by Rita Lillpop Such (August 1997)

This past winter I sat in the gymnasium at Central Elementary School in Plainfield. My daughter, Rachel, was a member of a 5th grade cheerleading squad. It was half-time. The girls were off to the water fountains to refresh their vocal chords. The boys were huddled around their respective benches, some staring into the air, most listening to the instruction of their coaches. Brothers and sisters of the participants rushed to the gymnasium floor with their own basketballs to shoot hoops during the break. A lull in the conversations of mothers caused my mind to wander until my eyes fell upon the familiarity of a red, white and blue basketball, bouncing aimlessly across the gym floor.

The sight of a red, white and blue basketball never fails to awaken a nostalgic tug on the sentimental strings of my heart. I watched its owner chase after it, secure it in his hands, dribble and shoot.

In 1969 I was twelve years old. That was the year the Fairgrounds Coliseum became like a second home to me. I suppose it was destined to be that way, considering my Dad was an avid sports fan, and I grew up across the street from Billy Keller’s family. There was no escaping it. They became my heroes. A unique love for our ABA Indiana Pacers took root in my heart and remains to this very day.

I suppose that it was only natural that during the recent ABA Reunion, the focus of talk was centered around what kind of impact the ABA had on the game of basketball itself. I have to wonder if there is anyone else out there like me, who cherishes the many ways our ABA Indiana Pacers impacted our own personal lives.

There remains a tapestry of photographs and memories of those years that live in my heart. I don’t know if it would be possible to pull them all out at once, or really, if anyone would be interested in hearing about each and every one of them. Of course, I have the same recollections I read so often about in the newspapers, hear on television, or come across on the Internet.

My Dad took me to every game he could. If he had to work, I would hitch a ride to the coliseum with Billy’s parents. About the middle of my teen years, my brother returned home from the Navy and he would let me tag along to the games with his dates (I don’t know if he scored many points with the ladies for having his kid sister along, but I would have expected nothing less). We made the trips to Anderson and Bloomington for the games that were played there. My Dad put me on the fan bus to Louisville and I was at Freedom Hall. I even remember being at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and I guess that must have been for an All-Star game, I’m not sure. After I got my driver’s license at the age of 16, I was able to drive myself to the games. When the Pacers were on the road, I would watch the televised games. On those rare occasions when I couldn’t get to the game, I would listen on the radio in my room. I attended the banquets they would have at the end of the seasons, and we would go to the airport to greet the team when returning from the playoffs on the road. I would devour the sports page every morning and afternoon, hungry for statistics, pictures for my scrapbook. Any news whatsoever about my heroes, I wanted to know it.

There are so many things being part of our ABA Pacers taught me during my years as an adolescent. Most influences were positive, however, there were a few negatives. I wonder that it would have been impossible to sit with the crowd at the Coliseum as often as I did and not learn how to be verbally abusive to opposing players and referees. There was nothing politically correct in the attitude of true Pacer fans. When my own sons became old enough to play team sports it was hard for me to sit on the sidelines and not make negative comments concerning their opponents. To this day an occasional rude comment will escape from my mouth, my only defense being to shrug with a smile and confess that I grew up at the Coliseum.

The positive influence our Pacers had in my life far out weigh the negatives. In my young eyes they were a classic example of dedication and teamwork. They filled my heart with expectancy, hope and the ability to dream big. I am sure the most important thing I learned from them was how to have faith, to persevere, and to never . . . ever . . . give up.

The memories I feel led to share wouldn’t be found on any sports page because they aren’t a statistic and had no impact whatsoever on the game of basketball. Instances such as how happy I always was when my Dad would give me the money to buy a Coke and take it down to Jerry Baker as he broadcast the games over radio. Mr. Baker was always so kind to us kids. In 1972 when my mother was dying of cancer in the Veterans Hospital on 10th Street, he wished her well during the game one night. My heart was fourteen years old at that time. It may sound like a small thing to most people, but I remember handing Mr. Baker that note at the game, and I remember the look on her face the next day when I was able to visit her in the hospital. She was so happy and surprised he had done that.

After we’d won a Championship on the road, my Dad had driven me out to the airport to be there when the team arrived home. I couldn’t have been anywhere else. Not many people know that I used to pray my rosary (I was raised Catholic) during really important, close games, begging God to intervene and help us out. When Dad told Bobby Leonard that I’d been counting off the rosary beads during the final minutes of that last game, Coach Leonard scooped me up off my feet and gave me the biggest hug, thanking me. I’ll never forget that. Some of the muscles in my back felt strained for weeks afterward. Whenever I felt the twinge in the middle of my lower back, I just grinned because Coach Leonard made me feel that I’d been a part.

I remember my Dad getting me out of school and dropping me off at the ticket office on 38th Street so I could stand in line for two to three hours for playoff tickets, and then he would pick me up. I always met the nicest people in those lines, or on the fan bus, or sitting around us at the games. It was always my goal to get there in time to get a $10.00 ticket. The closer to the floor, the better. There were those times when I had to settle for the $5.00 seats, but no matter how high up I found myself, the most important thing to me was being there.

One game we were sitting beneath (behind) the basket, and I couldn’t hardly sit still the entire game because Mario Andretti was sitting next to me. He was there with Al Unser, Sr., and Parnelli Jones. You just never knew who you were going to meet at a Pacer game.

On May 3, 1973, my Dad and I had third row seats for a playoff game. I know I was sitting in my seat, but to be honest, and as I’ve recounted this story for whoever would listen over the years, I never saw the first half. Before the game began, I spied Neto sitting in the first row a ways down from where we were sitting. I was so happy to see him (as he had been with Dallas that season) that I couldn’t wait to go talk to him. I made my way quickly to sit in the empty seat next to him. I couldn’t tell you exactly what words were exchanged at first. I just remember that my heart felt all warm and mushy that he smiled at me and remembered my name. I remember telling him that it was my 16th birthday. Then he surprised me. I remember him saying, “Sweet 16 and never been kissed?” and before I could answer him he very briefly kissed me. I don’t know how I made my way back to my seat. I remember telling my Dad and how he just grinned at me and let me sit there like a zombie staring into space while he enjoyed the game. No material present I’d received that day exceeded how special Neto made that birthday.

I graduated from high school in 1975. I guess a lot of things changed around that time. In my heart, after the Pacers left the Coliseum, things were never again the same. Different ones began to retire and Market Square Arena wasn’t as ‘homey’ as the Coliseum had been. I believe the ABA had a positive influence on the game of professional basketball. Personally, however, I believe a lot of negative aspects have entered the game from various and other sources, and it makes my heart sad to know that my kids will never experience what I had when I grew up. I have a feeling today’s Pacers will more than likely never experience what our ABA Pacers did as a team. I have read it over and over in historical accounts of those years, and I believe with all my heart that it’s absolutely the truth when they are remembered as having been like family to each other. I feel the magical thing about those years was that they had a way of making those of us in the stands who lived and died with them each and every game feel like we were an integral part of their family as well. I share my experiences with my children, and they try to understand, but I know they really don’t because they’ve never experienced anything close to what I did back then, and unfortunately, the way things are now, they probably never will.

My personal, favorite, all-time Pacers are Neto, Roger Brown, Billy Keller, Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis and Darnell Hillman. Sometimes, still and yet, the laps I’d made around the hallways of the old coliseum return to me in my sleep. Sometimes I find myself a teenager again, standing in the foyer outside the locker room after a game with Billy’s parents, waiting quietly in the background, always looking up as I watched my heroes emerge from the locker room in their street clothes. I always secretly hoped Billy would take his time so I could see everyone. I recall Mel Daniels fighting Zelmo Beaty on the boards, Neto’s soft hook shot, Billy’s home-run shots, Freddie’s leadership, Darnell’s hair, and waiting for Roger to sink that last second shot to win the game. I think my heart soared through the air and rode with the ball every time it left a Pacers hands until it swished safely through the hoop.

I realize there were a multitude of basketball talents and legends that visited our Pacers at the Coliseum, and I know I was very fortunate to have been able to watch them display their talents in person. While my young heart respected their ability, I have to admit I only saw them as the competition, another hurdle for our Pacers to leap past on their way to another championship. As great as players such as Rick Barry and Julius Erving were, isn’t it a shame they never had an opportunity to experience being a part of our basketball family and wearing the blue and gold.

The last time I saw most of my childhood heroes was in March 1997 when they were standing around Roger Brown’s casket at Market Square Arena. I don’t know if anyone could ever understand how I wished I could have held each one of them with my heart. I don’t know if it made a difference to anyone at all that I was there. I just know I couldn’t have stayed away. They were like family to me when I was growing up. I couldn’t have stayed away. I was there to share all the wonderful, victorious years with them. Those men gave me so many wonderful moments and memories to cherish throughout the years. I had to be there to share their grief.

I don’t have a lot of ‘memorabilia’ left from those days. Of course, now I wish I’d saved all those old programs, ticket stubs, autographs, pennants, pictures and scrapbooks. Unfortunately, when I was 19 years old I felt a need to grow up and separate myself from my youth and I disposed of nearly everything. Silly me, huh? Despite my lack of material Pacer paraphernalia, there is so much more I haven’t even attempted to recount that belongs to the memorabilia in my heart, and no material reminder could mean more than the memories that remain alive inside of me.

I have less than a handful of things I chose to keep throughout the years. I guess my favorite material memory, one that I held onto, is a Polaroid snapshot which was taken in January of 1974. It was one of those days when if you got to the game early enough you could get your picture taken with your favorite Pacer. In this particular photo, I’m sitting with Neto (I like to think me and my rosary talked God into delivering him out of Dallas and back home again to Indiana), and guess what we are both holding onto? What else? The red, white and blue basketball.


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