It was a cool, breezy day in Indianapolis and Dick Tinkham was sitting in his law office pondering ways to drum up business. He had recently taken on the responsibility of gaining new clients for his firm, but at this point things were going a bit slow.
The sports editor from the Indianapolis Star had recently approached him and a client named John Devoe, a client of Tinkham's as well as a partner when they developed Indiana's first indoor tennis club, about joining a basketball league known as ‘The Lively League', which only allowed players 6'0' and under. A basketball player in high school, college and the Marine Corps, Tinkham knew that the idea was a bit ridiculous, but it was something that may have been able to get some awareness for their firm.
After further consideration and a lack of interest in posting the $6,000 fee to join the league, Tinkham went back to the drawing board. It was around this time that he and Devoe had been approached by the same sports editor, this time pitching them on the idea of a league known as the ‘American Basketball Association.'
Rather than the Lively League, the ABA was going to try to compete head to head with the NBA, dipping into markets that the larger league had overlooked. With a $5,000 buy-in and the knowledge of Indiana's love for basketball, Tinkham and Devoe decided to jump at this opportunity.
A representative of Tinkham and Devoe flew out to New York to meet with the other investors in the ABA and was shocked at what he was seeing. The room was full of investors, but with such a low buy-in there were owners that were trying to purchase multiple teams. The investors who met there decided to re-convene in New Orleans and while there agreed to post $100,000 performance bonds which eliminated multiple team owners.
Tinkham and Devoe were still fully on board, so they and their partners came up with the $100,000 performance bond and started the process of creating the Indiana Pacers.
The league stood at 11 teams, but there still had to be decisions made in regards to the overall structure and organization of the league. The first move made by the original eleven ownership groups was a simple one, but it caused waves among the basketball world.
The ownership group hired George Mikan, the former NBA star who had retired about a decade prior. With this move, the ABA began their revolution.
"Mikan came in and right away suggested the red, white and blue ball. He felt that the brown ball couldn't be seen on television and this ended up being a great idea because it really helped distinguish us as being different. Along with that, we decided to add the three-point play, even though it had a lot of resistance then we've seen how it has changed the game today," Tinkham said, in an interview with Indy Cornrows.
The overall setup of the league was complete, but the Pacers were no more than a name. Tinkham and Devoe knew that they had to get to work in filling out the front office and he began by giving a call to a friend he had met in the Marines.
"Mike Storen and I had gone through the Marine Corps together and he was from the area. After we left the Marine Corps, he went to work for the Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA and at the time we started the league, he was the Assistant General Manager with the Cincinnati Royals."
He continued, "It was during the first quarter of the year in 1967 when I called him and told him what we were doing with the league, and he said that there was no way we would have the league running by the fall, so he wasn't interested. We offered it around Indianapolis and no one took it, so I called him back and for whatever reason he decided to take it. He brought an enormous energy and creativity and was the reason that the thing got off to a great start."
Storen's first step on the basketball operations side was reaching out to Roger Brown, a standout high school player who had been banned from both the NCAA and the NBA after he had allegedly been involved in a point-shaving scheme.
He had heard of Brown through Oscar Robertson, who had played with the Royals while Storen was in the front office. Immediately after accepting the job, Storen got Brown on the phone and the two agreed to a contract.
It wasn't long after that the ABA held their first draft, where Indiana selected twelve players. While they had chosen enough players to fill out an entire roster, only one would wind up playing on the opening night roster; All-American forward Bob Netolicky.
"Indiana came to me after they had drafted me, but I wasn't ready to sign quite yet. When San Diego drafted me in the NBA draft, Dick Tinkham called me within five minutes and told me not to sign with them. Ultimately it just came down to money. The Pacers offered me $18,000 and a car drive, along with a no-cut contract. Earl Monroe had just gotten $24,000, so it was great for me," Netolicky said.
After filling out the rest of the roster and hiring the coach of the Notre Dame freshman team, Larry Staverman, to coach the team, the Pacers were ready to get rocking in the ABA.
Playing in front of a packed house of over 10,000 fans, Indiana won their first game 117-95 over the Kentucky Colonels. They kept up their winning ways throughout the first portion of the season, as they came out on top in 18 of their first 25 games.
"We were light-years ahead of everyone on the basketball side. Other ABA team owners were bringing in family members to run their teams even if they had never played basketball in their lives. Basketball itself was in its infancy, so there were no basketball executives out there that would have been looking for work and we were just ahead of the curve," according to Tinkham.
Following their strong start to the season, the Pacers began to tumble once other teams had gotten their footing underneath them. They finished the season 38-40 and were swept by the Pittsburgh Pipers in the first round of the playoffs.
During the following offseason, Tinkham knew that the Minnesota Muskies were in financial trouble. The Pacers had been lacking a true center, so he inquired about Muskies star Mel Daniels, a 24-year old who had just made the All-Star game.
The Pacers were able to purchase him and things were looking bright for the following season. Despite their star addition, however, the Pacers started the season 2-7 under Staverman and Tinkham realized a change had to be made.
"Mike Storen figured it was a coaching issue rather than talent. We had offered the job to Slick Leonard when the team started in 1967, but he had no interest in coaching us because he was doing successful selling jewelry. He didn't want the job the first year and nobody really did, to be honest. So he reached out to Leonard and he said yes. He didn't give up his job selling jewelry, however," Tinkham said.
Leonard was on board and it was a move that would change the course of the franchise for good. Despite his accepting Storen's offer, he was incredibly reluctant to jump into the ABA.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't think the ABA would make it. As a former NBA player, I saw the three-point line and the red, white and blue ball and just thought it was kind of ridiculous. But Mike kept after me and I looked at the roster and I told my wife that while this league might only last one more year, I could make enough in one year to furnish the whole house," Leonard said.
The change showed immediate benefits, as the Pacers went 42-27 to close out the season and wound up making it to the ABA Finals, where they lost to Rick Barry and the Oakland Oaks.
The championship loss stung, but the players on the team knew they finally had a leader that would be able to push them to the level that their talent dictated.
"We pretty good team, but we just weren't playing together. It takes a year or two to build some chemistry, but it was just clear that Staverman wasn't cut out to coach at the professional level. Slick came in and he just brought us together. He didn't play any favorites and was hard-nosed but to the point where you thought you hated him, but you'd also run through a wall for him," said Netolicky.
While the Pacers had seen some success, the league as a whole was struggling. During that second season, Tinkham recounted a series of events that almost led to the disbanding of the entire league.
"Houston, who was probably upset because they didn't get Elvin Hayes, started the second season and their owner called from his duck blind in Texas and told Mikan that he was ending his involvement with the league and he wasn't going to pay on his performance bond. Bill Ringsby, the owner of Denver who was very wealthy and was one of the leaders of the league, heard about this and called his son to stop his team's plane from leaving for their next game. Eventually I had convinced him to not hold the plane, as we talked and I told him that we had a group coming in from North Carolina and that we should wait and see if they would do something with Houston."
He continued, "So these guys came in and we had a meeting and they wanted a team for North Carolina for the next year and they asked how much it would cost and I said it would be $350,000. Right after this, Ringsby asked for a break and he then used a few choice words with me and told me to just give a team away, so they came back in and we told them that we had another idea. I said that they could take over the expense operations of Houston and that we'd deduct that from the purchase price and they took it and they did it. We sent the deputy commissioner down to run the team and North Carolina funded it. The league was done, but those guys from North Carolina saved it," Tinkham said.
The league was saved and the Pacers continued their winning ways as the third year of the ABA moved forward. They had come together as a team and they had a level of talent that matched any other team in the league.
They closed off the season with a record of 59-25 and once again advanced to the ABA Finals, this time against the Los Angeles Stars. This time around they were able to capture the title, marking Indiana's first professional basketball championship.
"It was great. When I look at sports, I don't care if it's little league or junior high, there's only one three-letter word if you're going to be in athletics: Win. Winning that title turned the city around, the downtown area was aging but we just changed the whole atmosphere," said Leonard.
Netolicky continued on, "Your first championship in a pro league was great and winning in Los Angeles made it even better. It was really a special deal; we came back home and had a parade that stretched around the whole city. That amount of support was insane."
That momentum carried on into the offseason, where the team was able to land Rick Mount, a highly touted prospect who was coming off of a season with Purdue where he averaged over 35 points per game.
Unfortunately for Mount and the Pacers, he wasn't able to make the transition as well as they would have hoped. They expected his dynamic shooting to translate to the professional level, but it wasn't a match that ended up panning out.
"Rick came in at a bit of disadvantage because the whole offense at Purdue ran around him and unfortunately for him, we had just won a championship and had four All-Stars on our team so that's not how the offense was going to go. Everyone expected him to start and score 40 points every night and that just wasn't going to happen on any team, but especially ours. Had he gone to a weaker team, he would have done a lot better but it's hard to come to a team with two of the better guards in the league and the press made it a bigger deal and expected too much of him," Netolicky said.
Leonard chimed in, "Rick was a great high school and college player at Purdue, he came in and he worked hard, he was always on time and never was late but the pro game was a different game. The jump from high school to college is a pretty good jump; you have to be a pretty good player. The jump from college to the pro game is ten times that; now you're going against the toughest there is in the world."
Mount was unable to help the Pacers get to the top again, as they lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Utah Stars. They had once again proven they were a force to be reckoned with, however, which caused Slick Leonard to catch the eye of a different Indiana basketball team.
"The athletic director at Indiana University called me and he wanted me to take the IU job. I was more of a pro player, so I couldn't see myself dealing with 17-year old kids and seeing that they got to class every day; I just wanted to focus on the basketball. I told him I appreciated him making the offer, but I turned him down. That February he called me again and asked me to meet him and out of respect for IU I did. He offered again and told him that I just didn't want to be involved in college coaching. By April, he had hired Bob Knight so it had ended up working out for everybody."
With Leonard still on board and Tinkham adding athletic wing George McGinnis, the Pacers were on track for another competitive year. They struggled a bit throughout the season and finished 47-37, a career-low winning percentage at that point for Leonard.
Despite their turbulent regular season, the team brought home another ABA Title, defeating Rick Barry (again) and the New York Nets. The following offseason didn't feature any big name players being brought in this time around; instead they shipped Rick Mount to Kentucky and Bob Netolicky to Dallas in what Netolicky called "a Dicky Tinkham special."
They had shuffled some personnel around, but Leonard was able to lead them to the top of the mountain again, winning his third ABA Championship in four full seasons as head coach with their victory over Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and the Kentucky Colonels.
"We had a front line that could have played with anybody. We played the Knicks in ‘73 after we had both won our championships; They had Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier and it is referred to as the greatest team in Knick history, but we beat them with Brown, Daniels and McGinnis."
Their win over the Knicks was a huge morale boost and one month into the season, they re-acquired Bob Netolicky from the San Antonio Spurs. Due to a game that had been protested a few weeks earlier, Netolicky holds a footnote in basketball history that not many can claim.
"We played the Pacers they had won the game, but the Spurs protested so we had to replay the last 30 seconds of the game the next time that we played. By the time that game came around, I had already been traded back to Indianapolis so I played that last 30 seconds with the Pacers."
The season went on and the Pacers lost in the second round of the playoffs. It wasn't the end of the year that they had hoped, but it was something to build on. According to Tinkham, however, the team was so strapped financially by this point that they were faced with relocating.
"Indiana was a bright spot in the ABA atmosphere, but our public offering to raise money wasn't going well and there were some suggestions that we relocate the team. I vehemently opposed moving the team from the city and at that point, the Market Square Arena was on the way and being constructed, so we figured that we just had to stick it out another year and things would turn around," said Tinkham.
This turned out to be a wise decision, as the Pacers made the inaugural season at Market Square Arena a great one. They made the ABA Finals, however the Kentucky Colonels defeated them.
Their success was once again clear, but it was also clear that this was a much different team than just a few years prior. Injuries had taken their toll and regardless of their on-court success that year, they were still struggling financially. The team shipped off some of their key players and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
"The team was very injured and the team was getting older, then we traded a bunch of players. People thought that was because they were getting old, but it was because they wouldn't been able to operate the next season," Netolicky commented.
Though they were on the brink of collapse, the Pacers were able to survive just long enough, as they NBA/ABA merger finally was completed at the end of the season. It was an exciting time for all those involved, but Leonard knew that the NBA wasn't going to get to see his team at full strength due to the financial problems they were suffering through.
"I felt all along that something was going to happen. I knew that the ABA was in trouble, but I was sad to see it go. The ABA gave players another opportunity and the teams in the ABA supported each other a lot more. Once we went over it was a struggle because we didn't have enough money to get players or compete on the level that I would have like to have been on."
After four tough years with the team, Leonard and the Pacers agreed to part ways, which also marked the end of the era. He took five years off from the team, but their separation didn't last long.
"The funny thing, they had just signed me to a new five-year contract so I was sitting there collecting that contract until I got offered to go into broadcasting. I had a cardiac arrest after a game against the Knicks a few years ago, so I've just been doing the home games but for what I thought would be a one-year thing to furnish my house, it's turned into an incredible 48 years with the organization."
Around two years ago, Leonard was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. For a player whose career ended at 30 and coaching career seemed to be over after two years in the NBA, it has been quite a ride.
"Like anyone else, you spend your whole life in basketball and that was the crowning point of a long career; it puts you in with a special class. I often say that when you die, family is what you end up with, so that's a big legacy for me."
As for Tinkham, he returned to practicing law full time and was behind the reboot of the ABA in 2000, though he doesn't play an active role any longer.
The second member that had joined the Pacers, Netolicky, went on to have a 25-year career in the auto auction business and now he and Tinkham are linking back up to release a book with behind the scenes stories of the early years of the Pacers titled ‘We Changed the Game.'
"The name of the book is "We Changed the Game." It will be how the ABA and the Pacers, in particular, made a difference in basketball and in the Indianapolis community. The stories will be about what has happened to the city and what impact the Pacers have made on the city in terms of its growth and its status as a sports center. Some of the other things will be the real reason for the merger, some of the inside stuff on the NBA/ABA merger that has never been told and the stories about the near bankruptcy that the Pacers had when we owned them and the league itself, and behind the scenes funny, first-person stuff. It is an unusual book because it's anecdotal but it's also history."
These pioneers are behind much of the look of the NBA that we see today. The fast-paced, three-point heavy style began in the ABA and we're now seeing it on display. With a playoff berth in reach for the Pacers this season, it appears that the groundwork laid by guys like Tinkham, Netolicky and Leonard has paid off.