Original publish date: March 12, 2017
The Indiana Pacers are winding down another season and the playoff situation remains uncertain. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s start in the old ABA. It was about this time of year a half century ago that the Pacers signed one of the most infamous names to ever blot the roster. A 7-foot tall high school star from Detroit, Michigan who certainly became more famous for what he did off the court than for we he did on it.
Reggie Harding was the very first high-school basketball player drafted by the NBA. He graduated from Detroit’s Eastern High School in 1960 (re-named Martin Luther King High in 1968). The basketball talent coming out of Detroit in the sixties was astonishing. The Motor City hoops alumni back in the day included Spencer Haywood, John Brisker, Archie Clark, Dave DeBuschere, George Gervin, Ralph Simpson, and Mel Daniels to name but a few. Harding barely scraped by academically, so college was out of the question. He played briefly at a prep school in Nashville followed by two seasons on Midwest League teams in Toledo, Ohio and Holland, Michigan.
Unlike today, 7-footers were rare in sixties, and much prized by NBA teams hoping to clog the lane and blunt the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In 1963, the Pistons desperately needed a big man, so they drafted Reggie in the sixth round with the 48th overall pick, making him the first player ever drafted who hadn’t played in college. Harding made his NBA debut with the Pistons in the 1963-1964 season, joining the team late in the year because of a suspension on gun charges.
He played 39 games that year, averaging 11.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg. The next season, Harding averaged 34.6 minutes in 78 games and scored 12.0 ppg while pulling down 11.6 rpg for a Pistons team that finished fourth in the Western Division. When Harding joined the Pistons as a rookie in 1963, he roomed on the road with veteran 6’9″ power forward Ray Scott. During an 11-year career in the NBA and ABA, Scott played for the Pistons, Baltimore Bullets, and Virginia Squires. Scott coached the Pistons from 1972 to 1976 and in 1974, he was named NBA Coach of the Year, the first African-American to be so honored. Scott was an intellectual who favored books about the Civil Rights struggle in America.
In 1965, Reggie Harding noticed that Scott was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and asked to read it after he finished. Turns out Reggie would have plenty of time to read it since he was suspended for the entire 1965-66 season (most likely due to ongoing gun charges because Reggie was never far from a gun). The book had a profound affect on Reggie and his views on life became more serious and his behavior more demonstrative. It didn’t help his game much though as Reggie averaged only 18.5 minutes per game during the next season, recording 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 points per game. The Pistons traded him to the Chicago Bulls for a third-round draft pick in 1967 where he lasted only 14 games. In four seasons with the Pistons and Chicago Bulls, Harding averaged 9.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
It was common knowledge by all who knew him that Reggie carried a gun in his gym bag wherever he went. He was known for finishing practice and leaving without showering, pausing only to towel the sweat and spin the cylinder on his revolver. Once while playing in Detroit, Harding was said to have shot at teammate (& former Purdue All-American) Terry Dischinger’s feet to make him “dance.” During his brief tenure with the Bulls, Reggie often played one-on-one with Bulls star Flynn Robinson. Flynn would routinely beat him and Reggie would threaten to pistol whip him. Flynn was Reggie’s roommate and recalled once being startled awake in the pitch dark to find Reggie pointing a gun at him. Flynn was averaging 16 points per game, Reggie less than 5, so it isn’t hard to figure out what happened next.
During a West Coast road trip, Harding was called home for his mother’s funeral. For the next 10 days, the Bulls didn’t hear from him. Finally he returned, saying that he had been appointed executor of his mother’s estate and needed the extra time away. A few days later, the Bulls placed Reggie Harding on waivers. Then the Pacers came calling.
During that first ABA season, the Pacers started out well, going 18-7 but started to lose ground to the rest of the league by mid-season. Bob Netolicky, a 6’9″ star from Drake University, was holding down the center spot. Despite his prodigious vertical leaping ability, Neto’s game was better suited for the forward slot and with about 30 games to go, Neto caught the mumps. So the Pacers saw an opportunity when the Bulls handed Harding his walking papers. Pacers GM Mike Storen and team co-founder Dick Tinkham met Harding at the airport at 5 am. The duo was due to board a plane with the team for an away game at 9:30.
Reggie Harding sat down with the Pacers’ duo in an airport coffee shop booth and listened disinterestedly until the subject of money came up. The Pacers reps explained that since there was less than half the season left, the team would pay Reggie $ 10,000 to sign. Reggie scoffed saying that if they signed him the Pacers were guaranteed to win the Championship. Reggie replied, “They can talk about black power and white power. I believe in green power: money, man, money.” Reggie countered with a bottom line figure of $ 15,000. Tinkham, true to his shrewd reputation, offered $ 300 per game adding, that if what Reggie said was true, the Pacers had 30 games left in the season and another 20 in the post season. $ 300 for 50 games adds up to Reggie’s desired number. Reggie signed and dressed for that night’s game. The deal, like Tinkham himself, became a Pacer’s legend,
Harding was a problem from the start beginning with his refusal to wear a suit and tie on the plane to the game. Instead he wore his uniform. From there, Reggie skipped practices, arrived late for team flights and once requested leave from the team saying he had to go to his daughter’s funeral. Problem was, Reggie didn’t have a daughter. Perhaps the most famous Reggie Harding Pacers story comes from Kokomo prep star & I.U. 2-time All-American Jimmy Rayl. While rooming with Reggie on the road one night, Rayl was asleep in the darkened room. He heard the door open and saw the silhouette of his 7-foot roomie walk through the door. Moments later, Reggie clicked the light on, Rayl opened his eyes and found he was staring down the barrel of a gun. Reggie accused Rayl of being a racist, which Jimmy is not, and after a long conversation, Reggie put his gun down. Jimmy Rayl slept in the lobby that night.
The Pacers finished the season 38-40 and played just three postseason games; losing each game by double digits to Connie Hawkins’ eventual ABA champion Pittsburgh Pipers team. Reggie’s game total didn’t really matter because between the fines for missed practices, suspensions and arriving late for flights, Harding ended up owing the Pacers $400. During that abbreviated 1967–68 season with the ABA Pacers, Harding averaged 13.4 points and 13.4 rebounds in 25 games. Obviously, Reggie Harding did have occasional flashes of brilliance. The Pacers’ first triple-double came courtesy of Reggie Harding when he had 30 points and 22 rebounds on March 14 against Mel Daniels and his Minnesota Muskies. Although blocked shot stats were not kept back then, the newspaper account of the game stated Harding “pounded at least 10 shots back at the stunned Muskies.” His capstone for his Pacers career came when, during a television interview, Reggie threatened to shoot Pacers’ general manager, Mike Storen.
Reggie Harding’s once promising pro career was done by the time he was 26. With no other marketable skills, Harding returned to small time cons and petty larceny on the mean streets of Detroit. He quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. The sad after-basketball life of Reggie Harding is perhaps best exemplified by one oft repeated story. Reggie walked into a neighborhood establishment (described variously as either a liquor store or gas station) with a nylon stocking over his head, brandishing a gun and demanding money. The clerk took one look at the 7-footer and reportedly said, “I know that’s you, Reggie,” to which Harding replied, “It ain’t me, man. Shut up and give me the money!” Legend has it that Harding robbed that same gas station in his own Detroit neighborhood a total of three times.
Reggie Harding’s post-basketball career was plagued by a number of personal problems. He spent time in jail and often struggled with drug addictions. But he was turning his life around. He had kicked his heroin addiction, was jogging and playing basketball every day and talking to friends about an NBA comeback. He was scheduled to start a new job in the Fall. Reggie had been raised by foster parents but had recently reconnected with his mother, Lilie Mae Thomas. In August of 1972, Lillie Mae was shot and killed by her husband. Witnesses remembered Reggie standing at his mother’s graveside and telling the preacher how he wanted to be buried.
On September 2, 1972, Harding was standing on the corner of Parkview and Kercheval talking to a couple of girls. A car pulled up and parked nearby. 26-year-old Carl Scott, a former friend of Reggie’s, stepped out, walked up and pointed a gun at the former NBA player. Reggie thought he was joking (he’d just taken Scott to church with him the Sunday previous) and said, “If you shoot me, shoot me in the head. I don’t want to feel no pain.” On his way down to the ground, Reggie cried out, “Why? Why? Man you shot me.” Reggie Harding died on the litter strewn sidewalks he had grown up on. A warrant for First Degree Murder was issued for Carl Scott but the outcome of charges, if ever brought, are unknown.
Reggie Harding was dead at the age of 30, a bullet through his skull and brain. Mike Storen, the Pacers’ General Manager who Reggie had threatened to shoot 4 years before, was one of only three white people to attend the funeral. When the funeral party arrived at the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, it became apparent that the 7-foot tall Harding’s grave, like his life, was too short. The large casket had to be buried at an angle in the plot. Reggie’s body was laid to rest near the burned out shell of the old Eastern High School Building where Reggie gained fame as a prep star. Seems that, even in death, Reggie Harding couldn’t catch a break.
Next week, in part II of this story, Reggie Harding’s other connection to Motown.