INDIANAPOLIS — Mel Daniels’ former teammates will always remember him as a fighter.
Cindy Simon Skjodt will always treasure his breathtaking bear hugs, and Reggie Miller will always consider Daniels his favorite uncle.
On Thursday, Daniels, the former Indiana Pacers star, was remembered as everything from a tough-talking enforcer to a cowboy-loving poet to a gentle giant who captured the hearts of so many fans in this basketball-rich state. He died Friday at age 71, less than 24 hours after attending Indiana’s home opener against Memphis.
“We started out as a family, and that family grew and grew and grew,” former coach Bob “Slick” Leonard said during a public memorial held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “I look out and see Jeff Foster, I look out and see Reggie, and I look out and see Derrick McKey, and they all became part of that family, and it all started with that original band of buddies.”
Daniels was the unquestioned leader of the group that won three ABA titles.
At 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, he owned the post. The Detroit native who never played the sport until his junior season in high school finished a Hall of Fame career as the ABA’s career leader in rebounds, No. 4 in league history in scoring, with two MVP awards and the 1967-68 rookie of the year award.
He was never afraid to mix it up on the court.
In his first pro game, with the Minnesota Muskies, he got into a fight and was ejected. Another time, later in his career, Daniels was knocked down in the first half and responded by following the opposing team to its locker room before being detoured to his own.
Teammates were often treated the same way.
“He did not like me in the paint. That was his house,” former Pacers forward Darnell Hillman said. “If you came in his house, you paid a price. I paid a price, too.”
Age didn’t change that.
Foster told a story about the one time he convinced Daniels to ditch the cowboy boots so he could go at it on the court. After dribbling about 20 times, Foster said he started complaining and Daniels turned and immediately hit a shot that sent him sprinting away yelling, “yee-hee.” Daniels never let Foster forget that it was the last basket of his career.
Away from the court, though, Daniels had a big heart and plenty of fatherly advice.
Miller recounted the time Daniels told him there were only three places he needed to drive in Indianapolis — Market Square Arena, his own house and the bank to cash his paycheck. Eventually, Miller said, Daniels relented and added one more acceptable place to the list — the drive thru at Steak-N-Shake.
But it was their first encounter in the fall of 1987 that turned Miller, a California kid accustomed to temperatures in the 80s, into a lifelong fan of the no-nonsense, baritone-voiced man he called Uncle Mel.
“He looked at me and said, `Son, do you know you where you are? It gets cold around here. Where’s your jacket, fool?” Miller said, drawing laughter from a crowd estimated at a little less than 1,000. “I said, ‘I never had a jacket. What kind of jacket should I have? He said, ‘Look, Dummy, one that keeps you warm.’ That was Mel, and I said from that moment, ‘I love this man.'”
His presence resonated far beyond the locker room, too.
Around town, Daniels was known for his strong handshake, his love of horses and a down-to-earth demeanor who enjoyed mingling with fans.
But there were two things about Daniels that weren’t well known.
“You’ve read the last few days about his handshake, but his hugs were equally bone-crushing for the ladies,” said Simon Skjodt, the daughter of late team co-owner Mel Simon. “We were always fearful he would squeeze the breath right out of us. But you always wanted one.”
The other was his love of poetry.
Throughout the 90-minute ceremony attended by Daniels’ family members, several of the thousands of poems Daniels scribbled on napkins, the backs of receipts and other assorted papers were read. One that appeared on the video, read by Daniels, was written for Miller as a polite way of prodding him not to come out of retirement.
Not surprisingly, Miller got the message.
But Leonard’s summation was the most fitting.
“I’m going to miss this guy. Like all of us, I’m going to miss him,” he said. “I know how tough he was, I know how committed he was. He would give you the shirt off his back. He had a heart of gold. There’s not much more to be said.”