Captain Freddie Lewis

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Captain Freddie Lewis

Postby rlee » Tue Oct 08, 2013 1:43 pm

Lewis was captain of Spirited team
by Mark Monteith

Freddie Lewis played 7 ½ seasons for the Pacers, and was the starting point guard and captain of three ABA championship teams. The largest quantity of his basketball memories draw from that time.

Lewis went on to play just two seasons for The Spirits of St. Louis, but those years were hard to beat for quality memories. Not necessarily positive memories, but certainly quality memories.

ESPN will debut a documentary of the team, Free Spirits, Tuesday at 8 p.m. as part of its 30 for 30 series. Lewis will figure prominently in the feature. He should, since he figured so prominently in whatever success the team managed.

“It was a completely different experience,” Lewis said. “They were young guys; they were just kind of starting their careers. I was already nine years into mine. They were very wild. They needed so much guidance, but they had an awful lot of talent.”

“Completely different.”

“An awful lot of talent.”

Those two thoughts pretty well summarize the Spirits, who left one of the most bizarre legacies in all of professional sports during their two years of business. Their rosters featured the likes of Marvin Barnes, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone, Ron Boone, Don Chaney, M.L. Carr and Steve Jones, all of whom went on to play well in the NBA. Wildly talented but undisciplined playground legend Fly Williams played a season in St. Louis, and former Indiana University star Steve Green got to experience the final 36 games of their brief history.

Freddie Lewis

Fittingly, their play-by-play voice was a fresh-out-of-college talent named Bob Costas, who would go on to national broadcast fame.

Lewis was thrust into the mix early in the 1974-75 season. He had been traded from the Pacers to Memphis following the 1973-74 season along with Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. After six games in Memphis, Daniels slipped while taking a shower at home before a game and injured his back. Memphis general manager Mike Storen, who had signed Lewis and Brown and traded for Daniels as the Pacers’ original GM, then traded Lewis to St. Louis for Tom Owens to fill the gap at center.

Riding from the airport to his first practice with the Spirits, Lewis was informed that he had been voted the team captain. It was like being handed the reins to a bucking bronco. But it was, in some ways, one of the most satisfying seasons of Lewis’ career.

Playing in 63 games for an average of 40.7 minutes for the Spirits that season, Lewis averaged a career-high 22.6 points, along with 5.5 assists and 2.2 steals. He was voted MVP of the ABA All-Star game in San Antonio, when he scored 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting and passed out 10 assists in a 151-124 victory for the East team. For that, he was awarded a Quarter Horse named Tough Julie and a saddle. He elected to take the auction price of $1,950 instead of the horse, and gave the saddle to Daniels. (See this link for details)

The Spirits finished just 32-52, but still made the playoffs and went on to eliminate the defending champion New York Nets in the first round in five games. After Julius Erving dribbled the ball off his leg, Lewis took an inbounds pass and hit the game-winning jumper from the top of the key in the elimination game. They lost to the eventual champion, Kentucky, in the second round, partially because Lewis suffered a sprained ankle.

The Spirits’ second season, coached by future NBA executive Rod Thorn, was disastrous, as injuries, turnover and turmoil took their toll. They finished out of the playoffs with a 35-49 record, and usually drew fewer than 1,000 fans for home games. Lewis averaged 14.8 points, and then rejoined the Pacers for the first 36 games of their first NBA season in 1976-77 before he was released.

Freddie Lewis Spirits2

The most often-told story of the Spirits is that of Barnes refusing to board a flight from Kentucky to St. Louis, which was scheduled to arrive before its departure time because of the time zone difference. “I ain’t going to get on no time machine,” Barnes said.

Lewis recalls another time that Barnes missed the team’s flight from New York to Virginia. He caught a charter and arrived at the arena in Virginia as the team was warming up, wearing his uniform underneath a trench coat. The players talked the coach, Bob McKinnon, into letting Barnes play that night, and, as Lewis remembers, Barnes scored about 45 points.

“I’m still going to fine you, but I’m not going to be mad about it,” McKinnon said afterward.

The Spirits remain a major thorn in the side of the Pacers. In return for not being part of the “merger” that enabled the Pacers and three other ABA teams to enter the NBA, the Spirits owners, Ozzie and Dan Silna, accepted an agreement in which they received one-seventh of the television revenue from each of the former ABA teams. In perpetuity. Once the league’s popularity exploded, that became a windfall. As of 2012, they had received a total of $225 million from the broadcast rights of the former ABA teams, according to the New York Times. In recent seasons, the Pacers have had to write a check for $4.5 million, nearly the amount of the mid-level exception for a player, to the Silna family.

Lewis, for one, has fond memories of the Silnas. Their financial success enabled them to own a hotel/casino in Las Vegas, where he worked for awhile after retirement.
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