happen. The Stars won in overtime to force a game six.
“It’s all my fault we didn’t win game five,” Netolicky laughed.
“Bob Netolicky went water skiing the day before the game up at Morse Reservoir and came to this game, a little sore, shoulders tight,” Montieth said.
“I could barely get my arms over my head, so I think I shot about seven air balls that I normally would have made,” Neolicky divulged. “I waited 20 years to tell Slick the story.”
All would be forgiven two days later in L.A. as Brown scored 45-points and the Pacers won the ABA championship.
“That’s the greatest feeling. Winning is what it’s all about,” said Leonard.
“It’s like pandemonium.” Keller said. “It’s like you’ve heard the phrase ‘kid in a candy store’ and that’s exactly like what we were.”
“In all of our hearts, we knew that we did something special,” said Lewis.
“There’s no other experience like it. You’ve reached the pinnacle,” Netolicky said. “We were almost crying in the locker room.”
The celebration was on. The team returned home and was honored in the Indy 500 parade.
The crown was the first of three ABA titles and helped establish Indianapolis as a major sports city.
“It gave the people of the city the feeling that better things were to come and sure enough, better things did come,” explained Leonard.
“Look what happened. We got an NFL team. We had the Super Bowl,” Netolicky added. “I think it all started back there in those Coliseum days.”
And Indy sports fans have been enjoying the benefits since then.