by Conrad Brunner
August 22, 2011
With or without the Hall, Leonard's legacy secure
Editor's note: This is the last of a three-part series examining the Hall of Fame prospects of former Pacers including Reggie Miller, Bobby Leonard, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and George McGinnis.
Indianapolis August 22, 2011 -- Bobby Leonard would much rather talk about the Hall of Fame prospects of his former players than his own.
"When it comes right down to it, when you look back, that whole front line of ours should be in the Hall of Fame -- Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and George McGinnis," he said. "They all should be in there."
Funny thing about that. They'd much rather talk about how much their former coach belongs in the Hall and the injustice that he has been ignored.
With Chris Mullin's induction last weekend, four players who spent time with the Pacers are now in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame (Mullin joined Alex English, Adrian Dantley and Gus Johnson). But no player or coach identified primarily with the franchise has been inducted despite the obvious credentials of candidates like Reggie Miller and the former ABA icons.
"That goes without saying. That's almost an embarrassment," said Daniels. "I don't want to name some of the guys that have been put in over Slick but that's just an obvious oversight on the part of those men who are in position to select who belongs in the Hall of Fame."
Daniels played on all three ABA championship teams (1970, '72 and '73) coached by Leonard. George McGinnis played in the final two title teams. Along with the late Roger Brown, those three players represented the heart of the Pacers' dominance in the ABA, while the fiery Leonard was its soul.
All four have banners hanging from the rafters of Conseco Fieldhouse; the three players' numbers are retired (McGinnis No. 30, Daniels No. 34 and Brown No. 35, while Leonard's banner bears No. 529, representing his coaching victories with the Pacers.
"Of all the injustices, Slick is one of the biggest if not the biggest -- moreso than us players," said McGinnis. "Here's a guy who won three championships against some really, really good competition. Look at his record and everything he did in the league. And then when the Pacers finally got into the NBA they had no money and weren't able to compete and he did a really, really good job.
"We here in Indiana know what he did and what he meant to the game. It's just too bad he hasn't been recognized for that."
In addition to the three championships, Leonard won 579 games as a head coach in the NBA and ABA, hit the game-winning free throws for Indiana University in the 1953 NCAA championship game and played seven sevens in the NBA, averaging 9.9 points.
He was by far the ABA's most successful coach, racking up 387 wins in nine years, more than 100 ahead of second-place Babe McCarthy. Only one other ABA coach won more than one title, Kevin Loughery, who picked up two with the New York Nets (1974 and '76).
"Slick had a hell of a coaching career," said team President Larry Bird. "I don't know if they're going to let the ABA records come into it -- I see Artis (Gilmore) got in, which could help -- but obviously he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He's been in the business since the '50s, he's been instrumental in keeping the Pacers here, he's really been the face of this franchise for a long time.
"He's been involved in basketball his whole life. He's been a great mentor and a great teacher and he's done a lot of great things. All of the guys in the Hall of Fame are deserving but I really believe Slick deserves an opportunity to be in the Hall. If you look at his whole career, Slick deserves a shot."
Of the 56 men who served as head coaches in the ABA, 12 are in the Hall of Fame. Some made it on the basis of their playing careers (Cliff Hagan, Slater Martin, Wilt Chamberlain, Frank Ramsey) while others also enjoyed coaching success in the NBA (Larry Brown, Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman).
But Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who won one ABA title with the Kentucky Colonels in 1975, had a sub-.500 record as an NBA coach and finished with fewer career victories (528) than Leonard.
Clearly, Leonard's career record stacks up with many, if not most, of the coaches in the Hall. There is hope for ABA legends to gain long-overdue recognition in the form of the ABA Committee formed by Hall Chairman Jerry Colangelo but it could be too little, too late.
"As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter one way or another to me," said Leonard. "But when you look back at my career, I played on an NCAA championship team, made All-America twice, played in the NBA, coached in the NBA, coached in the ABA … I don't know. There's so much politics. But I think at least with Colangelo in there I think you'll get an honest shake.
"I've never pushed it. I've had a long career, about 60 years. You know how I am: nothing bothers me. Whatever happens will happen. If that's the way it's supposed to be, that's the way it'll be."
Given Leonard's iconic stature in Indiana, it's difficult to comprehend how he has been overlooked. For a different perspective, we turn to veteran basketball scribe Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, the dean of NBA journalists.
"With all due respect to Slick, in the national eye he is a Hoosier icon and not a national figure," Ryan said. "He's a treasure in Indiana, going back to winning a national championship for the Hoosiers with Don Schlundt and then he was an OK player in the NBA.
"He's a great guy and he's revered in Indiana but that doesn't translate nationally."
Which raises the question: is being an icon in Indiana less than being an icon in New York or Massachusetts?
Apparently, the combination of representing a relatively small Midwestern market in a league perceived at the time as something less than the NBA -- although history has proved otherwise -- have worked against Leonard and his players.
"You have the combination of not only being in the wrong league but being in the wrong cities, at least as far as the way the people that select these things look at it," said Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, author of quintessential history of the ABA, Loose Balls, published in 1990. "And on top of that, most of the great Pacer players, by the time the merger came were past their primes.
"We are in flyover country in a long-forgotten league. … To me, as somebody who cares about basketball, cares about that league and also cares about fairness, it's very frustrating."
It's possible Leonard has been penalized for his sub-.500 record in the NBA (the Pacers went 142-186 in his four seasons after the merger) but that, too, would be unreasonable. The merger proved so costly for the franchise that it very nearly folded but for the barnstorming efforts of Leonard and wife Nancy.
And yet despite an empty bank account and a roster light on talent, those teams were competitive. The Pacers averaged 35.5 wins in Leonard's four NBA seasons; they averaged 28.8 in the next six before the combination of Simon ownership and Donnie Walsh management began building the franchise to respectability.
"Slick deserves to be in for his career -- he had an amazing career," said Walsh. "He won championships in high school, he won championships in college, he won championships in the ABA. He was a fixture as a coach and during those NBA years he didn't have the same talent but they always were right there. They weren't just one of these teams that was picking at the top of the draft every year. At that time, Indiana was a very tough team to beat."
At age 79, three decades removed from his coaching career, Leonard has accepted the call to Springfield may never come.
Somehow, though, you get the feeling that those closest to him have long believed Leonard doesn't need the Hall of Fame to certify his greatness.
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