Pacers

Roger Brown (35) would go on to become one of the greatest players in Pacer history, playing on three ABA championship teams.

From the time of its opening in December of 1967, Shelbyville High School’s Garrett Gymnasium has been regarded as one of Indiana’s premier high school facilities, often mentioned in the same breath as New Castle’s Chrysler Arena, Columbus’ Memorial Gymnasium and the historic Anderson Wigwam. The 5,832-seat venue provides a special place for players and fans to enjoy Indiana’s game. It is common for people visiting SHS for a non-basketball or school event to ask to see the unique gymnasium that has hosted the Golden Bears for the past 54 years.

Word of the gymnasium’s special nature and aesthetic quality quickly made its way around the Hoosier state. On Jan. 31, 1968, the Indiana Pacers hosted the Pittsburgh Pipers for a regular season contest during the American Basketball Association’s inaugural season.

The Pacers founding created a great deal of excitement, particularly in the central Indiana area as many from the region would travel to watch their home games at the Indianapolis Coliseum. The team had a very local feel and though few games were televised, WIBC Radio and announcer Jerry Baker reached a consistently developing, loyal fan base.

The game at the Shelbyville Gymnasium (the facility would not be formally dedicated to Bill Garrett until 1975), drew a capacity crowd. I remember as a wide-eyed 11-year-old that the sheer newness of the arena was staggering. It had been in use for barely over a month. The seating seemed endless and the wooden architecture presented a folksy, yet elegant image.

The spectators that evening did not realize that they would be watching two players who would be considered among the best to ever play. The Pipers’ Connie Hawkins and Indiana’s Roger Brown had been Brooklyn high school legends who had historic matchups during their days in New York. Both had been unfairly accused of consorting with gamblers. Though never legally charged, the implications cost them their college careers and resulted in a ban from the NBA. These circumstances landed them in the upstart ABA.

Both would ultimately be vindicated with Hawkins eventually starring for the Phoenix Suns. Brown would go on to become one of the greatest players in Pacer history, playing on three ABA championship teams and becoming one of only three Pacers to have his number retired. Both men have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

On that January night in 1968 in Shelbyville, Hawkins earned the statistical advantage with a game-high 35 points compared to Brown’s 13. However, the Pacers won the game 119-113. Freddie Lewis led Indiana in scoring with 31 points with forward Bob Netolicky contributing 22. Lewis and Netolicky would become Pacer favorites during their careers in Indiana. The two, along with Brown and Hawkins, were named to the list of the 30 greatest ABA players.

Another familiar Hoosier face for the Pacers was Kokomo native Jimmy Rayl. Rayl was the 1959 Mr. Basketball winner and went on to earn All-American honors for two years at IU. He spent two seasons with the Pacers, averaging 12 points per game during the 1967-68 season.

A few well-known Shelbyville people took part in a halftime shoot-off competition. Mayor Ralph Van Natta, businessman and one-time County Clerk, councilman John Thomas and WSVL Radio manager John Hartnett Sr. were among six men matching shots for the win. Each individual shot from half-court, the top of the key, the foul line and the dotted line (formerly across the lane for jump balls). The contest came down to Thomas and Hartnett, who traded several made shots from the dotted line with Thomas ultimately gaining the victory.

There was quite a buzz about the Pacers’ newly-acquired 7-foot center Reggie Harding. Seven-foot players were rare at the time and Harding would be playing for the Pacers for the first time at the Shelbyville game.

Harding had been a high school star. He had never gone to college but basketball experts believed he had unlimited potential. Harding would score 18 points in the game at Shelbyville. Unfortunately, he often ran afoul of team rules and was waived at the end of the season.

The game was not without controversy. Following the loss, Pittsburgh complained that the court was only 84 feet in length and therefore 10 feet short of a professional floor. Players and coaches from the respective teams could be seen arguing at the far end of the court. The Pipers filed a formal protest with the league with Pipers’ Team President Gabe Rubin calling the situation “a travesty.” The protest was not upheld and Indiana retained the victory.

Though they fell to the Pacers in the game at Shelbyville, the Pipers would compile the league’s best record at 54-24 and would go on to capture the ABA’s first championship. The Pacers would finish 38-40. A slow 2-7 start for the Pacers to begin the 1968-69 season resulted in the firing of Coach Larry Staverman and the hiring of Bobby Leonard.

The team would win the Eastern Conference that season with a 44-34 record before losing in the championship finals to Rick Barry and the Oakland Oaks. Under Leonard, the Pacers would become “The Boston Celtics of the ABA” (Terry Pluto, Loose Balls) and win three ABA championships.

Timing is so often the primary factor in what comes to pass. The formation of the ABA, the creation of the Indiana Pacers franchise and the opening of a remarkable athletic arena coincided to bring historic basketball talent to Shelbyville and a very special experience to so many of us.

John Hartnett, former Boys & Girls Club executive director, is a sports columnist for The Shelbyville News. Contact Hartnett at jah46176@yahoo.com.