This season began tragically for the Pacers. Not only did they lose seven of their first nine games, leading Storen to remove his young coach, Larry Staverman, and hire Leonard, but on Dec. 14, during a home game against the Houston Mavericks, John DeVoe pitched over in his seat and died of a heart attack. His row of courtside seats was permanently removed, the Pacers affixed black patches to the left straps of their jerseys and DeVoe's brother Chuck, an outstanding tennis player and a member of the board of directors, became the club president.
Leonard was selling class rings and yearbooks when he took the Pacers' job. He and Storen had known each other in Baltimore, where Leonard, the old set-shot artist from Indiana University, coached the Bullets for a brief and undistinguished period.
Known as "Slick" because of his splendid sartorial habits, Leonard won the fans over as much with his colorful epithets and pirouettes off the bench as with his coaching ability. At the end of games the perspiring Leonard, with his tie loosened and his sport coat wadded up, bore little resemblance to the well-groomed Leonard of tip-off time, but he started getting results. The Pacers reached the .500 mark shortly after mid-season, then won 23 of their last 36 games to make the playoffs. Somebody named Leonard coach of the year, and everyone named Daniels the league's most valuable player, but no sooner had the fans started congratulating themselves than the Pacers were almost out of the playoffs.
Matched against the Kentucky Colonels, the Pacers dropped three of the first four playoff games—zip, zip, zip—largely because their defense failed to stop the long-distance bombing of Kentucky's guards, Louie Dampier and Darrell Carrier. Among the ABA's better innovations is the award of three points for baskets made from outside a 25-foot arc painted on the floor. The rule was designed to put the little man back in the game, which it does, and to give basketball a big play, like the home run in baseball, which it does. Together, Dampier and Carrier combined for 324 three-pointers during the season and together they almost shot the Pacers right into oblivion.
Starting with the fifth game, the Pacers responded to Leonard's goading. The guards, Freddie Lewis and Tom Thacker, began picking up Dampier and Carrier all over the floor. Underneath, Daniels and Netolicky, both possessed of soft shooting touches and hard strength, began to overpower the Kentuckians. And whenever the Pacers needed two points badly, there was mustachioed Roger Brown, still able to go one-on-one and get two points anytime.
The Pacers won the fifth game 116-97 in Indianapolis, then traveled down the road to Kentucky's Freedom Hall and demolished the Colonels 107-89 to even the series. The outcome of the final game, with all of those crazy fans, was predictable. Inflamed by a prolonged standing ovation before the game, Netolicky scored 32 points and got 16 rebounds. Brown added 29 points, his playoff average, and Daniels, despite getting in foul trouble and sitting out 23 minutes, added 16. But the people's choice was Thacker, the former Royal and Celtic whom Storen found late in the season working as a substitute schoolteacher in Cincinnati. He scored 19 points, a career high as a pro, held Carrier to only 16 and even helped Leonard coach in the huddles. "What I like about these guys," said Thacker after the game, "is that they listen. They don't get the big head."
Last Sunday night the Pacers opened their semifinal series against Miami, which eliminated Minnesota in the first round. The game was held 35 miles from Indianapolis in the Anderson ( Ind.) High School gym, because the circus forced the Pacers out of the fairgrounds and Butler University refused to rent out its 15,052-seat gym, apparently for fear of invoking the wrath of the NCAA. This situation might have started cries of "bush" at other places, but nobody in Indianapolis viewed it as anything more than a minor annoyance—especially after the Pacers won 126-110. "You can't compare this league with the NBA right now," said Thacker, who has seen them both, "but give it another year or so. The fans in Indiana are the greatest I ever played for, just as good as the Celtic fans. We've got a good team, a good coach, a good administration. I think we'll go a long way."