Slick Gets the Call
It was a long time coming, and, in the opinion of Pacers fans, long overdue. But at least it wasn't too late.
Friday's announcement that Bob “Slick” Leonard had been selected for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame seemed more cause for relief than joy among his family and friends, who thought he shouldn't have had to wait until he was 81 years old to receive the honor.
Leonard becomes the third consecutive Pacer to enter the Hall via the ABA Committee, which receives one automatic selection per year. He follows two of his former players, Roger Brown (2013) and Mel Daniels (2012). He'll be joined by recently retired NBA commissoner David Stern, international star Sarunas Marciulionis and former NBA players Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Guy Rogers.
Five former NBA players and three former coaches were announced as finalists for the honor on Friday. The complete class will be announced on April 7. The induction will take place on Aug. 8 in Springfield, Mass.
Leonard's primary credentials are his college playing career and ABA coaching career. He was an All-American at Indiana University, and hit the winning foul shot in the NCAA tournament championship game in 1953, his junior season. He later coached the Pacers to three ABA titles.
Those achievements weren't regarded as sufficient by Hall of Fame selections committees until the ABA committee was formed in 2012.
“It's about time,” Daniels said, speaking for many, as Leonard was introduced to the media at a press conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday. He was joined by his wife of nearly 60 years Nancy, two of his sons, Tommy and Timmy, some of his grandchildren and three former players: Daniels, Darnell Hillman and Bob Netolicky.
All three paid similar tribute to his coaching, particularly his ability to motivate, build camaraderie and institute winning strategy – sometimes in the halftime locker room.
“He pulled us together,” Netolicky said.
“He made me better, he made our team better and he made us believe in ourselves. It sounds hokey, but I'm telling you … if the last guy on the team got into a fight, we were all there. If some guy had a problem at home, we were all there.
Photo Gallery: Slick Through the Years »
“If we did something (bad) we felt like we let him down.”
Leonard, a Terre Haute native, received All-America recognition at Indiana University, and hit the winning free throw in the championship game of the NCAA tournament in 1953. He played seven seasons in the NBA, the last one as a player-coach for the Chicago Zephyrs, and then became a coach fulltime when the franchise moved to Baltimore.
Fired after a losing season there, he returned to Kokomo with his wife, Nancy, and children to begin a career as class ring salesman for Herff Jones. He was lured back into basketball by the Pacers in the second ABA season in 1968-69, after the team got off to a 2-7 start. Just 36 at the time, he quickly instilled his brand of discipline and camaraderie and began a seven-year run in which the team won three championships, reached the league finals two other times, and reached the conference finals twice.
He continued to coach the Pacers after they were absorbed into the NBA in 1976, but the franchise lacked ownership with the financial wherewithal to accumulate a competitive team. He was fired in 1980, but returned a few years later as a broadcast analyst. He's now iconic to younger generations as a radio color commentator with play-by-play announcer Mark Boyle.
Leonard had always downplayed his omission from the Hall in previous years, although every NBA coach who won three championships has been admitted. He expressed no bitterness on Friday, either.
“No, no,” he said. “Hell, I've had so many honors in my basketball career – more than I deserved. I'm happy that I was able to get in ... they must have run out of old guys.”
He began his address to the media by praising Nancy, whom he met his freshman year at IU, and said the honor is most meaningful to him because of the legacy it leaves for his children and grandchildren.
“You get as old as me, your family, that's what it's all about,” he said.
Leonard said he had not received a call from anyone at the Hall of Fame to make his selection official, but heard from Daniels and Netolicky earlier in the week. “If those are guys are telling me, it's probably a lie,” he joked.
He and Nancy knew it must be true when Pacers front office personnel called and told them to be at the Fieldhouse for a press conference. While Leonard took the moment in stride, Nancy remained skeptical.
“It has to be a big deal for him,” she said. “It has to be. It's the acknowledgment that he put his whole life into basketball, and that he did excel at great levels. It has to be. I don't believe one thing he says.”
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