Basketball buffs up to the minute on their NBA trivia know what Ralph Simpson, Steve Smith, Kevin Willis and Spencer Haywood have in common. They all attended Pershing High School in Detroit. Oh, by the way, there’s one more ABA/NBA standout to be added to the list from that basketball academy—Mel Daniels. In fact, it’s the passing of Daniels Oct. 30 that summoned these basketball memories.
Daniels, like Simpson and Haywood, developed his skills on the court under the tutelage of Will Robinson, and there must come a time when he gets his moment in the “Classroom.” From the talented Robinson, Daniels learned not only the fundamentals of the game, particularly positioning himself for rebounds, but also the kind of attitude, demeanor and the relative calm exuded by the coach.
Melvin Joe Daniels was born July 20, 1944. If it had not been for his early prowess in basketball, Daniels might have been a poet of some renown. He began writing poetry when he was 8, having been inspired by readings from his mother, Bernice. His father, Maceo, was employed by an automobile manufacturer. But the poetry was put on hold as Daniels turned to basketball, especially with the increase in his height and interest.
The lessons from Robinson and his innate ability on the court were important assets for Daniels at the University of New Mexico. From 1964 to 1967, as an All-American center averaging 20 points a game, he led the Lobos in scoring and rebounding, taking them to top rankings in the NCAA. He was the ninth pick of the 1967 NBA draft and was selected by the Cincinnati Royals, though he chose to sign with the Minnesota Muskies of the American Basketball Association. They had offered him a more appealing contract, almost doubling his annual salary.
At 6-feet-9 and weighing 220 pounds, Daniels was an imposing center and a ferocious rebounder who possessed a nearly unstoppable fadeaway jump shot. All of these factors came into play when he was named ABA Rookie of the Year in the 1967-68 season. Even so, he was traded the next year to the Indiana Pacers, then of the ABA. The new team did not interrupt his skills on the court, and in 1969 and 1971, Daniels led the Pacers to three ABA championships. He was selected to seven ABA All-Star games and was named the MVP in the 1971 game.
During his years in the ABA, Daniels established a record in rebounding, gathering 9,494 of them, averaging more than 15 rebounds a game. To this number add the 1,608 he harnessed during postseason play, which places him among the career leaders in this category. When the ABA and the NBA began the merger of the leagues in 1976-77, he closed out his career with the NBA’s New York Nets after short stints with the ABA Memphis Sounds and a season in Italy. He was 32 with an ailing back when he joined the Nets. After 11 games with them, he hung up the sneakers.
“I loved the game,” Daniels told the press, “but my heart wasn’t in it.”
Billy Keller, a former teammate, recalled that Daniels “scared people out of the driving lane. If he went for a ball and ended up with someone’s head in his hands, he was just as likely to put a headlock on the guy as let him go.”
In the late 1970s, Daniels was an assistant coach at Indiana State University. This tenure was during the time when future Hall of Famer Larry Bird was the star of the team. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., in 2012. Many of his competitors and outstanding stars of the game felt he should have been inducted much earlier.
“Mel was a warrior,” said Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who coached Daniels during those championship days with the Pacers. “I can’t remember him walking inside those lines when he didn’t give 100 percent. If you look at the numbers he put up, scoring and rebounding, he easily, easily, belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
That warrior mentality was more than just praise for his combative spirit. In his rookie season he had 78 fights in 78 games. “Everybody was trying to establish themselves and you did what you had to, to make that happen,” Daniels told a reporter. “You could not back down because that showed a sign of weakness. If you showed a weakness, that showed you had flaws in your game that could be taken advantage of.
“So rather than fighting to fight, you established who you were,” Daniels continued, “that you were not going to be taken advantage of. That was the same in the NBA, in football, in hockey. But it was a new league and everybody had to find their niche.”
Daniels joked that it’s a good thing he wasn’t playing in the days after the leagues merged, otherwise he would have been broke just paying the fines for fighting. Back then in the ABA, it was only $25 for fighting.
His playing days behind him, Daniels coached for a while before being promoted to the Pacers’ front office, where he worked for 26 years until retirement in 2009. One of the annual birthday events was a dunk, which he did right up until a few years ago.
One day after attending the Pacers’ season opening game for the 2015 season, he died at his home in Sheridan, Ind., where he lived on a ranch. He was 71 and is survived by his wife, CeCe; a son, Melvin Jr.; his sisters Vivian and Wanda; and two granddaughters, the Associated Press reported.