Leonard's Impact on Indiana Basketball is Immeasurable
Surely no other state has someone as thoroughly representative of its basketball history as Indiana does with Bobby "Slick" Leonard.
From high school star to college All-American who hit the game-winning free throw for a national championship team to hell-raising coach of three professional championship teams to general manager to legendary broadcast analyst and cheerleader (Boom Baby!) to goodwill ambassador, Leonard has run the gamut of all a man can do in the game for one state.
OK, he didn't sell popcorn. But he would have if someone had given him the chance as a kid. He settled for selling ice cream out of a cart in the streets of his native Terre Haute during the Depression.
No job has ever been too humble for Leonard, who will be honored Wednesday when the Pacers tipoff their 50th season against Dallas at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He's just about done it all in basketball, and done it memorably. The problem in writing about him isn't knowing where to begin, but where to end.
The starting point, though, as it pertains to the Pacers, is 1967. Leonard was living up the road in Kokomo minding his own business, which happened to be as a sales rep for Herff-Jones. He sold class rings, mostly, but also graduation supplies in his northern Indiana territory. He assumed his coaching career was over after being let go by the Baltimore Bullets, who simply weren't good enough to win yet, and had settled comfortably with his wife, Nancy, and four children (with one more still to come) into a mainstream existence.
Then someone got the crazy idea to start a new basketball league, and some other people got the crazy idea of having a franchise in Indianapolis and before you knew it, there was a team called the Pacers trying to make a go of it from scratch. Leonard and another Terre Haute native, Clyde Lovellette, ran the first open tryout at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in June of '67, but that was intended to be a one-shot deal. He never strayed far from the franchise, attending games that first season and acting as a part-time scout and adviser, but wasn't about to give up a steady job to coach the team.
Not until the second season, anyway. A 1-7 start led to a coaching change, and Leonard had seen enough of the talent on the roster to be willing to take the plunge. He and Nancy had just bought furniture for their new home in Kokomo, and once he realized he could keep his sales job and coach the team, he jumped on it. He didn't think the crazy league with the red, white and blue ball and the 3-point shot would survive, but he'd at least be able to pay off his furniture.
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You know what happened next. ABA championships in 1970, '72 and '73, and 529 victories over 12 seasons – enough to get him into the Naismith Hall of Fame, eventually. But that doesn't begin to capture his influence on and for the franchise for generations of fans who only know him for his work on the radio for the past 30-plus years. He hasn't traveled with the team since he suffered a heart attack on the team bus after a game in New York in 2011, but he's still interwoven with the franchise. He works all the home games next to play-by-play voice Mark Boyle. Before the game and during halftime, you can find him in the concourse behind his broadcasting perch, mingling with anyone who stops by to say hello. He's never met a stranger, and never lost his common touch.
That's not surprising to anyone who knows Leonard, because his greatest talent is for relationships. Never one to hide from the public, he had a listed phone number throughout his coaching career with the Pacers. He and Nancy wanted to be found by friends who might be passing through town and by then had five kids who might have friends trying to reach them. That was a large part of his coaching success, too. He knew Xs and Os, but more importantly he knew how to build camaraderie. They hosted parties at their home for all team employees, including the stat crew members, and he required his players to meet in the hotel bar after road games. They didn't have to drink alcohol, and they were free to meet friends later, but they had to spend some time together to celebrate the win or mourn the loss.
50th Season Celebration: Head to Pacers.com/50 to Learn More »
By now, with 84 years gone on the game clock, he's a focal point for an entire state of basketball fans. Nobody else in the state's glorious hardwood history has touched more people via the combination of playing, coaching and broadcasting within the borders, and nobody likely ever will.
It's fashionable to say basketball is like a religion in Indiana. If true, nobody has practiced it and preached it like Leonard. He graduated from high school in Terre Haute in 1950. He played three varsity seasons at IU. He moved back to the state after an NBA playing and coaching career in 1964, and began his association with the Pacers in '67. Except for a couple of years in the early Eighties, between his coaching and broadcasting gigs, he's been drawing a paycheck from them ever since.
More than anything, he's a goodwill ambassador – for basketball, for the Pacers and for Indiana.
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