POSTED: Jul 17, 2014 1:02 PM ET
Now a Pacers broadcaster, Bob "Slick" Leonard is a true Indiana basketball icon.
Three ABA championships as Indiana Pacers coach, 107 more wins than anyone in the alternate, tall-hair basketball league of the 1970s. There's his 529 wins (counting time on NBA sidelines), being a two-time All-American as a player and a star on the 1953 Indiana University team that won the NCAA title. And there's his seven years as a guard in the NBA. And, now, on Aug 8, his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
That's just Bob Leonard's backstory, though. The secondary achievements. Resumé filler.
The Indiana Pacers are his true legacy, especially the "Indiana" part. Their existence and that of the team's current arena -- perhaps by extension -- helped revitalize Indianapolis while providing an example of how a new sports complex can mean a lot more than sports. All Leonard did was change a city and a state -- help secure professional basketball there, which led to the construction of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which had a major role in downtown being re-energized with a facelift that lives on decades later.
To talk about his impact in basketball terms is not enough. The man affectionately known as "Slick" is being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., based on his success as an ABA coach. He's part of the Class of 2014 that includes Alonzo Mourning, David Stern, Mitch Richmond and Sarunas Marciulionis, but, really, that's nothing.
Leonard truly did save pro hoops in Indiana. He deflects the suggestion, insisting that his wife, Nancy, the general manager at the time, and others behind the scenes deserve praise. But some guy who knows a little about the history of the game in the state, among other observers, puts it on Slick.
"No question," Larry Bird said. "I remember him and his wife being on TV hosting a telethon to raise money to keep the Pacers in Indiana. He's everything to the Pacers. Through the lean years, he was in there fighting. When they had no money to get the players, he did whatever he could to try to put a competitive team on the court."
In July of 1977, the Pacers were squeezed to the brink of extinction or relocation after the ABA-NBA merger that also absorbed the Nuggets, Spurs and Nets. Leonard, as the face of the team, was making a desperate stand. The Pacers needed money and the time for dignity had passed.
Most telethons take at least a year to plan, Leonard explained, but in this instance, the Pacers had little time for planning. He turned to Nancy and her staff of 13 people to make a miracle happen.
"They made it awfully tough for the four ball clubs that got into the NBA. No draft choices, no (immediate) television (money) and all that. I think it was their way of getting even.
"Nancy was the first women general manager ever in pro sports. David Stern was the attorney with the NBA then. All of the dealings with the NBA were handled by Nancy. She had a staff of 13 people in the Pacer office.
"We were going busted. We were bust. We couldn't sign players to big contracts, reasonable contracts. Nancy and those people that she had in that front office, they were great people. They all went on later to a lot of success. Those 13 and Nancy are trying to save the franchise. They came up with the idea of having a telethon. There was a fella over in Zionsville, Indiana, who had worked on the Jerry Lewis telethons. They went to him. He told them that you had to prepare for a year to put one of those on. You know what happened? They didn't have a year, so they put it on in two weeks. That's what saved the Indiana Pacers."
That telethon not only saved the team, but strengthened Leonard's bond with it and created a life-long memory as well.
"They got 8,000 season tickets. Little kids were bringing their piggy banks in. It was 24 hours, around the clock. People were great. It was just a wonderful thing.
"And I think about this occasionally: Had we lost the Indiana Pacers at that time, and we were right on the brink, would the Indianapolis Colts be here today? Would all the restaurants and how great this downtown Indianapolis is, would it be that way? So I've got a great deal of feeling about the Indiana Pacers."
Leonard is Indiana, raised in Terre Haute and attended high school in Terre Haute. He learned about the game when a young college coach, Johnny Wooden, told the janitor to leave the door at the back of the gym open so Leonard could watch practice.
Leonard went to college 60 miles to the southeast, in Bloomington, and would later be named one of the 50 greatest players in state history. He became the first person inducted in the Indiana University sports Hall of Fame, and is one of five Pacer people to have a banner raised in their honor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
There were the seven seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Packers and Chicago Zephyrs, but Leonard is all Hoosier. And all Pacers. He coached them for 12 years, eight in the ABA and their first four in the NBA. He became the color commentator in 1985, first on TV and then on radio. It's a role he still has to this day, with his trademark "Boom, baby!" when the Pacers make a 3-pointer forever a part of the team's lore.
"I've been in every town in this state," Leonard said. "I talk about Hoosiers. I've had a love affair with them for a long, long time. I wish it could go on forever, but I know better than that."
He turned 82 on July 17 amid plans to make the Hall induction ceremony a family gathering. Roughly 20 of his relatives are planning to attend, plus close friends, Bird and Mel Daniels (his on-stage presenters), plus other Pacers representatives.
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