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With 2:50 remaining in the seventh game of the ABA Western Division final between Utah and Indiana last week, James Jones stood near midcourt, only a step or two inside the Stars' offensive zone, with the basketball resting firmly on his right hip. Jones is his league's best backcourt man, a masterful, fluid ball handler and shooter of the Robertson-Frazier school, and he stood there for 10 seconds, allowing the clock to run and watching his four teammates settle into their positions on the Salt Palace floor. Just before passing the ball that had been in his nearly impeccable care throughout the night, Jones took in a long deep breath. Then he let out a huge sigh of relief that was at least as much visual as audible.
He had good reason for the display. Jones had played one of the best games any quarterbacking guard had ever played and had led the Stars from the edge of extreme embarrassment to a smashing 109-87 victory and the position opposite the New York Nets in the ABA championship round.
Ten days earlier it had seemed that the Stars would win this series without having to take a deep breath. With Jones and Forward Willie Wise playing up to their usual form—which is very good form indeed—and sore-legged Center Zelmo Beaty performing better than he had in the last four years, the Stars swept the opening three games. A 3-0 lead is usually enough to prompt an opponent to begin its summer vacation at the tap-off for the fourth game. But the Pacers, who were following a peculiar pattern of their own, rallied for three straight victories. Those wins not only knotted the playoffs but also, by sheer coincidence, evened the scoring in the series at 607 points apiece and tied the two intense rivals at 36 wins each over the years the Stars have been in Utah. And going into the seventh game, everything from manpower to momentum seemed to have shifted Indiana's way. The Stars were gasping mainly because an uncommon but debilitating illness had incapacitated Beaty, and the Pacers were apparently ready to perform a minor miracle.
Until Indiana's belated comeback, no basketball team except the 1950-51 Knicks had ever come from three down to tie a series. And only once in all the years of World Series, Stanley Cup competitions, ABA and NBA playoffs or indeed anything even resembling a major professional sports league had a team trailed 3-0 going into a seven-game series and then come back to win. The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to do it in 1942 against the Detroit Red Wings, but that could be reckoned as just one of those sports oddities that occurred during World War II.
You might possibly argue that Pacer Coach Slick Leonard is, in fact, just an updated version of Douglas MacArthur. Leonard certainly knows a thing or two about returning. He's become an expert at it. Rarely has there been a team that has matched Indiana's tendency to trap itself in apparently hopeless corners and still return in triumph. The champion Pacers have won three of the last four ABA titles, though in doing it they almost always have had their backs to the wall.
Their performance this season reached a new high—or low—when it came to rubbing their scapulae up against the brickwork. Mixing nearly unbelievable lethargy with inspired ineptitude, Indiana managed midway through the schedule to fall so far behind Utah in the Western Division that even the super-rabid fans back home in Indianapolis began to recognize the Pacers' lassitude for what it was, and they stopped coming to games. Attendance was down almost 10% from last year as the Pacers yawned to a 46-38 record, securing second place in the West ahead of San Antonio only in their final regular game. All this despite the fact that Indiana probably has the ABA's most talented and experienced roster.
True to form, the Pacers handed away the home-court advantage their finish had earned them by losing the opening game of the first-round playoff series to the Spurs in Indianapolis. Indiana finally won that series 4-3 but only because they somehow managed to come from 15 points behind in the second half of the seventh game. After years of dangerous, but not ultimately fatal, flirtation with doom, it seemed that the Pacers' failure to build a winning frame of mind during the regular season might now at last do them in. They appeared unable to switch on their dormant competitiveness when they needed it in the playoffs.
As if to prove the point, the Pacers immediately went into the three-game nose dive when they came up against Utah (105-96, 106-102, 99-90). General Leonard then decided it was time to inspire his forces. Forward George McGinnis, the Pacers' mainstay throughout the series, had been playing at the top of his game. At 6'8" and 235 very solid pounds, McGinnis looks as if he is made out of the same stuff as the Old Oaken Bucket, and his performances—he wound up with the best scoring (29.7) and rebounding (14.5) averages in the series—seemed likely to make him an equally revered chunk of Indianana. McGinnis and company staved off extinction by winning the fourth game 118-107.
Before the fifth game, the Pacers were helped by a new defensive star, a little fellow named Epididymitis, whose name appears on no ABA roster. Often a pro will claim that he guarded his man so tightly that he was right inside his shirt. Epididymitis, which is what afflicted Zelmo Beaty, did better than that. He got under Zelmo's skin, sent his temperature to 105� and took Beaty right out of the rest of the series. Fifth game: Pacers 110-101.
Beaty's departure from the lineup was not the only problem besetting Utah Coach Joe Mullaney. He was fruitlessly shuffling through his tallest forwards trying to find a man to stop McGinnis. His search continued into the first quarter of Game Six. With the Pacers ahead 12-4 Mullaney began thinking small, first putting 6'2" Ron Boone on McGinnis and then, briefly, a reluctant 6'6" Wise. Together they held George to 23 points, his lowest total in the series to that point. The game was a squeaker, 91-89, but Indiana's once again and they had now bootstrapped themselves into a tie.