Stevens: Mel Daniels Was Lobo Epitome Of Defense & Blue-Collar Basketball
Feb. 29, 2012
The Mel Daniels' File
Career: University of New Mexico, 1964-1967; Minnesota Muskies, 1967-68; Indiana Pacers, 1968-69 to 1973-74; Memphis Sounds (1974-75); New York Nets (NBA, 1976-77).
As a Lobo: UNM's first All-American (1967). He averaged 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds in his three-year career under coach Bob King. He led UNM in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage in three consecutive seasons.
In the ABA: American Basketball Association's first Rookie of the Year. He was a two-time ABA Most Valuable Player. He led the ABA in rebounding three times and is the ABA's all-time career leader in rebounds (9,494).He also was a seven-time ABA All-Star, a two-time playoff MVP and a two-time MVP of the ABA All-Star game. The Pacers won three ABA titles with Daniels playing center. He was No. 4 all-time in ABA scoring (11,739 points).
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you ever saw Mel Daniels play basketball as a Lobo or as an ABA All-Star, consider yourself fortunate. You witnessed one of the best basketball players to ever wear the short shorts at both levels of the game.
Daniels was beyond good. He was a 6-foot-9 nightmare of intensity that came at opposing players and rims like a physical blow. Really, that's what Daniels was. He was a fist with a jump shot. He was a fist who respected the values of fundamental basketball, work ethic and defense. He played smart. He played honest. He played with a mean streak under the glass.
He also was a player who recognized early exactly what it took to excel as his passion.
But could you expect anything else if part of your roots were formed in Johnson Gym and The Pit while being coached by New Mexico's legendary Bob King?
"You don't go out seeking all that other stuff," said Daniels, one of the first five players named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2012. "You go out to be the best basketball player you can be every night. The accolades fall on your shoulder as you do your job.
"You don't go out to be an All-Star or an MVP or a champion. There's an order for everything. I didn't go out looking to be rookie of the year (ABA). I just went out and did my job."
The seven-time ABA All-Star, two-time ABA MVP and three-time ABA champion (Indiana Pacers) obviously did his job well. He also reflects back on his career on and off the court and recognizes the true values in life's journey.
You cherish the moments, the memories and the people, not the trophies. You remember things that touched your heart, not things that touched your pocket.
"You remember the experiences you shared with teammates more than you remember games or whether you won or lost," said Daniels. "I've been very fortunate that I've enjoyed the teammates I played with. All the pieces seemed to fit, emotionally and physically."
Daniels says the backlash of being voted into the Naismith Hall has been "bittersweet."
"There are mixed emotions," said Daniels. "I've gotten a lot of nice calls from people, but there are a lot of other guys, who deserve this honor and they haven't been recognized.
"I appreciate the honor and embrace it. But there are so many players from our league who should be there. I still feel a void."
Daniels' basketball career began at Pershing High in Detroit when Will Robinson, a Detroit coaching legend (Illinois State, Detroit Pistons), noticed this tall sophomore roaming the halls. Robinson told the big kid to show up for basketball practice.
Daniels said he was playing football and baseball at the time and didn't think Robinson was serious. Robinson found Daniels three days later and was a bit more insistent in his request.
"I showed up that day," said Daniels.
Daniels said his coming to New Mexico to play for Bob King was also at Robinson's insistence. "He chose UNM and Bob King for me," said Daniels. Of course, Daniels also was pulled to the West.
"I think deep down inside I was a Western kind of guy," Daniels once told The Albuquerque Tribune. "I grew up in Detroit wanting to be a cowboy. It's no different for a city kid. Kids are kids when it comes to cowboys. When I had a chance to go away to college, I wanted to play in the West."
The Lobos obviously benefited from this special athlete becoming a Lobo. But Daniels is quick to note that the way "was paved for me" by Ira Harge - King's first big man from Detroit, who played at UNM from 1962-1964, averaging 11.8 rebounds and 18.8 points in two seasons.
"Part of this (Naismith induction), is playing there at New Mexico," said Daniels. "It was the experience of a lifetime. Bob King was a special person and he helped me and the other ball players in a lot of ways besides basketball.
"When you look back, you want to tell players not to take anything for granted. You want to take each experience and make the most of it. Playing at New Mexico was like nirvana for me."
When Daniels left UNM, he had his choice between the NBA and the ABA. He said the decision to go ABA was mostly financial, but he also was lured by the idea of being part of a grass-root movement to challenge the established NBA.
"First, it was a matter of dollars," he said. The NBA offer was $15,000 a year with a $15,000 signing bonus. The ABA countered with $27,500 and a $15,000 signing bonus.
"It also was nice to be a pioneer. Somebody had to start it (ABA), just like somebody had to start Lobo basketball. And we put a lot of pressure on the NBA."
The ABA sent a message to the NBA about marketing. The ABA had the 3-point shot, the red-white-and-blue basketball and slam-dunk contests. They also had an abundance of talent like Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Moses Malone, David Thompson - and Mel Daniels.
The NBA got the message and merged with the ABA in 1976. Daniels long has had another message to young basketball players: learn the fundamental and play defense.
This was a Lobo thing and a Bob King thing, sure. But it also became part of Daniels' fiber as an All-Western Athletic Conference player and as an ABA standout.
Daniels appreciates the athleticism you see on the court today, but wishes some of the old ways were there, too. The ABA star has long preached that young players "aren't learning the things they need to know. They don't play defense. They don't know the fundamentals. They don't respect the game."
Daniels has long respected the game and the rewards that come from hard work and playing the game the right way. There is an order for things. Daniels' induction into the Naismith Hall was preceded by a great athlete working hard.
The former Lobo says he keeps track of his Lobos and makes sure his friends in the Indianapolis area are reminded of Lobo success.
"I try to watch the Lobos as often as I can," said Daniels, who is married to the former Cecilia Martinez of Chimayo, N.M. "Steve (Alford) and (Craig Neal) are doing a fantastic job."
And if Coach Alford ever wants to remind his Lobos of how defense can be played like an iron fist backed by an iron will - all he has to do is find some tapes of Lobos basketball from 1964 to 1967. And then hope his Lobos don't have nightmares.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@Comcast.net.