INDIANAPOLIS — “You embarrass me,” says Bob Netolicky, laughing while on the phone from his home in Texas, trying to play down this crazy story idea he was called about.
The story is on “Neto,” the Indiana Pacers heartthrob, the player who cursed men and swooned women, waiting outside the Indiana State Fairgrounds coliseum to get a glimpse, or more, of the 6-9 power forward who owned exotic pets, dressed in outlandish fashions and ran the hottest bar in town where the likes of James Garner hung out.
Yes, Netolicky will admit to dressing fashionably (“All those ABA boys did,” he says) and yes, he owned exotic pets, including an ocelot, lioness, and a margay. Yes, he owned the now-demolished Indy bar Neto’s, where famous people who came to town for the Indianapolis 500 or some other big event drank all night.
But a heartbreaker? Silent women? Sex symbol?
“I’m not sure I remember all that,” says Netolicky, 80. “I think some of these things get blown out of proportion over time. I’m not so sure I was a heartthrob. I don’t really remember having women hanging around waiting for me.”
But remember newspaper articles. There are hundreds of stories of Netolicky’s eight years with the American Basketball Association Pacers in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the city’s “it man.” The words are there in black and white on yellowed sports pages of the Indianapolis Star.
“He has the sexiest teeth in the ABA.”
“Some people have even dubbed the 28-year-old bachelor the Joe Namath of the Midwest.“
“Netolicky is a true sex symbol for many female Indiana fans.”
Sorry “Neto”, the records tell the story. And so Netolicky reluctantly agreed to tell too.
Exotic man with exotic pets
Netolicky was born in San Francisco in 1942 during World War II. His father, a surgeon, worked on a medical ship abroad during the war. His mother was a nurse by trade who became a stay-at-home mom who took care of Netolicky, his sister and his brother.
When the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Netolicky grew up, basketball was not something that occupied his life. In fact, when he was a 5-11 freshman, Netolicky was cut from the basketball team and never played in high school.
Instead, Netolicky played at the YMCA, training and fighting college boys on the field. When he graduated from high school, he sat out for a year and a half and continued to play football. Finally, he and some friends decided to attend Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls to try out for the team.
Word of what Netolicky did at that tryout spread to Drake University coach Maury John — word from this big, agile guy that no one could guard. John called Netolicky’s parents and offered their son a full ride.
Playing for Drake, Netolicky was an All-American selection and left as Drake’s all-time rebounding leader (717) and fifth all-time leading scorer, with 997 points.
And it was during his studies that Netolicky’s reputation as an exotic man with exotic pets was born.
First there was the margay, a small South American cat. “It was like a little leopard about twice the size of a domestic cat,” Netolicky said. He had grown up with pets and loved them. He loved wild animals even more in his midst.
Subsequently, Netolicky became the owner of a lioness. It happened on a whim when his roommate had an idea. “We can buy a baby lion cub for $100. Want to go for half?” he asked Netolicky. It would be like “Born Free,” the 1966 movie about a couple raising Elsa, an orphaned lion cub. “Of course,” Netolicky said to his roommate. “Let’s do it.”
The baby cub arrived and Netolicky named her Julie. “And she ended up getting really, really big,” Netolicky said. “An adult cougar, 250 pounds.”
One time, Netolicky had Julie at a fraternity party. “We were just playing around and suddenly she’s missing,” he said. The next day he received a call from the police. A neighbor boy was mowing the lawn when Julie came out from under a tree.
“He almost had a heart attack,” Netolicky said. The neighbors were not fans of lionesses. Julie and Netolicky had to break up.
And so came the ocelot. Around the time Netolicky was getting ready to graduate from Drake, a friend of his who owned an exotic pet shop asked him. “Why don’t you buy an ocelot?” Hell, I didn’t know,” Netolicky said. So he said yes.
“He ordered it and it showed up, a little kitty and bingo bango,” Netolicky said. He had an ocelot named Socrates, a fantastic spotted wildcat.
Netolicky had that cat when he left Drake and when he was drafted by the San Diego Rockets as the 18th overall pick in the 1967 NBA Draft, one selection behind Phil Jackson. Netolicky never played for San Diego, but joined a new league called the ABA and played for Slick Leonard and the Pacers.
Socrates quickly caught the attention of the Pacers fan base and IndyStar wrote about it. “He’s a fellow who never knows whether he’ll be the host or the entrée when he serves supper to his pets,” wrote sports editor Bob Collins in his November 1, 1967, column.
Netolicky soon had to rehome Socrates and settle for a Black lab puppy.
But he didn’t need exotic pets to stand out in Indianapolis or anywhere else. Netolicky’s funky fashion and fast-paced lifestyle got people talking about much more than just his wildlife. And his play on the field quickly won fans, at least most fans. After all, there were the “curses”.
‘Most talked about and abused player in ABA’
As a rookie, Netolicky led the Pacers in rebound and field goal percentage (.504) and is one of only two Pacers in franchise history, the other being Clark Kellogg, to average a double-double as a rookie.
But as his stellar on-field career unfolded, Netolicky’s off-field life caused almost as much of a stir.
“His joie de vivre, day and night, has made him one of the most talked about and reviled players in the American Basketball Association in general and in Indianapolis in particular,” wrote the IndyStar on Nov. 13, 1970. “A Retirement for Exotic Pets , beautiful women, fast expensive cars and bright lights have earned a reputation for the 6-9 “Drake Dandy,” one of the friendlier things he’s called by some Pacers fans.
There were fans, male fans, who thought Netolicky cared more about his own good times than about helping the Indiana Pacers win games. Or maybe they were just “jealous,” said one newspaper article.
After all, Netolicky let women talk. A lot. “Neto saw himself as the Joe Namath of Indianapolis,” said teammate Billy Keller in “Loose Balls,” a book about the ABA by Terry Pluto.
Netolicky wore wide legs, tight shirts, had long hair and a slick hookshot.
“If you’re single and don’t wear a gray flannel suit, they say you’re different,” Netolicky said in 1971. “I wear fashionable clothes, enjoy good times, and I like to party. If that’s a flake, then I’m a flake.”
Netolicky was referring to being the only player to be named to the All-Flake team in the ABA for four consecutive seasons, an honor that wasn’t so much an honor as a joke to be less of a basketball player and more of a “player.” to be.
But Netolicky was a basketball player. He was a constant double threat in the early years of the ABA, averaging 18 points and 10.2 rebounds as he made the All-Star team his first four seasons. He won ABA championships in 1970 and 1972.
“I like to enjoy life and have fun,” said Netolicky in 1970. “But I’ll tell you this. I enjoy winning as much as anyone and I think I can act pretty well now. Most people talk and other people believe things are written and then it’s hard to live up to them.”
Elvis Presley from Indianapolis
There were rumors that Netolicky was a “swinger” (IndyStar wrote about it at the time), the kind of rumor that stemmed from a player who is handsome, wears funky clothes, and likes women and fast cars. Netolicky said he usually had a girlfriend when he played for the Pacers.
It was rumored that he cared more about his business, the bar Neto’s he opened in the spring of 1970, than about basketball.
“I talked to Slick one night last season about the idea of buying a bar and he was OK with it,” said Netolicky in 1970. “I think I play better because of the bar. If I don’t play well, The company is not doing well.”
People knew they could come to Neto’s and see Pacers players, get up close and personal with them.
His bar, Netolicky said, was more than just a performance by a professional basketball player. It was a place where everyone gathered and felt welcome. Neto’s was located in the Meadows shopping district at 38th Street and Keystone Avenue.
“The coolest part is there were no sports bars back then,” he said. “And there wasn’t a bar in Indianapolis where you’d see black and white people hanging out.” In later years, Netolicky said, Indianapolis civic leaders told him that Neto’s was a bridge that brought black and white people together.
“I’m proud of that,” he said.
“It became the place to go after a game,” the IndyStar reported. “Most of the players from both teams would come over and the place would be packed with fans who knew the players would be there.”
Other famous people were also at Neto’s. In addition to James Garner, the crew of Apollo 12 with astronaut Pete Conrad, who had walked on the moon, once appeared at Neto. All the Indy 500 drivers hung out at Neto’s. Freddy Boom Boom Cannon once stood on the bar and sang.
And there was the night Netolicky was at Elvis Presley’s concert in Indianapolis when Neto’s house bandleader came onstage and announced that Netolicky had called. “Elvis will be here in an hour.”
“I show up in my car (without Elvis) and 500 people are waiting to get in,” said Netolicky. “They’re not here to see me, they’re here to see Elvis, so they’re all disappointed.”
But not really. They were not disappointed. After all, Netolicky was the Elvis Presley of Indianapolis in those days – even if he doesn’t want to admit it.
When he retired in 1975, the last original Pacer, IndyStar, wrote about Netolicky.
“He instantly became a Hoosier hero,” the article read. “He was single, had an ocelot, had long hair and a super smooth hook shot.
“And he made the women swoon.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bob Netolicky: The Indiana Pacers Heartthrob Who Owned Exotic Pets