Slick's Journey From Terre Haute to the Hall of Fame (Part 2)
Part 2 of a 2-part series on Pacers legend Slick Leonard's basketball career, which began in Terre Haute, Indiana and will lead him into the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Click here to read Part 1.
Leonard knew how to push buttons off the court, too. Back in the days when teams flew commercial flights and stayed overnight at their hotel following road games, he required his players to gather in the bar afterward. They didn't have to drink alcohol, and they could bring a friend, but they had to be there for awhile to celebrate the win or discuss the loss. If someone failed to show, he bought the first round the next time. Truth be told, some of those road trips bordered on mayhem, producing stories the participants still delight in telling during private moments. But they, too, contributed to the bond.
There was one more crucial ingredient to the unique chemical composition of Leonard's teams: his genuine compassion. He didn't just go after Netolicky with a hockey stick in that locker room in Duluth, he also flew with him to Iowa for his mother's funeral. He didn't just leave Brown home for a road trip to send a message, he also became a father figure for him. That was publicly evident when Leonard wrote a poem that he read at Brown's funeral service in 1997.
“It got to the point sometimes it was like, 'You want me to knock the wall down? Show me where it's at,'” Hillman says. “We were ready to run through a wall for him. He had our backs.”
Leonard didn't learn how to build that brand of camaraderie from anyone, and it wasn't concocted. Perhaps it was how he filled the emotional vacancies of his childhood. Or maybe it was in his genes. Whatever, it was more a way of life than a strategy.
“Every player is an individual,” he says. “You have to understand what kind of person they are. And you play to their strengths.
“If you're phoneying up on them, they'll figure you out pretty quick. You've got to let them know you sincerely care about them and their families. There's a time when you need to kick 'em in the butt and a time to hug 'em. We developed a great family here.”
The bond in still intact. Leonard sees his players often, and it's like no time has passed when they're together. Netolicky hosted a party shortly after Leonard's Hall of Fame selection, and another for a private premiere of Ted Green's documentary, “Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier.” There will be another party at the home of team ophthalmologist Dr. John Abrams later this month.
Perhaps the best display of their eternal team unity came after Leonard suffered a heart attack on the team bus following a win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in March of 2011. He spent five or six days in the hospital back in Indianapolis, where a pacemaker was implanted. His former players didn't leave him alone for long.
“One day I look up and there's all my guys,” Leonard recalled. “We start telling jokes and my ribs are broke (from the resuscitation effort on the bus in New York). I'm laughing, and it's killing me.”
“They were making so much noise, but they had all the people up there laughing,” Nancy added. “You could hear them all over.”
Leonard's knack for relationships has extended beyond the locker room. He and Nancy created a family atmosphere in the ABA days that ran through the entire franchise, hosting parties after games that included the stat crew, front office employees, referees and even opposing teams. Fans have been made to feel welcome, too. It's telling that he and Nancy have maintained a listed phone number throughout their time in Indianapolis, even when he was at the peak of his fame while coaching the Pacers. They wanted friends from out of town and their children's friends from school to be able to reach the household in that era when people looked up numbers in telephone books or called directory assistance. Even today, 40 years after his final championship, there are nights it seems he knows most of the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Or at least they feel they know him.
He still gets autograph requests in the mail from all over the world. Nearly all of them adhere to the protocol of including a self-addressed stamped envelope, but one recent request didn't include postage and had an illegible address. Leonard drove to the post office to see if anyone there could decipher it so he could mail it back at his own expense, but it was hopeless.
One of Leonard's proudest accomplishments is his longevity. The heart attack convinced him to limit his broadcasting schedule to home games, but he still outlasted every one of his playing counterparts from the 1950s who held NBA jobs with NBA teams. Hot Rod Hundley, his roommate with the Lakers, Johnny Red Kerr and Tommy Heinsohn all were working as broadcasters well into the 2000s, but gradually fell by the wayside. Slick was the last one working a fulltime schedule. Kerr (Chicago) has passed away. Hundley (Utah) is retired and his health is failing, although he went to the trouble to fly in for the public premiere of Leonard's documentary at Bankers Life on July 29. Heinsohn (Boston) cut back his schedule before Leonard did, although he still makes the occasional road trip.
It wasn't exactly a competition to see who could survive the longest on an NBA payroll, but it means something to Leonard that he outlasted everyone from his era. It means he stayed on the bus the longest. While he's no longer a fulltime passenger, he's still riding it metaphorically. And he'll go as long as he can.
You just finished Part 2 of a 2-part series on Pacers legend Slick Leonard's basketball career. Click here to read Part 1.
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