Original publish date: March 11, 2018
You never know who’s going to show up when Neto walks into the room. Bob Netolicky, former ABA Indiana Pacers 4-time all-star, can draw a crowd. On any given day, Neto may show up with former teammates like George McGinnis, Darnell Hillman or Billy Keller. Or maybe with former Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard or Pacers team founder Dick Tinkham. Or media legends like Robin Miller or Bob Costas. Neto knows ’em all.
This Sunday, March 18th, you are invited to the Irving theatre to hang out with Neto and friends. Netoclicky, along with Dick Tinkham and Robin Miller, has written a book called “We Changed the Game” and all three authors will be in Irvington from 2:00 to 4:00 to sign books, swap stories and answer questions from fans. The trio has chosen the Irving Theatre for their book release party. Former Q-95 on -air personality, actor and stand-up comedian Dave “The King” Wilson will act as emcee for the event.
Neto says, “The book is a collection of stories told by those who lived it. It’s the Pacers’ insider’s view from the very first day of the franchise.” Netolicky stresses that the book is not just another stat guide or seasonal recap. “It’s the real story of a team, a coach and a handful of dreamers, who brought a new league and a new team to Indianapolis – and how they not only changed the culture and future of a city, but the game of basketball forever,” said Netolicky.
Richard “Dick” Tinkham, an original ABA Indiana Pacers founder and legal counsel, is one of the few execs still around to tell the real stories of the team, the league and the ABA-NBA merger from the perspective of someone who was intimately involved with the X’s and O’s of the team and league from start to finish. It was Tinkham who reviewed all documents, ranging from incorporation papers, player contracts to merger agreements. Yes fans, there was more than one ABA-NBA merger agreement. Tinkham will share never-before-heard stories about the mergers, anti-trust lawsuits, and wild negotiations between the two leagues that could only be told by someone who was there. Mr. Tinkham, whose reputation and shrewd negotiating skills in the league are legendary, will tell you all about it this Sunday.
ABC Sports reporter Robin Miller will also be at the Irving to talk about his days as a cub reporter for the Indianapolis Star from 1968-76. Born in Anderson, Miller grew up in Indianapolis. His first assignment with the Star was to answer the score phones and run copy. Miller had two passions during those early years: the Pacers and auto racing. He was lucky to find himself working in the epicenter of both.
This Sunday, Miller will describe the Pacer’s from the viewpoint of a cub reporter not yer old enough to drink (were there really guns in the locker room?), Tinkham will explain how the ABA contracts worked (did the team really sign Mel Daniels contract on a barrom napkin?) and Neto will share stories about Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard’s unusual motivational techniques (did Slick REALLY chase Neto around the locker room with a hockey stick?).
The nicest thing about this book is that, in many instances, it defines the folklore of the league by telling the real story from the men who actually lived it. For me, the book’s bombshell revelation is the story of just how close the Pacers came to folding at the close of the 1968-69 season. Before that second season, the Pacers made the greatest trade in team history, sending Jimmy Dawson, Ron Kozlicki and cash to the Minnesota / Miami franchise for ABA Rookie of the Year Mel Daniels. That trade, along with the hing of Leonard as the new head coach, legitimized the team. After starting the season 2-7, the team went 42-27 the rest of the way, winning the Eastern Division by 1 game over Miami. However, the Pacers found themselves down 3 games to 1 against the rival Kentucky Colonels in the first round of the league playoffs.
In the book, for the first time ever, Tinkham recounts how that game 5 playoff changed everything. “If we hadn’t won that game and advanced, there was no additional playoff revenue,” Tinkham said. “There was no more money and, even worse, there was no plan.” Mayor Bill Hudnut, who wrote the foreword for the book prior to his passing in 2016, said “to have the franchise fold would have sent out the message that Indianapolis could not be considered a major-league city, and that in turn would hinder our ability to garner business and jobs from elsewhere.”
The Pacers won the next 3 games by an average of 15 points per game to take the series 4 games to 3 and then defeated Miami in 5 games. The Oakland Oaks beat the Pacers 4-1 to win the second ABA Championship, but the Pacers strong playoff performance saved the franchise. That win changed not only the face of a city but the game of professional basketball forever. Netolicky averaged nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. Neto seemed to always rise to the occasion in the playoffs. During his 9-year ABA career, Bob averaged 15.5 points per game. Good enough to land him at 30th place on the all-time ABA playoff scoring average list. 8 of the 29 in front of him are Hall of Famers.
What I’ll look forward to most this Sunday are the stories Netolicky will surely share with Irvingtonians. Long considered one of pro basketball’s most colorful personalities, Neto’s tales live up to that reputation. Netolicky was famous for a having a pet ocelot. If you don’t know what an ocelot is, google it. Neto hints, “When I’d come home after midnight I’d often find it (the ocelot) in my bed, I’d try to move it… it would growl… and I’d go sleep on the couch.” Known for his mod lifestyle and popularity with Pacers’ female fans, one sportswriter dubbed him the “Broadway Joe Namath of the ABA”.
Neto talks about those days coming out of college and joining the upstart new league, “I didn’t know the difference between the ABA and the NBA. I’d been to a lot of NBA games but I found out pretty fast that the ABA game was more wide open, it moved a little faster. The NBA was a post-up league; a bunch of big, clumsy guys with a good center. The ABA had speed and quickness from the start. It was a faster league.” Neto continues, “I’m a big auto racing fan, and the way I associate the early ABA with the NBA was similar to when the rear-engine car came to Indy racing. It changed the sport by making it faster, better, quicker. They took the big, old roadsters, which were fun to watch, but slow, heavy and not very maneuverable, and they changed—they literally adapted and changed the sport, and that’s what the ABA did.”
Neto and Tinkham both agree that in those early years, the ABA was touch and go. But soon parity set in and within a few years, the most exciting players were in the ABA. Neto explains, “Right before the merger happened, there were a couple of teams, Seattle most prominent, where the owner [Sam Schulman] said that if the merger wasn’t going to happen, they were going to jump to the ABA. The Supersonics literally wanted to go to the ABA.”
“We Changed the Game” is being published by Hilton Publishing. It’s founder is Dr. Hilton M. Hudson II, one of less than 40 board-certified, African-American interventional cardiologists practicing in this country. Dr. Hilton grew up in Indianapolis and as a high school player, he used to scrimmage with the old ABA Pacers during the off seasons. Yet another Indianapolis connection to the book can be found right here in Irvington. The book is being handled by McFarland P.R. & Public Affairs, Inc. whose offices are located at 211 S Ritter Ave.
The book release party comes just a few weeks before the ABA 50-year reunion celebration on April 7th in Indianapolis Ten percent of the book proceeds will fund Dropping Dimes, an Indiana nonprofit that assists ABA players and their families facing financial or medical difficulties. “These proceeds are crucial to so many of my former teammates and league players, because after the merger … former ABA players who were not absorbed into the NBA were generally left without a pension,” said Netolicky, who serves on the advisory board of Dropping Dimes. For the past few years, Bob has been involved in trying to get the ex-ABA players their rightly deserved pensions, many of these former players are experiencing extreme hardships today.
The American Basketball Association (ABA) gave many unsung players a shot or a second chance to make it in pro basketball. It was the first to shine the spotlight on Indianapolis as a nationwide sports mecca. The ABA flagship Pacers franchise became one of the top-contending professional basketball teams in the country. 50 years ago, the ABA Pacers triggered the transformation of downtown Indianapolis, turning it into a thriving destination for sports at every level and in every hue. Come out to the Irving Theatre this Sunday and hear the story as witnessed by Robin Miller, Richard Tinkham and Bob Netolicky who were there through it all.
For sure, there will be other book signings for “We Changed the Game”. Thus far Neto has scheduled a signing at the J & J all-star sportscard show on Saturday March 24th from 10:00 to 12:00. The card show is held at the American Legion Post # 470 at 9091 E. 126th St. in Fishers and then again at Saturday March 31st from Noon to 2:00 at Bruno’s Shoebox 50 North 9th St. in Noblesville. Bruno’s shoebox is owned and operated by former longtime Indianapolis Star / News reporter and Indiana Pacers webmaster Conrad “Bruno” Brunner.
But this Sunday’s book release event is the only opportunity fans will have to hear stories and ask questions of the authors in a public forum. So come out and say hi to Neto, Robin Miller, Dick Tinkham and Dave “The King” Wilson from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Books will be available for sale and you will have the opportunity to have your copy personally signed by these sports legends. Admission is free and the program will be free wheelin’. And remember, you never know who might show up with Neto in the Irv. Could be Slick, Dr. Dunk, Big Mac or any other Pacer great you can imagine. You never can tell with Neto.
Photos courtesy Lauri Mohr-Imaginemohr photography.