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Lobo hoops legend Mel Daniels dies at age 71

Mel Daniels, one of the University of New Mexico's all-time basketball greats, is shown dunking in a game during the 1960s. Daniels has died at the age of 71, according to media reports in Indiana and the Indiana Pacers. (Journal file)

Mel Daniels, one of the University of New Mexico’s all-time basketball greats, is shown dunking in a game during the 1960s. Daniels has died at the age of 71. (Journal file)

To many Lobo fans, he was Mr. Basketball.

And will always be.

On Friday, legendary University of New Mexico basketball player Mel Daniels — a Hall of Famer and the player most in the state consider the all-time best big man in program history — died from complications after heart surgery in Sheridan, Ind. He was 71.

Daniels, who played at UNM during the 1964-65 through 1966-67 seasons, and was part of some of the greatest teams in school history — teams that helped tip off the birth of the modern era of Lobo hoops — had just been given an award by the UNM Black Alumni Chapter earlier this month. But after his heart surgery in Indiana, he was unable to attend. Close friend and former Lobo star Ira Harge accepted Daniels’ award for him.

 Mel Daniels and the Lobo basketball team left Johnson Gym for the Pit in 1966. (Journal file)

Mel Daniels and the Lobo basketball team left Johnson Gym for the Pit in 1966. (Journal file)

“I accepted it for him during homecoming week and sent it over to him,” Harge told the Journal on Friday. “I just talked to him on Monday, and he said he was doing all right. We laughed and joked and everything seemed to be the same.

“The last thing we talked about was trying to set up a time to get back in touch with each other. I didn’t know that would be the last time we would ever talk.”

Harge, who played at UNM during the 1962-63 and 1963-64 seasons and was the school’s first star big man, and Daniels were close friends most of their lives. Both came out of Detroit and to New Mexico under late coach Bob King.

King even got Daniels’ contact information from Harge and set about recruiting Daniels.

Along the way, Daniels, who later played in both the ABA and NBA, touched Lobo Nation with his vicious rebounding and beautiful fadeaway jumpers.

“That was his best shot, that fadeaway,” former teammate and guard Ben Monroe said Friday with a laugh. “Here he was 6-foot-9 and I was 6-3½, but I always gave him a hard time that I was the reason he got so many rebounds. … I wasn’t allowed to take a fadeaway like he was. Coach King always made me take it to the hole. Mel was allowed to do that fadeaway, and it really was a thing of beauty.”

Monroe, who retired after being a professor at Metro State for 26 years and lives in Denver, was Daniels’ teammate for all three of their seasons at UNM.

Daniels averaged 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds in his New Mexico career. He grew up in Detroit and starred at Pershing High School. He still stands 11th on the school’s all-time career scoring list and third in rebounding. He had 44 career double-doubles, which is the most in school history.

“Mel was very emotional, even hyper-emotional,” Monroe said. “One game, we were playing Utah in Johnson Gym. We had just beaten Texas Western (now UTEP) down there, and we were behind by six or seven at home against Utah. Mel was really upset. I don’t know if he was upset at us, or at himself. But he basically took his fist and punched the door we had to go through to get to the locker room.

“But he missed the door, and punched the plated glass on the door. It was really thick glass. You really had to be strong to break it. He punched through it, and it was a serious injury. He had to get taken away for stitches, and I don’t remember him returning to the game.”

The shattered door, like Daniels, also became part of Lobo lore. There are likely thousands of aging Lobo fans who would claim they were there that night at Johnson — a building that sat about 7,800.

Thousands more probably claim to have seen it happen in the Pit, which had yet to debut. But behind Daniels, Monroe and later Ron Nelson, the Pit was built and was packed on a regular basis.

Nelson came to UNM as a junior college transfer for the 1966-67 season when Daniels was a senior. The team was preseason No. 5/6 in the country.

The Lobos won 10 of their first 11 games — including beating defending national champion Texas Western on the Miners’ home floor — with the only loss being 62-61 in overtime at New Mexico State in a game that featured a clock controversy.

But the Lobos lost four straight on the road and finished 19-8, with a second-round loss to Rutgers in the National Invitation Tournament in New York City.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t handle it as well as we should have,” Daniels told 101.7 FM’s Henry Tafoya, with a laugh, in a January 2014 radio interview. “During the course of the year, things got us uptight for whatever reason. But, at the same time, we still tried to maintain that level of playing as effectively as possible. It was a fun experience, a great experience, a life experience for me.”

Said Nelson: “We really should have been good that year. How we ended up losing — well, I have some thought, but I really don’t know. I’m not sure how we didn’t do more that year.”

One thing Nelson did know is that he was on the same floor with greatness.

“Mel was a great teammate, a Hall of Fame guy, a Hall of Fame player and a Hall of Fame person,” Nelson said. “Both Ira and Mel, and maybe because it really was the beginning of Lobo basketball, they were so fun to watch.

“We would play together a lot during the summers after Ira had graduated, and Ira was the best 6-foot-8 shot blocker I have ever seen. Really, the best ever. And Mel was so incredible rebounding. I don’t even know how to describe it, but he took rebounding to an art. He would take the ball off the glass with one hand and make two or three big swirls (bringing) the ball down, while having it cupped between his hand and his forearm. It was a thing of beauty. People loved to watch him play. He was a fun guy and so excitable — it got the fans excited.”

Nelson, who played two years at New Mexico and eventually in the ABA, as well, said he formed a friendship with Daniels that lasted a lifetime.

“I don’t know why, but he just really took me under his wing here,” said Nelson, who lives in Albuquerque and owns an Uptown Square office building with former UNM assistant John Whisenant. “Mel was one of the top two or three centers in the country. Being able to play with him, was something. And he was my biggest supporter.

Mel Daniels, a UNM standout from 1965-67, returned to the Pit as a scout for the Indiana Pacers in this 1997 photo. (Journal file)

Mel Daniels, a UNM standout from 1965-67, returned to the Pit as a scout for the Indiana Pacers in this 1997 photo. (Journal file)

“That year, we were in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel We were standing around in the lobby and Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali — but at that time he was Cassius Clay — was in the lobby and we were kind of having fun with all the reporters around him. And Mel puts his arm around me, and tells these reporters, ‘Keep an eye on this guy. This is UNM’s next All-American.’ He didn’t have to do that.”

And Nelson was, making All-American as a senior in the 1967-68 season.

Nelson said he also credits Daniels for getting him drafted by the pros.

Daniels was drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati’s Royals with the ninth overall pick in 1967, but was also selected by Minnesota of the ABA — and went to the latter.

“He was  drafted by Minnesota, which later became Miami, and I know that next year that he told Miami to draft me,” Nelson said. “Mel was traded to Indiana, and the first time we went there to play with Miami — I was a rookie — and Mel and his wife made a big dinner and a big deal out of having me over. He was one of a kind. A unique player, who just got better and better as a pro.”

Daniels helped the Indiana Pacers win three American Basketball Association titles. After retirement, he stayed with the Pacers in their front office.

“I join our extended Pacers family in offering my sincerest condolences to (wife) CeCe and Mel’s family,” Pacers owner Herb Simon said in a statement. “We will miss him greatly, but when we look at that Hall of Fame banner in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, we will be forever reminded of what he meant to this franchise.”

Daniels was the ABA’s Most Valuable Payer in 1968-69 and 1970-71. The Pacers retired his No. 34 jersey in 1985 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1967-68 with the Minnesota Muskies. He joined the Pacers the next season.

Daniels averaged 18.7 points and 15.1 rebounds in 628 regular-season games in eight seasons in the ABA with Minnesota, Indiana and Memphis. In 109 playoff games, he averaged 17.4 points and 14.9 rebounds. Daniels spent a season in Italy, and played 11 games in the NBA for the New York Nets in 1976-77.

But around these parts, Daniels will always be remembered best for what he did at UNM — and how he helped give birth to a nation of Lobo-crazed hoop fans.

“He was a big funny guy, always laughing and very competitive at everything we would do; playing cards, playing basketball, dunking, anything,” Harge said with a chuckle. “He was like my little brother — even though he was bigger than I was. But he was a younger brother to me, and I talked to him more than my own brothers.

“We were very close. I’m really going to miss him.”

Mel Daniels as a Lobo

    Pts/G    FG Pct.    FT Pct.     Rebs/G    Record    Note

1964-65    17.0    48.0    60.9    11.1    19-8    Lobos earned NIT berth

1965-66    21.2    48.5    73.1    10.3    16-8    All-Western Athletic Conference

1966-67    21.5    48.1    68.6    11.6    19-8    WAC’s top scorer, All-American

Career    19.9    48.3    67.4    11.1    54-24

Mel Daniels, left and Phil Knight react after being introduced as Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductees at a news conference in New Orleans, Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Mel Daniels, left and Phil Knight react after being introduced as Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductees at a news conference in New Orleans, Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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