"Heart of a Hoosier" Tells the Story of Living Legend Slick Leonard
By Greg Rappaport
It’s hard to say whether Bobby “Slick” Leonard owes basketball, or basketball owes him.
Without basketball, Leonard might never have had the opportunity to escape the hardships growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, during the Great Depression.
Yet without Leonard, professional basketball might not exist in Indianapolis, and Indiana University might not have won the NCAA National Championship in 1953.
“Should’ve won it in ‘54 too,” Leonard says with a wide smile. “We were favored to win it.”
It’s very possible that without Leonard, the sporting scene in Indianapolis would be unrecognizable to the present landscape, where two professional franchises—the Pacers and Colts—thrive on the passion of Hoosiers far and wide.
Photo Gallery: Slick Through the Years
Bobby Leonard’s incredible life story was on display Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where filmmaker Ted Green debuted his latest documentary: “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier”.
“The only reason the Pacers survived those first few rough years in the ABA was because they had Bob Leonard to bring that team together, and to win championships,” Green explained. “If the Pacers don’t succeed, who knows? I think it’s a real question whether the rest of the city would’ve developed as it has.”
Photo Gallery: World Premiere of Heart of a Hoosier
The price to attend the premiere was $5.29, a nod to Leonard’s 529 career victories as coach of the Pacers. That number rests in permanence on the banner hung high above the court of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and its importance is not to be taken for granted. Because without all 529 of Leonard’s victories—3 of which were ABA championships—it’s very possible that professional basketball would have died out in Indianapolis.
“You could make the case that he has impacted basketball on more levels in Indiana than anyone,” said Leonard’s fellow broadcaster and friend Mark Boyle.
In the film, Green drives with Leonard to Terre Haute, where it all began. As the star of his high school team, Leonard was beloved by the town, yet faced problems at home: a neglectful father; extreme poverty brought about by the Great Depression; and a mouth full of teeth that were so rotted due to lack of dental care that he was embarrassed to smile—or sometimes even speak.
This image of Leonard seems unfathomable to those who know him now as an always smiling and genial man. It wasn’t until he was on his way to college that a teacher gave him the money for new teeth, and it seems he hasn’t stopped smiling since.
He used his newfound grin and confidence to attract his eventual wife, Nancy Leonard, as a freshman at Indiana University. While there, he was also beginning to turn heads on the basketball court as well.
Coached by the legendary Branch McCracken, Leonard led the Hoosiers to a victory in the 1953 NCAA Championship, which was sealed by Slick himself, as he calmly drained a lead-taking free throw in the final minute of the game.
After turning pro and moving from one city to another, a severe shoulder injury ended Slick Leonard’s playing career, and Nancy and Bobby decided it would be best for the family to move back to Indiana. “This is home,” Nancy Leonard says in the film.
As a coach of the Pacers in the oft-rowdy ABA, Slick Leonard was known for injecting energy into the arena by demonstrably yelling at officials and putting on quite a show. It got the crowd fired up; the players engaged; and the referees worried. But with an attitude—and wardrobe—that matched his nickname, Slick Leonard all but exemplified what the '70’s-era ABA was all about.
The Slick Leonard of today seems to have calmed down quite a bit. Now a radio broadcaster, Leonard is widely known by today’s generation of fans for his phrase “Boom Baby!” which he shouts after every Pacers made 3-pointer.
“People of different ages know him for different reasons. Many of the people in the crowd know him from color commentary and ‘Boom Baby’,” explained Lloyd Wright, the president of WFYI, which collaborated with filmmaker Ted Green to create “Heart of a Hoosier”.
“I’ve always felt a little cheated,” he said, “because when I got to know who Bob Leonard was, it was as a coach."
Once a shy child in Terre Haute—now, an amiable extrovert, Leonard never forgets those who helped along the way. Like the teacher who gave him the funds to get his teeth fixed. Or the coach at IU who was a father figure to him. But most importantly, the family that he and Nancy built together, filling the voids left from his turbulent childhood.
These figures—and the state of Indiana as a whole—helped craft Slick Leonard’s life into the legendary basketball tale it is today. And by that same token, Leonard shifted the course of Indiana professional basketball.
So does Slick owe basketball, or basketball owe Slick? Perhaps it's best they call it even.
“I love the Indiana people, and they know I love ‘em,” Leonard said before the premier. “They’re the greatest people in the world. We’ve had a love affair for a long time and I wish it could last forever, but I know better than that.”