Original publish date: May 2, 2017
This is the first in a series of articles that I hope will bring insight into the Indianapolis sports and pop culture history scene as seen through the eyes of former ABA Pacers All-star player Bob Netolicky. I have known Bob for well over 20 years and have had the benefit of his counsel and insight on topics both on and off the court. Neto’s stories are informative, often amazing and always entertaining. Neto has called Indianapolis home for over 50 years and frankly, these stories need to be shared. We meet regularly for breakfast at the Lincoln Square Pancake House at 7305 East 21st Street so I’m calling these articles “Breakfast with Neto”. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
The ABA Indiana Pacers were the powerhouse of the old American Basketball Association, appearing in the league finals five times and winning three Championships in nine-years. By the time of the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the Pacers had established themselves as the league’s elite. The players were household names and their reputation was now legend. The crowds at the State Fair Coliseum, and later Market Square Arena, where the Pacers held court were always dotted with celebrities from all walks of life. In the Circle City of the seventies, everyone wanted an association with the Pacers. In short, they were rock stars.
During the summer of the 1975-76 season, the Pacers held informal workouts at the Brebeuf high school gym. “The guys would all get together for scrimmages to keep in shape, It was me, George (McGinnis), Roger (Brown), Mel (Daniels), Danny Roundfield and a few others. We would get together and practice with the high school kids there.” says Neto. “One of the guys, I don’t remember who, showed up one day with Marvin Gaye in tow. Marvin was so bad, we made the high school guys take him on their team.”
Wait, what? Motown star Marvin Gaye? THE Marvin Gaye? “Yep, Motown star Marvin Gaye.” Neto replies. “He was in town for a concert as I recall.” Marvin Gaye, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C., to a church minister father and domestic worker mother. He grew up in the Fairfax Apartments on the rougher side of D.C. Although once populated by elegant Federal-style homes on the Southwest side, when Marvin was coming up there it was primarily a vast slum. Buildings were small one or two story shacks in disrepair, many lacked electricity or running water and nearly every dwelling was overcrowded. Gaye and his friends nicknamed the area “Simple City”, owing to its being “half-city, half country” atmosphere.
Young Marvin, who would grow to be over 6 feet tall, became a fixture on the tough D.C. basketball courts. One of his neighbors was future Detroit Mayor and Pistons All-star Dave Bing. Although smaller and four years younger, Bing played alongside Gaye on those DC project courts. The two men forged a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Bing continued to excel on the court as Marvin’s skills faded. Ironically, both men landed in Detroit. Gaye turned to song, which led him to Motown immortality; Bing landed in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Marvin once said, “I was always a sports fan but I was determined to play for real. I knew I could. When I was a kid, I was scared to compete. Father wouldn’t let me. Preachers kids weren’t supposed to be football players. Well I decided to change all that. I trained with the Detroit Lions and was convinced I could start at offensive end. You see, I had this fantasy. I was in the Super Bowl, with millions of people watching me on TV all over the world, as I made a spectacular leaping catch and sprinted for the winning touchdown.”
While Marvin was busy helping Berry Gordy shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s, he never lost his love of sports. The “Prince of Soul” recorded iconic concept albums including What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On while keeping active on the courts, courses and fields around the Motor City. In the book “Divided Soul; The Life of Marvin Gaye”, author David Ritz says, “Gaye was a good athlete, but not of professional quality. His football playing, just like his basketball playing (where he loved to hog the ball and shoot) were further examples of his delusions of grandeur.” Gaye was a regular at celebrity golf tournaments and loved rubbing elbows with pro athletes like Bob Lanier, Gordie Howe and Willie Horton.
In 1969, The Four Tops’ Obie Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland began working on a song that would eventually become “What’s Going On.” The song was repeatedly turned down by several different Motown acts. The duo pitched the song to Marvin Gaye in 1970. Gaye told a couple friends, Detroit Lions stars Lem Barney and Mel Farr, about the song during a round of golf at Detroit’s Palmer Park Golf Course. Palmer attracted many of the city’s black celebrities, including Joe Louis, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. Gaye was reluctant to record the as yet unnamed song saying it just didn’t fit his style. Farr and Barney talked him into it, saying that Marvin was the only person who could pull it off.
Marvin finally agreed, coming up with the song’s title while with his two Lions buddies over a few beers after another round of golf. Marvin told the duo that he would only record the song under one condition: if Farr and Barney sang background vocals. The Al=Pro duo thought Gaye was joking, but they soon discovered that he was quite serious. The two men, NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year just three years earlier with the Lions, agreed even though neither had ever sang professionally before. True, they had been in the studio before as Marvin’s guests, but they never dreamed they would be singing alongside their friend.
The song came at a time when America was coming apart at the seams. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations were the fuel and intercity angst the match. The Watts and Detroit riots exploded after decades of racial bigotry. The Vietnam war raged on. Now, Marvin saw a chance to merge sports with music and social commentary in the epic song “What’s Going On.” Marvin headed to the recording studio alongside two of the Detroit Lions all-time greatest players. The song and album became a hit reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart, selling over two million copies. Not long after the record was released, Gaye dropped another bombshell. Now that he, Barney and Farr were musical collaborators, Gaye told them he wanted to join them on the Detroit Lions.
Gaye was 31 and had never played football professionally. In the book, “Marvin Gaye, My Brother.” Frankie Gaye quoted his brother as saying, “Don’t even try to discourage me. Smokey [Robinson] said I’m insane, but he’s hanging in with me because, you know what?…I’d rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium, than rack up another gold record.” Problem was, Barney and Farr couldn’t guarantee a tryout, let alone a spot on the team. Gaye quickly committed himself to an intense workout regimen, running 4-5 miles per day and lifting weights. He arranged workouts at the University of Michigan and transformed portions of his house into a gym, moving his Rolls-Royce and other cars out of the garage to make room.
Gaye bulked up nearly 30 pounds during the training. Gaye was realistic, he knew his NFL dream was a long shot. He trained with Farr, Barney and future Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Sanders. In addition to the university and Gaye’s garage, they trained at parks and local high schools, anywhere a productive workout could take place. Word traveled fast in the Motor city that Motown’s Marvin Gaye was in training for a tryout with the Lions.
Joe Schmidt, then Detroit’s head coach and a fan of Gaye’s music, was impressed when he learned that two of his star players were featured on a hit song of Gaye’s. However, Coach Schmidt, a member of both the pro and college football hall of fame, was less enthusiastic when he learned that the “Prince of Soul” wanted to be a Lion. Nonetheless, Schmidt agreed to meet with Gaye. Marvin put on his best three-piece suit and arrived for the meeting in a limousine. He didn’t waste a second before selling himself in the interview. He told Schmidt that not only could he could start for the Lions, but he could score a touchdown the first time he touched the ball.
Schmidt asked about Gaye’s previous on field experience. Marvin did not attended college and never played high school football either. He told Schmidt that he had dropped out at 17 and enlisted in the Air Force. Schmidt, an eight-time first-team All-Pro whose career started with leather helmets and no facemasks, was worried that Marvin would get hurt. And getting a Motown superstar injured, or worse, would be disastrous for the hometown team.
As a courtesy, Schmidt invited Marvin to a three-day shoes-and-shorts workout at the University of Michigan. He pledged to try Marvin out at several positions, including running back, tight end, wide receiver and fullback. Before beginning his tryout, Marvin said a prayer with Barney and Farr. Marvin did everything he was asked, running routes and lining up wherever he was told to. For a musician, he made a decent football player. But for a football player, he made an excellent musician.
For Schmidt, the thought of turning Gaye loose against heavy hitters like Ray Nitchske, Deacon Jones, or Dick Butkus, was too terrible to contemplate. Marvin Gaye didn’t receive a training camp invite. Regardless, Gaye got his shot at playing in the NFL. He had achieved his personal goal. Unlike later periods of his life, during his short lived dream of playing pro football, drugs -most notably cocaine- were absent.
In 1973, Marvin became one of the 33 owners of the WFL Detroit Wheels, which lasted less than a year despite having Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch (who would later own the Red Wings and Tigers) among the ownership. After the team folded in September of 1974, Marvin told friends that he wanted to buy another WFL franchise in Memphis, Tennessee so that he could play in the backfield and sing the National Anthem before games.
Marvin’s “post-NFL” music career was sporadic at best. Although albums like “Trouble Man,” “Let’s Get It On,” “I Want You” and the controversial “Here, My Dear,” elevated him to a living legend, soon, drug addiction and mounting tax issues led to a self-imposed European exile in the early 1980s. The song “Sexual Healing,” found on his last album, 1982’s “Midnight Love,” slingshot Marvin to the top of the music world one last time.
In 1983, Marvin Gaye won the only two Grammys of his career and delivered a soulful, moving rendition of the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game. Farr and Barney last saw Gaye at the Detroit stop in June of the singer’s 1983 tour, Marvin’s last. Twelve years had passed since “What’s Going On” was released on Super Bowl Sunday in 1971. The album is today credited with changing the course of popular political music. Hard to believe, but only 3.500 showed up for Marvin Gaye’s concert at Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena on December 30, 1983. Barely 4 months later, on April 1, 1984, Gaye’s father, Marvin Gay Sr., fatally shot him at their house in Los Angeles. At first, fans thought the news was just a bad April Fools’ Day joke. Sadly, it was true. Motown’s Prince of Soul was gone.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ABA. A 50th anniversary reunion is in the works in Indianapolis in April of 2018. Bob Netolicky, former Pacers & League President Dick Tinkham and noted journalist / author Robin Miller are putting the finishing touches on a new ABA retrospective book titled “We changed the game” due to be released in late 2017. A book signing / party will be held at the Irving Theatre to coincide.
Oh, about that book. It is being published by Hilton Publishing Company. HPC co-founder, Dr. Hilton Hudson II, grew up in Indianapolis and attended high school in our city. Dr. Hilton was one of the those high school kids shooting hoops with the Pacers at Brebeuf high school back in the summer of 1975. Full circle in the circle city.