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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A look back at a hoops love affair

Posted Wednesday, July 25, 2012, at 1:54 PM

I was still wearing short pants when the Indiana Pacers were awarded a franchise in the American Basketball Association in 1967.

But to be honest, I fell in love with basketball years before that. I guess that is an easy thing to do when you live in Indiana.

When I was about 6, I remembering getting a basketball and goal for Christmas. The goal was pretty unique as it had a bell that would ring every time the ball went through the hoop, pretty cheesy but nobody else in my neighborhood had one.

My dad, James Harold Hargis, attached it to the garage and you would have thought I was playing in the Indiana High School state finals at then-named Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym used for the title game with the Hickory Huskers in the movie Hoosiers, now known as Butler Fieldhouse.

For some reason, I could spend hours trying to put that rubber ball (times were tough in the 60s) through that hoop. Later I got a more conventional goal in the backyard. But as a steelworker, dad made the backboard at work. It consisted of 1/4 inch aluminum and my goal was white instead of orange and had no hooks. I think he also made the goal, which would explain having no place to hang the net. I used black electrical tape to secure the nylon.

The backboard and hoop were attached to a large and very heavy steel pole. My dad and some neighbors used his pick up truck to help guide the pole upright so they could put it in the hole dug in the ground. I remember my dad falling out of the truck during this process.

But after hurting no more than his pride, nothing else seemed to matter as I had a place to work on my jumper and try to develop my left hand. Other than the backboard echoing when the ball rattled off that silver square, it seemed pretty conventional - a ball, boy and a hoop, as it were.

I attended my first high school game in March 1966. My beloved Mooresville Pioneers were taking on Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis in the regional at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

In retrospect, it was very ironic that game turned out to be the first game I went to in person as Tech featured brothers Jim and Mike Price, who proved to be too much for MHS to overcome on their way to a state runner-up finish. Even then, my allure to pro ball was starting.

But Mike and Jim Price were not just good high school players. Mike went on to play at Illinois and Jim played at the University of Louisville.

Both were good enough to play in the NBA as Mike, a No. 1 draft choice of the New York Knicks, played three years and Jim, a second-round selection, was in professional basketball for seven seasons.

When not playing in the backyard, we were lucky that WTTV-TV, Channel 4 covered the Indiana High School boys basketball state tournament, Indiana and Purdue University games and later Pacer road games.

Some of my earliest memories of basketball were watching twins Dick and Tom Van Arsdale playing for Indiana University.

Again, my allure to the pro hoops was coming to the forefront. Both played 12 seasons in the NBA and both were three-time NBA All-Stars.

They combined to play over 1,800 games and score just shy of 30,000 points.

Dick played in the NBA Finals for the Phoenix Suns in 1976 in the infamous triple-overtime game won by the Celtics. His short jumper cut the Boston lead to 109-108 in the second overtime before a wild sequence of plays ended with Phoenix's Garfield Heard making a high-arching jumper from the top of the key at the buzzer to tie the game at 112-all, forcing another extra session. The Celtics hung on to win 128-126 in a game that took 63 minutes to decide and was just the second NBA playoff game to be contested in June. The first came two days earlier on June 2 in game four when Phoenix won 109-107 at home in just a plain old overtime affair, evening the series at 2-2.

Even though I loved watching Wilt Chamberlain battle against Bill Russell on Sunday afternoons (the only day you could watch the NBA back then), the Pacers became my first true love in the fall of 1967.

Pacer home games were rarely, if ever, broadcast. Luckily for me and other Blue and Gold faithful back then, they clinched all three ABA titles all on the road -- 1970, 1972 and 1973.

Mel Daniels, who will be going into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September with Reggie Miller, along with Roger Brown, Freddy Lewis, Darnell Hillman, George McGinnis and coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard were my first real heroes, if you will.

Brown, which posthumously might make the HOF someday, had one of the best three-game playoff stretches in history in the ABA Finals against the Los Angeles Stars in May 1970.

The 6-5 swing man from Brooklyn and the University of Dayton hit seven 3-pointers and finished with 53 points in a 142-120 victory in game four. After scoring 39 in a game-five loss, Brown came back with 45 points in a 111-107 victory in the title-clinching game six in LA, giving Indy its first title.

He averaged 28.5 points per game in the playoffs in 1969-70.

He was not able to play pro basketball until age 25 because of gambling charges that were never proven.

Long-time professional basketball beat writer Peter Vecsey, who covered Brown in high school and the ABA, once said that Brown was a combination of Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Sam Jones and Elgin Baylor and would have been considered a top-50 talent if he had played in the NBA. His shot featured a seemingly flawless rotation as that Red, White and Blue ABA ball spun through the air toward the bottom of the net.

I have seen the Pacers on top and I have seen them near the bottom with Ron Artest and the Brawl. As a fan, I have been lucky to watch Donnie Walsh, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle and Larry Bird do their thing in the front office and on the sidelines and guys like Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson and Jalen Rose make their mark on the court when the Pacers went to five Eastern Conference finals in seven seasons.

I know there are many things wrong with the NBA - you don't have to look farther than the Dwight Howard mess in Orlando to realize that. It is still a star-driven league where All-Stars get calls and rookies or no-names don't.

It is a league where the big boys still win and the small-market teams like the Pacers have a tough time competing. But for some reason, the NBA is still a game that I love, at times not much different than the one I grew up playing near Indianapolis.

It's a game of grace, skill, power, determination, finesse and team work. The NBA is a game, but really a big business, played by men, who don't know how lucky they are to get paid to play it.

But even still, I have to consider myself lucky to watch "The Greatest Game Ever Invented," according to Shooter (Dennis Hopper) in the movie Hoosiers.

B.J. Hargis is the sports editor at the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at (812) 847-4487, ext. 12 or at hargisbj@gmail.com.

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