Outside of Indianapolis, one city stands above all others for its impact on the formative seasons of the Indiana Pacers: Kokomo.
It supplied a player, a coach and a dedicated sportswriter, and — in the first season — hosted two regular-season games. All of them are featured in my book, “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis.”
The 400-page book covers the fateful events that led to the birth of the Pacers in the American Basketball Association in 1967 and enabled them to survive and eventually thrive. It includes more than 50 photographs, many of them never before published.
Jimmy Rayl, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1959 when he led Kokomo High School to the championship game of the state high school tournament, was a member of the Pacers’ first team. He did not have a guaranteed contract, having taken the risk of giving up his stable position with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, where he played for the company’s elite AAU team.
Rayl averaged 12 points and finished second on the team in assists that first season as a part-time starter. He also was one of the primary beneficiaries of the ABA’s innovative 3-point line, hitting 57 of them — 18 more than his teammates, combined. He hit the first 3-pointer in franchise history, in the second game against Anaheim, and was voted the team’s Most Popular player by fans at the end of the season.
The Pacers played nine home games outside of Indianapolis that first season to win over fans throughout the state. Two of them were in Kokomo, a tribute to Rayl’s popularity as well as the extensive coverage the team received in the Kokomo Tribune by Gene Conard, who reported on virtually every home game and wrote several columns. The first game in Kokomo, on Dec. 5, drew 5,183 fans and resulted in a victory over New Jersey. The second, on Feb. 8, brought a loss to Denver before 3,771 fans and, more memorably, a fight.
Reggie Harding, a 7-foot center who was signed in January and played 25 games for the Pacers in their initial season, livened the proceedings by responding to the physical play of Denver center Byron Beck by throwing an elbow into Beck’s mouth in the second quarter. Beck charged Harding, who either ran out into the lobby or up into the stands, depending on which eyewitness account you want to believe. In those days, however, players were rarely kicked out of games for fighting. Harding and Beck both finished the game.
The Pacers finished 38-40 their first season, and were swept in the first round of the playoffs. Having had to fine or suspend Harding on multiple occasions, they dropped him and traded for the ABA’s first Rookie of the Year, Mel Daniels.
They were full of optimism at the start of their second season, but started 1-7. That led to the firing of coach Larry Staverman and the hiring of Bob “Slick” Leonard, who was living in Kokomo and working in sales for Herff Jones. Leonard, just 36 at the time, had most recently coached the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA in the 1963-64 season.
Although he had publicly stated his lack of interest in returning to coaching, Leonard took on the challenge of leading the Pacers with the understanding he could keep his day job selling graduation supplies. Gradually, he altered the team’s culture, guiding a team that was 2-7 when he took over (Staverman won his last game) to the ABA finals, where it lost to Oakland.
Rayl had been a starter at the beginning of the season under Staverman and played well on several occasions, but frequently clashed with his coach. He was revived by Leonard’s arrival, averaging 16.2 points in his first six games after the coaching change, but later was released amid controversy. Conard’s article left the impression the decision had been made by general manager Mike Storen, rather than Leonard.
“Jim did some great things for us, but sometimes things don’t work out like you want 'em to,” Leonard told Conard. “I hate to see him go.”
Rayl played just 27 games that season, starting eight, but maintained his reputation as a legendary shooter. He was leading the league in 3-point shooting early in the season before his playing time became sporadic, and he still ranked third (.370) at the time of his release. It would be five years before another Pacer, Billy Keller, took as many 3-pointers as Rayl that season and shot a better percentage.
The Pacers went on to win three championships over the next four seasons to establish themselves as the strongest franchise in the ABA. Their foundation was laid those first two seasons, however, and was made much stronger by the contributions from Kokomo.