THE GOOD OLD ABA DAYS “The guys were messing around and one of the guns went off.”

Back in the 70s, the ABA was the wild child of basketball in the US. They had to differentiate themselves from the NBA, so we got the colorful ball, three-pointers, and up-tempo basketball with a lot of scoring and spectacular dunks. That overall attitude sometimes got out of hand, and it was all beautifully chronicled in “Loose Balls” by Terry Pluto.

One of the best teams in the ABA was the three-time champions Indiana Pacers. One of their main players was Mel Daniels. A two time ABA MVP, three-time ABA Champion, and a seven-time ABA All-Star. Daniels was the All-time ABA rebounding leader and had a passion for the Wild Wild West. A Detroit native, Daniels went to college in New Mexico, where he developed a passion for horses. After signing with the Pacers, Daniel purchased a farm outside of Indianapolis. 

Guys would come to practice all caked up with dust and mud because they had been riding horses for a couple of hours. They rode through the rain, through rivers; they were crazy. Then they started dressing like cowboys and I’m not just talking about the hats and the boots. They wore pistols and holsters like something out of “Gunsmoke.” There were nights where they went out riding and didn’t come back until daylight.

Dave Craig (Pacers athletic trainer), via Loose Balls

Daniels had “infected” a few of his teammates with cowboy fever, and soon enough, they started showing up to games and practices dressed up as cowboys. Guns included.  Rodger Brown and George McGinnis joined the crew, and the Pacers were ready to form a sheriff’s department. At first, it was just a gimmick. 

“We had a valuables bag where we stored our rings, watches, wallets, and that kind of stuff. When those guys got on the cowboy kick, Dave Craig would open that valuables bag, and you’d see a couple of holsters and 6-shooters right in there with all the wallets and watches. A couple of times, I walked into the dressing room, and there were Mel and Roger, pulling pistols on each other like it was the O.K. Corral. They never shot at each other, but they waved the guns around, sometimes even wrestled with each other on the floor.”

Billy Keller (Pacers guard), via Loose Balls

They would literally play cowboys, hide behind corners or climb on furniture and pretend they were shooting from their revolvers. It started to seem like things were getting out of hand, so trainer Dave Craig went to head coach Slick Leonard to tell the guys to town it down a bit. 

“Finally, I told (Pacers coach) Slick Leonard, “We’ve got to get these guns out of the dressing room before somebody gets hurt.Slick thought the whole thing was pretty funny and said, “Nah, those guys are using guns that aren’t loaded.But one day, the guys were messing around and one of the guns went off. Thank god no one was hurt, but then we had to pass a rule that if you brought a gun to the game, you had to check it at the dressing room door.”

Dave Craig (Pacers athletic trainer), via Loose Balls

Before Gilbert Arenas, there were the 70s Indiana Pacers. The only difference is, the Pacers didn’t have a gun safety seminar. Cowboy fever wasn’t the only reason why players had guns in Indiana in the 70s. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was considering the Pacers and visited to check out the scene. He watched a game and went to the locker room to talk to the players. Then he saw all the black players taking out guns after showering and dressing. Monroe asked them about the guns. 

“They got Ku Klux Klan everywhere around here outside Indianapolis and in the city, too. So we got guns to protect ourselves.”

Pacers player, via Deadspin

Monroe said he never considered that part of playing in Indiana, and it definitely contributed to him deciding to join the Knicks and play in the NBA. He left Daniels, Brown, and McGinnis to play cowboys and deal with the KKK. The ABA was something else.