Local Sports

Basketball Hall of Famers once roamed the Garrett Gymnasium hardwood

Shelbyville High School’s William L. Garrett Gymnasium marks its 55th anniversary this month. The venue presents a synthesis of pleasing architectural style and basketball authenticity that has made it one of the state’s most celebrated sites.

Last year, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in conjunction with the Hoosier Hardwood Photo Project named Garrett Gymnasium as one of the state’s top 10 gymnasiums.

The arena opened on Dec. 15, 1967, as the Golden Bears outlasted a talented Richmond squad to claim a 77-70 victory. Over the next five-and-a-half decades, the gymnasium has been the scene of innumerable remarkable, memorable moments and events.

Yet, the pinnacle of basketball talent to grace the gym’s hardwood floor did so on two occasions in 1968.

The Indiana Pacers basketball franchise was born in 1967 as a member of the newly-created American Basketball Association. The Pacers home was the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis, however team owners understood their ultimate success would entail appealing to the entire state, particularly the central Indiana region. They were intent on being a team for all Hoosiers, hence the name Indiana Pacers instead of Indianapolis Pacers.

During that initial season, the Pacers scheduled games at area high school gymnasiums in cities such as Anderson and New Castle and on Jan. 30, 1968, played the Pittsburgh Pipers at the new Shelbyville High School Gymnasium (it would not be dedicated to Bill Garrett’s memory until 1975).

This was a time of limited mass media and the ABA’s players were largely an unknown quantity. Fans in attendance at Shelbyville that night were unaware that they would be witnessing performances by two of the game’s all-time greatest players.



Indiana’s Roger Brown and Pittsburgh’s Connie Hawkins (photo) were Brooklyn high school legends who battled in historic match-ups that became part of New York roundball folklore. Both were unfairly implicated in a gambling scandal and, though never legally charged, were excluded from collegiate participation and eventually banned from the NBA and cast into virtual anonymity.

The confluence of circumstances resulted in the two landing in the fledging ABA for its inaugural season in 1967.

Hawkins won the statistical battle that January night in Shelbyville scoring 35 points to Brown’s 13, however the Pacers defeated the Pipers, 119-113. Freddie Lewis would lead Indiana in scoring with 31 points with teammate Bob Netolicky contributing 22.

Media circles were abuzz the week of the game concerning the Pacers’ acquisition of 7-foot center Reggie Harding. Players of that height were rare at the time and basketball experts believed Harding had a wealth of potential. He had been a high school superstar but had never gone to college.

Harding played his first game as a Pacer in Shelbyville that night and tallied 18 points and 22 rebounds. Unfortunately, Harding had difficulty subscribing to team and league rules and was waived at the end of the season.

The game ended in controversy as the Pipers protested that the SHS court was 10 feet shorter than the standard NBA court length of 94 feet. Pipers’ players and coaches could be seen arguing their point at the far end of the gym immediately after the game.

Pittsburgh filed an official protest with the league. Team president Gabe Rubin called the situation “a travesty.”

The argument seems poorly conceived as the ABA was notorious for consistently playing in high school gyms and even the most rudimentary facilities with courts of asymmetrical dimensions. One team’s home court was an old airline hangar.

The league denied the protest and upheld the Pacers’ victory.

Pittsburgh compiled the league’s best overall record at 54-24 that first season and went on to capture the league’s first title with a 4-3 championship series win over the New Orleans Buccaneers.

The Pipers’ Connie Hawkins was named the league’s Most Valuable Player with Roger Brown named All-ABA Second Team. The Pacers finished 38-40.



Shelbyville High School again played host to the Pacers on Oct. 6, 1968, this time for an exhibition contest. The Oakland Oaks and superstar Rick Barry (photo, right) were the opponents. Barry had led the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA finals in 1967 and was an all-star who had led the league in scoring with a 36 points per game average.

Barry’s disputes with the Warriors about money issues initiated his jump to the ABA. He was ordered to sit out the 1967-68 season but was cleared to play for the Oaks in 1968.

The event was once again sponsored by the Shelbyville Lions Club and saw one of the game’s biggest stars take to the Golden Bears court. Barry did not disappoint. He scored 48 points as the Oaks downed the Pacers, 147-138.

Newly-acquired center Mel Daniels led the Pacers with 25 points, Brown had 22 and former Indiana Mr. Basketball and IU star Jimmy Rayl finished with 20.

Barry suffered a season-ending injury in December, however the Oaks went on to post the league’s best record at 60-18. They won the 1969 ABA championship by defeating the Eastern Division champion Pacers in the finals.

Barry’s statistics for his abbreviated season: 34 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game and an 89% free throw percentage.

Both events were highlighted with a decidedly local flavor. The first featured a halftime shootout between five local business people including Mayor Ralph Van Natta. John Thomas won the competition and donated his prize to the Boys Club and The Ron Winton Fund.

Prior to the Pacers-Oaks contest, Shelbyville Boys Club travel teams squared off against opponents from Franklin and Rushville in preliminary games. 

The Pacers would go on to win five division titles and three ABA championships. Terry Pluto, author of “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association,” designated the Pacers, “The Boston Celtics of the ABA,” in recognition of their consistent level of success and dominance during the league’s 9-year existence.

In 1968, basketball fans in attendance at the Pacers games in Shelbyville were treated to two evenings of watching some of the sport’s all-time greatest players.

Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Rick Barry are members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement for an American player.

Pacers’ Netolicky, Lewis, Daniels and Brown, along with Hawkins, and Barry, were named to the All-Time ABA Team comprised of the most outstanding 30 players in league history.

Brown and Daniels are two of only five Pacers to have their numbers retired. The aforementioned all played at Shelbyville on one or both of those nights in 1968.

In this day of hyperbole and mega-stardom, it is difficult to imagine a professional basketball team coming to a small town and performing before a local crowd. It is even more improbable that those in attendance would have the opportunity to be in the presence of so many of basketball’s all-time greats.

Shelbyville fans could not have appreciated the magnitude of what they were watching on those two evenings in 1968. Yet, as with all things, time provides a sense of clarity.

Today, reflection of those two special Pacers appearances in Shelbyville provides historical perspective and a renewed appreciation for the privilege of having witnessed a group of prodigious athletes demonstrate their skills in a very special gymnasium.

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