Another Season Begins, and Slick’s Ready

Let’s start with the new grill.

It’s a Traeger, one of those electric smokers that uses various wood pellets to add flavor, and Slick Leonard can’t wait to get back out on the deck and use it again. He grilled a couple of filets for Nancy and himself, along with baked potatoes and asparagus, the first time out, and Tuesday he went with chicken thighs. A pork tenderloin is in the refrigerator waiting its turn, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of cooking the Thanksgiving turkey on it, although it would take more than one to feed his five kids, 12 grandkids and six great-grandchildren.

“It’s a different ballgame,” Slick said of the grill, looking through the owner’s manual. “At my age, it’s going to be fun to do.”

At his age, 86, and particularly in this hellacious year, Slick Leonard appreciates all the simple pleasure of life. He fractured his hip last January 5 when he slipped on ice while unloading some boxes at a church recycling center. After spending most of his rehab in a hospital bed in the family room at home, he returned to work the radio broadcasts for the Pacers’ final six home game, playoffs included. But then on June 15, while walking into a rehab facility in Carmel for another workout … “Boom! I go down again!” he recalled.

Let’s just say that was quite a way for Nancy and him to spend their 64th wedding anniversary.

He broke his left wrist that time. He could tell it was serious when he saw the bone sticking out the bottom of his hand, and indeed it was. His surgeon pieced him back together again, but warned his arm likely will have to be amputated if it breaks again.

He spent three months in a Westfield care facility that time, where he felt absolutely no sympathy for himself because he saw so many patients who were so much worse off than him. He nearly died after suffering from cardiac arrest on the Pacers’ team bus after a victory in Madison Square Garden in 2011, and broke some ribs after falling on Larry Bird’s Nashville, Ind. property a year later. Then came the fractured hip and the broken wrist, but never mind all that. He’s still got a life to live.

His children conspired while he was recovering over the summer and, with Nancy’s begrudging approval, arranged for them to move out of the home in Carmel they had purchased in June of 1970 after he coached the Pacers to the first of their three ABA championships.

Leonard was the head coach of all three of the Pacers teams to win the ABA Championship (Photo: Pacers)

You might assume they have downsized. Perhaps moved into a senior community or, if they were really daring, into a small home. But you would be wrong. Slick and Nancy now live in a home on Carmel’s west side that’s every bit as large as their previous house. It has four bedrooms and a bonus room, a three-car garage, a “monstrous” basement and a beautiful deck out back. Slick was driven there directly from the care facility in Westfield when he was finally released. He didn’t like the looks of it at first, but once he saw the deck that overlooks a tree-lined ravine, the one perfect for grilling, he was sold.

The basement won him over, too. It has yet to be finished, but his daughter Terri is gathering much of the memorabilia he has doled out to his children over the years and will create a virtual museum of his career in basketball. It will be carpeted. The pool table and workout equipment from their previous residence, which should go on the market in April, will be moved in, as will Nancy’s piano. Add a couple of sofas and a television, and …

“When you see that basement you’re going to be amazed, I’m telling you,” he says.

There are but two concessions to the fact Slick now requires a walker to get around: the main level bedroom and the elevator his children had installed to get him down to the basement. He can no longer climb stairs. He hasn’t even been up to see the second-floor bedrooms where his grandkids and great-grandkids will stay, but he’ll get around to that later with help from his sons.

Is it any wonder, then, that Slick and Nancy will be in their customary positions in Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Wednesday’s season-opener against Memphis? Of course they will. She’ll make her usual rounds through the restaurant, media room and private family rooms before taking her front row seat behind the scorer’s bench. Slick calls her the Mayor of Bankers Life because of all the people she knows. He will be behind the microphone, working the game with play-by-play partner Mark Boyle, from their perch halfway up the fieldhouse.

One of his former players, Darnell Hillman, who works for the Pacers’ community relations department, will meet them with a golf cart after Nancy parks in the underground garage. After dropping off Nancy near the restaurant, Hillman will drive Slick to the freight elevator and take him up to the mid-level concourse from where the radio broadcast originates. His son, Billy, will be on hand with a wheelchair to help get him around as needed before and during the game.

His heart works at about one-third capacity, he needs that walker and he barely has feeling in his thumb and first two fingers on his left hand, but what else should he be doing? He attended his first NBA game when he and his IU basketball teammate, Sammy Esposito, hitch-hiked from Bloomington to watch the Indianapolis Olympians play at Butler Fieldhouse in 1951. Aside from a two-year stint in the Army after getting out of college, he’s played in the NBA, coached in the NBA and ABA and broadcast in the NBA ever since. And Nancy has been with him nearly every step of the way, including her four-year run as the Pacers’ assistant general manager when they joined the NBA.

Why wouldn’t they come back?

“It’s just a way of life,” he says. “I don’t want to face a situation where I’d be so disabled I can’t do it. That could come, though, so I’ll get in as many as I can.”

“We’d miss all the action,” Nancy says.

“I still get a kick out of the rookies who come into the league and seeing how they do,” he adds. “It’s still fun. It’s still fun. And Mark makes it so easy. I don’t do a whole lot. I just go along for the ride, really.”

It’s been quite a ride. A bumpy ride lately, but an adventurous ride just the same. He and Nancy have kids and grandkids and great-grandkids, they have a luxurious and spacious new home and he’s got a deck with a new grill and a basement ready to be turned into something amazing.

“I’m still here,” he says. “Everything’s good.”

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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