by Conrad Brunner
January 3, 2003
By John Clayton
Indianapolis, January 3, 2003
Legendary Pacers coach and broadcaster Bob “Slick” Leonard was back in his familiar place alongside his friend and radio play-by-play announcer Mark Boyle when the New Orleans Hornets visited Conseco Fieldhouse Saturday night.
Leonard, who missed a month of the season after suffering what was termed a “heart episode” on Dec. 2 while with the team in Portland and later undergoing an angioplasty, wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I missed the games. This is my 50th year around the pro game. I signed my first pro contract as a player in 1954, so this is my 50th year,” said the 71-year-old Leonard, who added that he watched every game during his recuperation. “When you’re around something that long, you get it in your blood and you really miss it.”
And the Pacers missed Leonard, whose presence on the sidelines and radio broadcasts has been a constant for the past 15 years.
“It’s going to be big to see that handsome face back out there tonight,” said Al Harrington prior to Saturday night’s game against the Hornets. “It’s going to be good to see him now that everything is fine and he’s back to work.”
Harrington, who visited Leonard several times during his recovery, and Leonard have developed a close friendship during Harrington’s five-year tenure with the Pacers, a relationship that is symbolic of the former coach's ability to transcend generational barriers and communicate with today’s players.
“Slick is not only an icon of this franchise, he’s a guy who our players feel is near and dear to their hearts because they really know that Slick wants us to do well,” said Pacers Head Coach Rick Carlisle. “When we have tough losses, he’s agonizing with us – and I think we all feel that. When we have great wins, he’s on top of the world. He’s a guy that’s a part of us and we’re, obviously, a part of him, so it’s great to see him back tonight.”
For now, Leonard will only be broadcasting Pacers home games with Boyle on WIBC 1070-AM. He said he expects to be cleared in a few weeks to resume travel with the team and resume his regular schedule.
“I can go it alone, but it’s never the same as when he’s there,” said Boyle. “I get inspiration from seeing his energy at 71 - and just being around him, so I’m glad he’s back and just hope he remains healthy. That’s the main thing.”
Fans of Leonard from his days as a player and coach as well as younger fans who know him primarily as the most colorful of color commentators on radio, would agree.
Leonard said he received an overwhelming number of contacts from former teammates and old friends wishing him well. More than 250 fans e-mailed Leonard through Pacers.com to wish him a speedy recovery.
“It’s good to know you’ve got friends out there,” he said.
The affable Leonard has made many friends during a lifetime spent in basketball.
After starring at Indiana University for Branch McCracken, the Terre Haute, Ind., native signed with the Minneapolis Lakers and spent six seasons with the franchise before playing the final two seasons of his career with the Chicago Zephyrs.
Leonard’s legend would grow exponentially as a coach with the ABA Pacers. Under Leonard’s tutelage, the Pacers won the 1970 ABA Championship and then back-to-back ABA titles in 1972 and 1973. As the second and most successful coach in franchise history, Leonard won 529 games, a number that hangs on a banner with his name from the rafters at Conseco Fieldhouse alongside Pacers greats Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and George McGinnis.
But Leonard is not done yet. In an interview a few months ago, he said he would continue to work on Pacers radio broadcasts, punctuating each 3-pointer with his patented, “Boom, Baby!” for as long as he is healthy and continues to enjoy it.
“I feel great,” he said. “I was very fortunate and very lucky that I had the right people with me when it happened. (Pacers team manager) Joey Qatato and (head trainer) David Craig took care of me. If I hadn’t had that I could’ve been in a serious situation.”
Still, it was plenty serious enough. Leonard said he has learned a lot about the effects of a proper diet and other issues of the heart over the past month.
“Maybe,” he said, “this was a warning.”