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April 20, 2014

Rockville native remembers ride through Pacers’ last championship season

The star player greeted the rookie with a bold promise.

It revealed the caliber of the team that surrounded Bill “Fig” Newton, a 22-year-old center, fresh out of Louisiana State University. He found himself in training camp with a virtual all-star squad. The previous spring, the Indiana Pacers won their second American Basketball Association championship in three seasons. Now, on the brink of the 1972-73 season, Newton quickly learned his new teammates weren’t done. Rock-built forward George McGinnis made that clear.

“He showed me his ring and said, ‘We’ll get you one of these,’” Newton recalled earlier this month, “and that was in training camp. And [then] he backed it up.”

Indeed, veterans McGinnis, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Donnie Freeman, Billy Keller, Darnell Hillman and a handful of newcomers to the franchise — including Newton — won a third ABA title in ’72-73. The Pacers oozed talent as that season began. Six of those returnees wound up with double-figure scoring averages. Six wore ABA rings, like McGinnis. Four had a pair of rings. Three, including Coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard, later became Naismith Hall of Famers.

If there was a dynasty in the ABA — a wild, entertaining, upstart rival to the establishment NBA from 1967 to ’76 — the Pacers were it.

Newton quickly realized that. He’d grown up in small-town Indiana, a native of Rockville, but understood big-time hoops.

Nearly 100 colleges recruited Newton as a Rockville High School senior, before he chose LSU, spending two seasons rebounding for legend-in-the-making “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Newton also became an alternate on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team.

So, young as he was, Newton had experienced high-caliber basketball.

Still, by comparison, battling for a position on the Pacers as a rookie was “kind of like night and day.”

“It was a great team,” Newton said. “Mel and Roger and Freddie and Donnie and some of those guys were mature players. They were at their peak. I would put them up against anybody at that time.”

Forty-one years later, Newton remains close to his former teammates and coach. Now 63 and living in Rochester, he’s a familiar face in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the arena the Pacers now call home in downtown Indianapolis, especially when the surviving members of the Pacers’ ABA era reunite. The current club entered the 2014 NBA playoffs — which they began this weekend against Atlanta — with, arguably, the franchise’s best chance to win a championship since the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976. Indiana holds the best record and top seed in the Eastern Conference.

They have Newton’s allegiance, too, including club president Larry Bird.

“One of the reasons I’m rooting so hard for the Pacers is that Bird has put this team together in his own image,” Newton said. “Not only do I want to see the Pacers win another championship, I want to see Bird win another championship to cap his career.”

Bird won three NBA titles as a superstar player with the Boston Celtics. Newton earned his ring as a reserve pivotman on the last of Indiana’s three ABA championship teams in 1973 and then ended his U.S. pro career after one more season with the Pacers. He hasn’t forgotten the ingredients necessary to win a major-league crown, though. The ’72-73 Pacers had just the right mix.

“The more I think about it, that was our best Pacers team,” Leonard wrote in his 2013 autobiography, “Boom, Baby!”

Friendly, but intense

The team lost popular power-forward Bob Netolicky to the Dallas Chapparals after the ’71-72 season. Otherwise, the Pacers’ ’71-72 title team returned largely intact. At training camp that October, a field of 20 returning stars, free agents and rookies dueled for spots on a roster. In reality, only a handful of slots were available, with so many returning standouts. The first-year players included Newton, Evansville guard Don Buse and Notre Dame forward Bob Arnzen. All three eventually made the cut. The competition was grueling.

“Now, it might be for the love of the game, but it’s also for the love of being able to eat, put a roof over your head and provide for your family,” Newton recalled. “There’s blood.”

And yet camaraderie. The veterans helped the newcomers, evaluating along the way. “They were just great,” Newton recalled. “They knew they were on the team, and they were just looking for the players that were going to be complementary.”

Once Leonard set the roster, roles defined. Slick preferred using shorter, stronger guys at center, rather than lanky giants. Daniels fit that mold, averaging a career double-double at 18.4 points and 14.9 rebounds a game. Leonard picked Newton, a natural forward, to move to pivot and match up against Daniels in practices and back the future Hall of Famer up in games.

“You know, with all those great players, your [playing] time is going to be limited,” Newton said.

Life as a reserve was new for Newton. Already 6 feet, 8 inches in high school, he averaged 23 points and 19 rebounds a game for Rockville as the Rox finished 19-3 in the 1967-68 season. At LSU, he served as the dazzling Maravich’s go-to rebounder and then climbed into a front-man role himself after “Pistol Pete” graduated. As a senior, Newton was the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player, averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds a night. Afterward, he toured the Soviet Union with a U.S. team of collegiate all-stars, leading the squad in points and rebounds. That led to an alternate spot on the ’72 U.S. Olympic team and a brief pro stint in Italy.

Thus, backup duty was an adjustment for Newton, but he embraced it. His job was to stay fit for spot action, encourage the starters, and bring enthusiasm every night. “You become a big cheerleader and keep yourself in shape to play whenever you’re needed,” he said.

Leonard appreciated Newton and Arnzen, who he used almost equally. “I didn’t get those guys into more than 20 or so games, but they never complained,” Leonard wrote in “Boom, Baby!” “They were good teammates, just good guys.”

Newton played in 24 games during the regular season and four in the ABA playoffs. He averaged 2.4 points and 2 rebounds, but when figured on a per-36 minutes basis — a calculation used by BaskeballReference.com — Newton’s ratios of 17.8 points and 14.5 rebounds were the Pacers’ second-best in both categories. In a game at San Diego, Leonard put Newton in the starting lineup, and he scored 24 points against the Conquistadors.

“I think that opened a few eyes, too,” Newton said. “But the Pacers were still an all-star team. That 24 points in one game was just that — 24 points in one game. I wasn’t going to replace Mel Daniels.”

‘It’s a grind’

The Pacers finished the regular season with 51 victories and 33 losses, taking second place in the ABA’s Western Division behind the Utah Stars. The Pacers knew the homestretch mattered most, though. A full ABA season included several preseason exhibition games, 84 regular-season games and potentially 19 playoff games. “It’s a grind,” Newton said. “Thankfully, it’s something you love to do, but it’s airports, hotels, airplanes and buses. It’s tough.”

The experienced Pacers cared less about their regular-season win total than being ready for the postseason. “Everybody wants to win, but the goal is to be the last team standing,” Newton said. “I think [the Pacers] played that way.”

Leonard, a Terre Haute native who played and coached in the NBA, “was a great part of that,” Newton said. “He was as much a psychologist as a coach.” Slick possessed an uncanny sense of when to push a player, back off or grant him a day off, Newton added.

Those players — from board-pounding Daniels, to high-scoring McGinnis, big-dunking Hillman, long-shooting Lewis and Keller, and steady Freeman — included a quiet playoff ace-in-the-hole, Brown. With speed, agility, knee-buckling deceptive moves, dead-eye shooting and pure hustle, Brown was “the greatest player most people never got to see,” Newton said.

If Indiana needed rebounds, Brown got them. If it needed assists, he dished them. Points and steals, the same. “True greatness is, to me, the ability to analyze what your team needs and that night you do whatever that is,” Newton said. “That was Roger.”

Robbed of his early pro years from a ban by the NBA after being wrongly accused of a college gambling scandal, Brown started late as a 25-year-old rookie in the new ABA in 1967 — the first Pacer signed. Thus, his career lasted just eight spectacular seasons. His performance in the 1973 ABA playoffs was vintage, and great as the Pacers were, they needed that.

The intensity of those playoffs amazed Newton.

“I’d never been through a situation like that before,” he said. He, Maravich and the heralded LSU Tigers reached the NIT Final Four a few years earlier, “but it was nothing compared to the rollercoaster I experienced with the Pacers in the playoffs.”

‘Roger destroyed ’em’

They eliminated Denver in the first-round series, 4 games to 1, but it took a long shot by Billy Keller to prevent the Rockets from winning Game 4 and evening things at 2 games apiece. “If that shot hadn’t gone in, everything could’ve changed,” Newton said.

The Western Division finals against Utah followed. The Stars, led by Zelmo Beatty and Willie Wise, held home-court advantage and opened with a win in Utah. The two teams seesawed to a 2-2 series tie before Indiana responded with back-to-back wins, clinching a trip to the ABA Finals against Kentucky. Like the Pacers, the Colonels were loaded. Their lineup featured future Hall of Famers Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, as well as sharpshooting guards Louie Dampier and Rick Mount. “They just had a heck of a team,” Newton said.

Kentucky held home-court advantage. The physical series blew that concept away, as the home teams won just twice in the games. Game 1 proved a harbinger of the series’ rough, marathon atmosphere; Indiana beat the Colonels at Louisville 111-107 in overtime. Nine days later, they were deadlocked at 3 games. The Colonels had the momentum, though. They won Game 6 at Indiana’s Fairgrounds Coliseum and were headed back to their own home arena, Freedom Hall, for Game 7.

Indiana had Roger Brown, though.

“I mean, Roger comes out, from the very start, and just destroys ’em,” Newton remembered. The Pacers won 88-81 and earned a new set of title rings.

Newton played one more season. The transition from forward to center continued to be difficult. “Amazingly, Slick had confidence in me,” Newton said. “He said, ‘You’re going to develop into another Dave Cowens,’” referring to the great, forward-sized Boston Celtics center. “But when you’ve been a forward all your life, you work twice as hard to accomplish half as much.”

Frontcourt swingman Netolicky, a key member of Indiana’s first two ABA title teams, returned. “Which was fine for me, because they were a better team with Netolicky than they were with me,” Newton said.

So he ended his ABA career following the ’73-74 season. Newton played in Italy again, finished his college degree at Indiana State University, met his wife, Jody, began a 39-year career with the Indiana Department of Insurance, and they raised a family that now includes two grown and married sons and three grandchildren. “It’s been happily ever after since then,” Newton said.

No regrets

His basketball memories are rich. He and Maravich, who died suddenly at age 40 in 1988, became lifelong friends. On the court, Newton witnessed Maravich’s wizardry firsthand. In a Dec. 22, 1969, road game against Clemson, Maravich set a Charlotte Coliseum record with 49 points in a 111-103 LSU victory. The final points stunned a writer from the Statesville Record & Landmark newspaper. To get a tip-in basket, Maravich jumped, put a hand on Newton’s shoulder for extra height and slapped the ball into the hoop. “That was quite a thrill,” Maravich told the newspaper afterward.

The ABA days were equally incredible. The Pacers’ battles with the Virginia Squires are a good example. The Squires’ lineup included Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George “The Ice Man” Gervin, future Hall of Famers. Erving “was dunking over everybody,” Newton recalled. Gervin — a rookie in ‘72-73, like Newton — had emerged from unheralded Eastern Michigan University and began shocking opponents in the pro ranks. Even Roger Brown.

In a game at Virginia, Brown drew the assignment of defending Gervin.

“Roger comes back to the huddle and says, ‘That’s the fastest guy I’ve ever guarded in my life,’” Newton recalled, with a chuckle. “And Roger never said anything in huddles.”

The bonds the Pacers developed lasted. As Leonard wrote of Newton in his book, “He was a great guy to have. We still get together to this day.” Decades later, fans from that era remain deeply fond of those Pacers, Newton said.

He has no regrets about landing in the ABA and on such a talent-laden team. He likely would’ve been a regular with another club and perhaps played more years.

“But I wouldn’t change any of that,” Newton said. “It worked out perfect for me.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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