Nancy Leonard: The Driving Force Behind Slick, Pacers (Part 1)
Part 1 of a 3-part series on Nancy Leonard's instrumental role in Pacers history.
Part 2 focuses on Nancy's work in the front office and her role in keeping the Pacers in Indianapolis. Read Part 2 »
Part 3 focuses on Nancy and Slick Leonard's impact during the early NBA years to present. Read Part 3 »
It was the fall of 1950, in an introductory health class of some sort on the campus of Indiana University. The freshman from Terre Haute, a rough-hewn, fell-off-the-turnip-truck type of kid who made it a point to sit in the back of the room, wanted to get the attention of this girl from the other side of the room, not to mention the other side of the tracks. But how? He had never dated in high school, had hardly ever spoken to a girl, and certainly had no clue what to say to get one's attention, especially one like the prim and proper girl who walked past his seat each day.
So he did the only thing he could think of: he stuck his foot in the aisle. Made her step over it, awkwardly, in that long dress that was fashionable for the day as she made her way to her seat in the front of the room. He offered her a grin. She returned a look of disgust.
This is how great romances begin. Sometimes, anyway. A bold gesture by a shy kid, met with disdain from the sophisticated girl, who nevertheless falls prey to his naivety, sincerity and persistence. Sometimes they last, too. The opposite qualities attract, the talents and needs mesh, the devotion to family persists and the next thing you know, Bob and Nancy Leonard are hurtling toward their 60th year of marriage, most of them spent within the storms of professional basketball, not to mention the whirlwind of raising five children.
He was the college All-American and member of a national championship basketball team at IU who went on to play for seven seasons in the NBA, one as a player-coach, then coach for another in the NBA and 12 in the ABA before embarking on a broadcasting career with the Pacers that has spanned nearly 30 seasons. That career took him from the Army to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Chicago to Baltimore to Kokomo and finally, in 1969 to Carmel.
She has been with him every step of the way, but much more than that. She has organized him, directed him, supported him and driven him – literally. Her left-brained discipline balanced his right-brained impulsiveness, producing the yin and yang that allowed their partnership to flourish for all these years, 60 of them come June. Who knows where Bob Leonard, the natural gambler nicknamed Slick because of his card-playing prowess, would be today if not for Nancy Root, the rock-solid girl from German stock who he tried to trip, and then fell for?
“Don't let her kid you,” Slick says, stretched out in the reclining chair of their family room. “It's never worked. She is the most dominant person in the world. And I let her get by with it.”
Nancy, sitting up straight in a nearby chair, laughs.
“Are you afraid of her?” Slick is asked.
“Yes,” he says softly, chuckling quietly.
“Yeah, all 5-foot-4 of her,” Nancy says.
Why has the marriage worked?
“He was on the road a lot,” Nancy says, smiling. “I still like him, though.”
Suddenly, Slick tears up a bit.
“Look, you're crying,” Nancy says, laughing again.
“Hey,” Slick says, growing serious. “She handles everything. Because I don't want to do it. I don't write checks and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, if something would happen to her, I don't know what the hell I'd do. I don't know nothing about nothing. I don't know how to run a computer. What do you call them? Yeah, computers. I have a little dinky cell phone. The simplest one. The only numbers I have in there are the five kids and her.”
Where would he be without her? It's a good question. Here's another one: Where would the Pacers be?
It took more than a foot in the aisle to get Nancy to walk the aisle. She had gone out a few times with another freshman member of IU's basketball team, Charlie Kraak, before Slick went for the steal. When Leonard got word to her through friends that he wanted a date, she declined. It just wouldn't be right to go out with him, she thought, when she was dating his friend and teammate. Winning her over, then, would require a bit of deception.
Nancy was studying in her dormitory room one Sunday afternoon – “I was kind of nerdy” – when she was interrupted by a knock on the door. Some of her friends from the dorm were outside, in need of a favor. There was a guy in the lobby whom they had set up with a blind date, they said, but the girl was nowhere to be found.
“You've got to come and go out with him, we're in trouble!” they said.
“I'm studying!” Nancy said.
“Please, we'll never ask you for another favor, please do it!” they pleaded.
Nancy walked into the dormitory lobby, and there was Slick. It had been a setup all along.
“They thought they were so funny,” Nancy recalls.
It was a little awkward between the two of them at first. Slick had no experience with girls because his high school coach, Howard Sharpe, had strict rules against dating, smoking and drinking – apparently considering females as toxic to a high school kid as alcohol and tobacco.
“He had me brainwashed,” Slick says. “I never had a date in high school.”
Nancy, meanwhile, had gone steady in high school, and knew all about how to conduct herself with boys – and how they should conduct themselves with her. That's why she was irritated when, the following week, Slick invited her to an IU basketball game, and told her to meet him at an entrance to the fieldhouse following the freshman game. They would watch the varsity game together. She complained to her friends about the stupid guy who didn't even have the manners to pick her up for a date and escort her to the game, but she went anyway with her roommate, Kathie.
As she walked up the ramp to show her ticket to an usher, she heard a voice echoing from the public address speakers: “That's two by Leonard!” Moments later, as she settled into her seat, she heard it again. “That's another two by Leonard!”
“Did you hear what they said?” she asked Kathie.
“Please tell me that's not him.”
It was him. Slick hadn't told her that he played on the basketball team. But there he was, running up and down the court in the freshman game. It took a long time for her to grasp what that meant. Nancy's father, who owned a construction company in South Bend, was a sports-minded man who had hosted the likes of Satchel Paige and Jesse Owens in their home while she was growing up, but she knew next to nothing about college basketball. When Slick talked to her excitedly at the end of their freshman school year about how he was going to be on the varsity team the following season, and that he might even be in the starting lineup, she couldn't believe it. Literally. She didn't know where the varsity players at a school such as Indiana came from, but surely they didn't come from the likes of Terre Haute, and they even more surely weren't her boyfriend.
“What am I going to do?” she asked her father that summer. “Bob thinks he's going to be on the varsity team next year and get to play! He's going to be crushed.”
Leonard started as a sophomore, and then as a junior starred on the team that won the NCAA championship in 1953. He, in fact, hit the game-winning free throw with 27 seconds left in the final game against Kansas in Kansas City, missing the first attempt but hitting the second in a 69-68 victory. Nancy watched the start of that game on the television set in her Tri Delta sorority lounge, but soon left to go to her room and listen on the radio. She put on her lucky pajamas and sat on the lucky spot on her bed, refusing to budge so that she wouldn't lose the game for all of Hoosier Nation.
“I just knew I was helping,” she says now, laughing.
Fans lined State Road 37 from Martinsville to Bloomington as the team returned by bus from the airport in Indianapolis the next day. She met the team downtown in Bloomington, and jumped into a convertible with him as the players were paraded to campus for a pep rally. By then, she knew all about basketball and its place in his life, and the life of seemingly the entire state of Indiana. But she had no idea of the life that awaited her.
They married on June 15, 1954, one day after their graduation ceremony. Slick had been planning for the day a long time, probably from the time he first laid eyes on her, and he had made official his desire one afternoon during their sophomore year at IU when they were walking together through the Chemistry building.
“Here, do you want this?” he asked, pulling a pin out of his pocket.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Will you wear it?” he asked.
That was his proposal. She shouldn't have been surprised. As freshmen, after they had gone out a time or two, he called her on the phone after a date with a blunt question:
“Will I what?” she said.
“Will ya?” he asked again.
He meant would she go steady. He was a man of few words with women, having no clue what to say, but direct in his approach. She would tame him, though, as much as anyone could. She taught Sunday School at a Methodist church in Bloomington while in college, but he had never stepped inside a church before showing up on campus. She never asked him to go, but toward the end of their freshman year he told her would start attending with her the following year. And sure enough, when she walked outside to go to church that first Sunday her sophomore year, he was waiting for her. He later was baptized at her church, at the age of 19. He showed further devotion by hitch-hiking from Terre Haute to South Bend a couple of times their first summer apart.
Marriage would throw Nancy's tidy, organized, disciplined world into upheaval, although boredom would never be a problem. Slick had to serve in the Army for two years after leaving college. Women were not allowed on the base in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., so she went back to Bloomington and taught at the high school, for an annual salary of $3,500. They moved to Minneapolis when he began his playing career with the Lakers in 1956. Teams traveled by train early in his career, and later by small aircraft, so more often than not she would be waiting for his return at the train station or airport, late at night and in the dead of winter, with their young kids bundled up. On that infamous evening in January of 1960 when the Lakers' 1930's-era twin-propeller plane lost its electrical power and flew aimlessly for hours in search of a landing spot before plunking down in a farmer's snowy field in Carroll, Iowa, Nancy made two trips to the auxiliary airport in Minneapolis to greet the team, only to be told to return home. She received news of the crash-landing via a telephone call from the wife of one of the other players.
The Leonards had another travel adventure that summer when the Lakers franchise moved to Los Angeles, trading snow drifts for sandy beaches. With three young children, including 14-month old Billy, as well as Nancy's 17-year-old cousin filling up their station wagon, and all their personal belongings stuffed into a canvas container on the roof, the six of them headed West. The car's air conditioning broke down near Phoenix, in 100-plus degree heat, but the six-pack of Midwesterners made it to their rented home in Inglewood – hot, soggy and excited about their new life.
They enjoyed L.A. The Lakers played at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a then-new facility that was still being used by the Clippers in the late 1990s. The team attracted the interest of the Hollywood stars of the day, including Doris Day, Lauren Bacall, Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Tony Curtis and Walter Matthau. Leonard still has home movies of his kids' first trip to Disneyland. After one season there, however, Leonard was claimed by the Chicago Packers in the NBA's expansion draft. Slick played a season for the Packers, averaging a career-high 16 points, and then became a player-coach the following season for the renamed Zephyrs.
Nancy, meanwhile, went back to teaching, first as a substitute teacher at South Bend Washington High School. That meant taking over the occasional shop class. “I don't know what you're doing,” she told the students, “but I would appreciate it if you keep doing what you're doing, and for God's sake don't cut your finger off.” She later got back in her lane and took over a business class for a semester. She lived in South Bend with her daughter Terry, while Slick lived on the south side of Chicago.
The Chicago franchise moved to Baltimore for the following season, 1963-64, becoming the Bullets, and the Leonards were on the move again. Slick was strictly a coach then, guiding a young team that included six rookies, along with the likes of former Purdue star Terry Dischinger, former IU star Walt Bellamy, future NBA coaches Gene Shue and Kevin Loughery and a future executive, Rod Thorn.
That group was more eclectic than electric, finishing 31-49, but life continued to be interesting. Nancy sat along the baseline at the end of the court for home games, next to the city's superintendent of schools. He told her one night that he needed a business teacher, and the next thing she knew she was teaching an afternoon session, from 12:30 to 4:30. Sometimes when she returned to their latest rented home at the end of the day, Slick was running the vacuum cleaner. At work, he was the boss. At home, he was a team player.
She also took over the driving responsibilities after a harrowing ride home one night following a homecourt loss. Slick was furious with himself for a strategy gone awry and driving recklessly as he relived the game, barely missing cars along the highway. She decided from that day on she would take the wheel to and from games, a tradition that continues today.
Most importantly, Slick learned of a new off-season job opportunity that winter. While eating dinner one night with Green Bay Packers lineman Bob Skoronski, a friend from IU who was in town for a game against the Colts, he was encouraged to seek out a job with Jostens, a company that sold high school class rings and other graduation-related materials. That led, in a roundabout way, to him getting a job with Jostens' primary competitor, Herff Jones, the following summer after the Bullets let him go as their coach.
The Leonards settled in Kokomo. Assuming they were done with their transient existence in basketball, they bought their first house, with an acre of land, four miles outside of town. Slick worked his territory in central Indiana, calling on the high schools from Indianapolis northward. It was the perfect job for a former player and coach from Indiana. Most of the school principals were former players and/or coaches themselves, so his name helped open doors. Over time, he took a large share of business from Jostens.
While Slick worked his territory of 58 schools, Nancy continued to live in overdrive. She was the head of the Business department at Taylor High School and helped run the administrative side of Slick's business. The kids were enlisted to help package the items to be delivered to the schools. One summer, she enrolled in an eight-week summer session in Bloomington to work toward her Masters degree. She and her daughter Terry lived in an apartment from Monday through Friday, and on weekends drove home to be with Slick and the boys.
“We were having a blast,” she recalls. “We never thought about (being out of basketball), because back then there were (only nine) NBA teams. You had your tour and then you went on to something else. That's what just about everybody did.”
After four years, however, basketball beckoned again, courtesy of an upstart team in an upstart league. The Pacers were formed in 1967 on the heels of a $6,000 entry fee into the ABA. Slick had too good of a thing going to give it up to coach the team, but agreed to run the open tryout camp with another Indiana high school legend, Clyde Lovellette, in June. He also attended some home games that first season. When the Pacers started 2-7 their second season despite the off-season acquisition of center Mel Daniels, Larry Staverman was fired and Leonard was approached again about coaching the team.
Slick wasn't optimistic about the survival of the crazy league with the red, white and blue ball and the three-point line, but he had seen enough to be intrigued and he knew the Pacers had talent. And, he and Nancy owed on the new furniture in their home. The Pacers offered him somewhere in the vicinity of $20,000 to coach the team the rest of the season, and allowed him to keep his job with Herff Jones. At the very least, he figured, the additional salary would cover the furniture tab and then he could get back to his business of selling class rings after the league folded.
Lo and behold, the league lasted for nine seasons, thanks largely to the success of the Pacers, which was thanks largely to Leonard's coaching. They finished strong his first season, reaching the championship round of the playoffs in 1969, and then won titles in 1970, '72 and '73. He played it safe, though, holding on to his Herff Jones job through the mid-seventies. The team often practiced in the evening his first season so he could work his territory during the day. As time went on and basketball became more the focus of their lives, Nancy took over more of it, making many of the calls on schools herself to measure kids for rings and fill out orders.
“You think, How did I do that?” Slick says now, speaking for both of them. “But when you're young, it's a piece of cake.”
The drives between Indianapolis and Kokomo grew old quickly, though, particularly those to and from the airport. By the end of their first season with the Pacers, the Leonards were willing to ante up on the ABA's chances enough to build a home in Carmel. Slick talked a developer into selling a double lot in a new neighborhood for $8,100 and they ordered up a five-bedroom home. They moved in on June 17, 1969, and have lived there ever since.
You just finished Part 1 of a 3-part series on Nancy Leonard's instrumental role in Pacers history.
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