INDIANAPOLIS — Some extent guard, center and power forward played with a red-white-and-blue basketball. They blazed a trail on a shiny hardwood court in a fast-paced league with flashy moves, halftime shenanigans and players made from true grit.
The purpose guard was Freddie Lewis. The middle was Mel Daniels. And the facility forward/center was Bob Netolicky.
All three men gave their might, their talent and their careers to the American Basketball Association, most of their seasons with the Indiana Pacers. The ABA lasted nine years. The three gave nearly 27 combined years to the ABA.
When it was over, Lewis became a coach and college teacher in Washington, D.C. Netolicky worked 25 years within the auto auction industry. And Daniels was a coach and NBA front office advisor.
Not one of the three made tens of millions in basketball. Not even tons of of hundreds. But all three were promised pensions when the NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, absorbing 4 of its teams.
The pensions didn’t come instantly. Years passed. Then a long time. The clock kept ticking and all three men, as they waited for the cash, were vocal advocates, pushing the NBA for the pensions.
When the NBA voted in June to provide recognition payments to 115 former ABA players — nearly 50 years after the leagues merged — Lewis and Netolicky were there to see it. Daniels, the fiercest ABA player advocate for the pensions, died in 2015, still doing all the pieces he could to get his “brothers of the ABA” money.
That is their story, one in every of big dreams and superstars left behind. That is their story of fighting for the cash they are saying they deserved.
“I’ll take it with a grain of salt,” Lewis, 79, told IndyStar of the cash promised from the NBA. “They might have done an entire lot more for the blokes, but they selected to do it this fashion. You recognize, we as players coming from the old league, we never made that type of money that they are making today, so anything helps us.
“We are only ready where there may be nothing we will do about it, but accept it.”
‘It doesn’t set well’
Lewis was one in every of the best to play within the ABA, a lightning quick point guard who could read the court, arguably, in addition to any pro player before him.
In a buzzer-beating second, he could pull back from 18 feet, with two or three opponents in his face and drain the shot for a playoff win. He paved the way in which for legendary NBA point guards who got here after him –Steph Curry, Jerry West, Magic Johnson.
But Lewis got here first.
He was so highly wanted that he’s the one player to begin his profession within the NBA, play all nine seasons within the ABA and sign back with the NBA when the 2 leagues merged in 1976.
He won three ABA championships with the Pacers. He was a four-time ABA All-Star, with the Cincinnati Royals, Pacers and Spirits of St. Louis. He averaged 16.6 points, 4.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds in seven seasons.
And yet, after playing 11 years in two skilled basketball leagues, Lewis lives similar to most individuals live.
His 94-year-old mother, Thelma, had a stroke a number of years back that left her unable to walk. Lewis is her only child. He moved from his home in Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., to look after her.
“She needs 24-hour, 24-7 attention,” Lewis said. “We do not understand how much time. I attempt to take her where she must be and check out to maintain her comfortable.”
Basketball seems a lifetime ago for Lewis. His days now are spent as caregiver, chauffeur, financial planner and son. But sometimes, when his mom brings it up or when a memory flashes through his mind, Lewis remembers those days.
“He was our steadiest performer and leader within the playoffs,” Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard once said of Lewis. “He plays good defense. He does almost all the pieces well. You’ll be able to’t let him shoot. And he’ll drive on you. There’s really no option to stop him.”
Lewis was a player at a time when athletic greatness in the professional ranks didn’t equal big money, not the multimillion-dollar contracts of today. And that was OK with Lewis on the time, because he just loved to play. But now, it is not OK with Lewis and it hasn’t been for a long time.
Looking back on his basketball profession, Lewis has felt financially slighted. He at all times thought, on the very least, he must have been given a pension from the NBA for his years of service to a league that’s now a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
The NBA board of governors voted in June to provide $25 million to former ABA players, still living, as recognition payments for his or her years of service within the league. Players eligible either spent three or more years within the ABA or played not less than three combined years within the ABA and NBA and never received a vested pension from the NBA.
The agreement pays players a median $3,828 annually for every year they were within the league. For instance, a player with the minimum three seasons will receive $11,484 a 12 months. A player with probably the most years of service, equivalent to Lewis, will get $35,452 a 12 months.
Lewis got here out on top, however it’s still not enough, not less than in his calculations.
“It’s just time. They need to have did this thing years ago. The NBA, I just can’t imagine why they wouldn’t give the ABA a pension. They’re calling this ‘recognition’ to maintain from giving us a pension,” he said. “I actually have 11 years in and so they’re only giving me (money) for nine so that they are taking two away with this sort of plan.
“It doesn’t set well, but, all the pieces helps. And we’re thanking the Lord day by day for the time we now have here.”
And that the NBA agreed to pay something to former ABA players while he was still alive to see it.
‘This is sort of a godsend to us’
Netolicky turned 80 on Tuesday. He lives in Texas, is a grandfather and is poised to get the very best payment possible from the NBA, $35,000 a 12 months.
“It’s higher than nothing,” Netolicky told IndyStar from Texas this week. “They gave that one kid at Minnesota $62 million, but they’re giving us a pair grand. They need to just give us 1,000,000 for every year we played. That might be just advantageous.”
The child at Minnesota is Karl-Anthony Towns who last month agreed to a four-year, $224 million supermax extension with the Timberwolves, his agent, Jessica Holtz of CAA Basketball told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
4 years. $224 million. Netolicky shakes his head at that and laughs. He played within the ABA nine years, with Indiana, Dallas, San Antonio, then back to Indiana. He retired with the Pacers in the beginning of his ninth season.
An All-American at Drake University, Netolicky was on the 1967-68 ABA All-Rookie Team, a member of the 1969-70 ABA All-Pro Team, a 4-time ABA All-Star and played on two Pacers ABA championship teams.
Netolicky was the “smoothest shooting big man within the ABA” with a “quick release (and) excellent eye,” Jim O’Brien wrote in his “1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball. His “best move (was) juke toward baseline and cut for the foul line for a advantageous, floating jump shot. … Unstoppable hook shot going to his right . . . Looks like choirboy, but hits offensive boards like a demon.”
Netolicky retired from the ABA in 1976 with profession averages of 16.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists. He averaged nearly 50% shooting in 618 games.
In 1978, Netolicky joined the Baltimore Metros/Mohawk Valley Thunderbirds of the Continental Basketball Association and played eight games, averaging 15.0 points and seven.0 rebounds. The team was coached by Lewis. Netolicky then had a likelihood to play within the NBA with Cleveland and coach Bill Fitch.
“But I had just got engaged, had a house in Indianapolis,” Netolicky said. “And back then, you are not talking about these tens of millions of dollars. You are talking about enough to purchase a automobile.”
When he returned to Indy, Netolicky worked a stint in real estate, then went to Florida to educate for a 12 months with the CBA’s Sarasota Stingers at the identical time Phil Jackson was coaching at Albany. Netolicky said it’s crazy to think he coached against Jackson and what different paths their lives took after that.
Netolicky worked for 25 years within the auto auction business. “Then I type of got old and just type of semi-retired,” he said. “You are semi-retired so long as you are walking, right?”
The cash. That recognition payment he’ll get from the NBA “is sort of a godsend to us,” he said.
“I’ll put it this fashion. I didn’t make a fortune, you realize. Fortunately, I’ve saved a couple of bucks and I’m not worrying about my meal on a regular basis, but I’m mainly breaking even,” he said. “It will give me what’s called a little bit security about taxes going up. I do not have to fret about extra expenses and things like that.”
Netolicky knows loads of former teammates who do must worry about their next meal. When the ABA disbanded in 1976, merging with the NBA, 4 of its 11 teams were absorbed by the NBA — the Pacers, Nuggets, Recent York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. Many players were left with no pension, salaries shut off and medical health insurance gone.
“Every one in every of the blokes, we were promised a pension. We were promised things and it fell through the cracks,” Netolicky said. “I’m not going to say names, but I do know some guys living on social security, just making ends meet and that is going to allow you to fall asleep at night and you are not going to must worry.”
While Netolicky, like Lewis, believes the NBA ought to be paying former ABA players more, he knows that’s out of his control.
“It was 50 years ago and it would not do any good to scream and yell about it now,” he said. “And so they’re, the NBA is doing the correct thing for everyone. There are going to be guys this is admittedly going to assist.”
Beyond the cash, Netolicky said is the popularity finally for what he and his former teammates did on the court. Until now, he felt like a superstar left behind.
“The cash is wonderful, however it signifies that they’re recognizing what we did, that we actually were pioneers,” he said. “As a substitute of just any individual on the market that no person knows.”
‘Such a giant voice in all of this’
Daniels had this crazy idea nearly 10 years ago. Really it wasn’t so crazy, he said, when the billion-dollar dynasty called the NBA was his goal. Daniels wanted the NBA to assist his former teammates of the ABA.
He had visited Recent Orleans and located former ABA players living under bridges. He saw players everywhere in the country struggling financially, unable to pay medical bills, pay rent and even buy groceries.
Daniels and Indianapolis attorney Scott Tarter, together with eye doctor John Abrams and filmmaker Ted Green got together and began the Dropping Dimes Foundation, a non-profit to assist struggling former ABA players and their families. The muse’s No. 1 goal was to get the NBA to pay pensions to living ABA players.
Months before Daniels died in 2015, he helped former player Charlie Jordan pick a recent suit with Dropping Dimes, and he told IndyStar how sad it was to see his league- and teammates suffer.
“They do not have anything,” Daniels said. “People don’t understand how bad off they’re.”
Daniels was an outspoken advocate as Dropping Dimes fought for pensions. He died never attending to see the NBA acknowledge what the league’s players had done for the trendy game.
“I feel of Mel and the way much this meant to him,” said Abrams, who’s the Pacers’ team eye doctor. “He was such a giant voice in all of this.”
Daniels didn’t need the cash, not less than not like most of the 115 players.
His profession within the ABA was illustrious, playing for the Minnesota Muskies, Pacers and Memphis Sounds and with the NBA’s Recent York Nets. Daniels was a two-time ABA Most Worthwhile Player, three-time ABA champion and a seven-time ABA All-Star. He was the all-time ABA rebounding leader, and in 1997 was a unanimous selection to the ABA All-Time Team. Daniels was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
He averaged 19.4 points and 16.0 rebounds during his six years in a Pacers uniform. At his first practice with the team, Daniels was shooting jump shots from 15 feet. Coach Leonard walked up and issued a warning. “Next time you shoot from that far out,’ Leonard said, “I’m gonna punch you within the nose.”
“And that was that,” Daniels said in 2014.
After retiring from basketball, Daniels remained a fixture with the Pacers, even when the team moved to the NBA. In 1984, Daniels was an assistant coach and later became an executive on the basketball side because the team’s director of personnel.
At Daniels’ funeral, ABA legends talked about his remarkable talent on the court, but most talked about his loyalty to the ABA off the court, including his fight for money from the NBA.
“He was at all times there for you,” Lewis told IndyStar when Daniels died in 2015. “He stood up for me and anybody else.”