Nancy Leonard: The Driving Force Behind Slick, Pacers (Part 2)
Part 2 of a 3-part series on Nancy Leonard's instrumental role in Pacers history.
Part 1 focuses on Nancy and Slick Leonard's early life, up through Slick's hiring as head coach of the Pacers. Read Part 1 »
Part 3 focuses on Nancy and Slick Leonard's impact during the early NBA years to present. Read Part 3 »
Nancy was a behind-the-scenes influence throughout the Pacers' ABA seasons, helping where needed in an official, unpaid role but, according to those involved with the franchise, not intrusive. She didn't offer her opinion on lineups and strategy, or try to mentor the players. She did travel with the team for occasional road games in the playoffs, and was there for all three of the championship-clinching games – in Los Angeles in 1970, New York in '72 and Louisville in '73. One of her favorite memories is standing in the tunnel that led from the Pacers' locker room to the court before Game 6 in L.A., nervously awaiting tipoff. Roger Brown, the last player out, sauntered by and said, “You look like you're about to go to the death chamber.” Then he went out and scored 45 points to end the series.
The players from that era remember her as an asset rather than a mere onlooker or a distraction, as spouses have been known to be. Daniels recalls seeing her standing and looking like she was ready to rush onto the court after fights broke out, which wasn't an unusual occurrence in those days.
“She was Super Mom to all of us,” says Daniels, the two-time league MVP whose jersey is retired by the Pacers. “Not in a nagging sense, just by doing a lot of little things. She was part of us.”
She had no job title then, and most of her contributions went unnoticed to the public. The Pacers, indeed the entire ABA, were in survival mode, and everyone pitched in where they could to keep it alive. Nancy once drove the team mascot, Dancing Harry, to a game in Louisville in a recreational vehicle by herself. She also was instrumental in the formation of the Pacemates, pro basketball's first “cheerleader” squad. Sandy Knapp, who had been promoted from a Pacesetter – the original group that acted as escorts for honorary ball boys and dignitaries – into the front office had taken the idea to Nancy, who had been a cheerleader sponsor at her first teaching job in Bloomington after graduating from IU. The initial Pacemate practice sessions were conducted in the Leonards' then-unfinished basement, and Nancy coached them.
“She was not going to let them go out on the floor without them being as prepared as possible,” Knapp says.
Nancy's role changed from unofficial and important to official and absolutely vital when the Pacers were absorbed into the NBA in 1976. It came about by accident, really. She's not sure why, but she had attended a meeting of the ownership group after the “merger.” She recalls they had decided not to bring back the previous general manager, and were fretting over how they were going to make the adjustment to the new league. The ABA, having been a loose collection of teams bent on survival, had flown by the seat of its pants, but the NBA was established and corporate. There were books full of rules and regulations for teams to follow, with fines for every malfeasance.
Procedure didn't frighten Nancy Leonard, who had taught school, run a household and helped run a business – sometimes all at once. Slick at various times in the ABA years had opened a boys camp and a restaurant, and she was a partner in the operation of both.
“I don't know what you guys are afraid of,” she blurted out to the owners. “It's just the NBA. We've been in the ABA for all these years. It's basically the same thing. There's rules to follow, you've got drafting, scheduling, ticket sales... it's the same thing.”
A silence fell over the room, and then someone said, “Why don't you do it?”
“Are you kidding me?” she asked.
“They knew they wouldn't have to pay her nothing,” Slick says today.
She was paid, but the salary was hardly up to the standard of other league executives. She was billed as the assistant general manager, and it wasn't an empty title. She was fully in charge of the front office, likely the first woman in the history of professional spots to hold such a responsibility. She downplays it all today, but those around her do not. Slick was the coach and general manager, and made all the basketball decisions. She directed the office of 13 employees and attended league meetings. It might be surprising to some that she was accepted into the formerly male bastion of general managers, but not to those who know her. She tends to command respect.
“Even (crusty Celtics general manager) Red Auerbach was super-nice,” she recalls. “They were all very respectful. I still see a lot of them around.”
She held her own. She also was one of the primary advocates of the three-point shot that had been instrumental to the ABA's success. It was finally instituted in her fourth and final season as an executive. But the job was more difficult than she could have imagined when she had first blurted out “it's just the NBA” to the ownership group. All those rules added up to a lot of work.
As respected as she was, she feared her reception from the all-male group of local media members who had covered the team in the ABA. There were going to be new, more restrictive rules for reporting on the team, and she wondered if they would follow her direction. But she got an early boost from Indianapolis Star sports editor Bob Collins, the lead columnist for the state's largest newspaper. He called her one day and invited her to lunch. “Oh, no, here it comes,” she said to herself. They met at Charlie and Barneys, a restaurant between the Pacers office and the Star.
“I don't want you to worry,” he told her. “You know exactly what you're doing and you'll do a good job. If anybody gives you any trouble at all, call me and I'll take care of it.”
Nobody really gave her trouble. Not more than once, anyway. One of her favorite memories of those years is from a game against Boston at Market Square Arena, perhaps the first NBA regular season game the Pacers played, the season-opener on Oct. 21, 1976. She was sitting underneath the basket in her customary baseline seat beforehand when a referee approached and said Auerbach wanted the music turned down. The Pacers were violating a league rule, he said. It just so happened she had read all the rules and regulations, and knew better. She pulled out her booklet, handed it to the referee and said, “Take this to Red, and if he can show me where there's something in there about music, we'll turn it down.” When the referee walked to the other end of the court and passed along Nancy's message, he threw down the book with disgust. Not another word was said about it.
Amid the chaos and frustration of keeping a poorly-financed franchise alive, the Leonards were raising five chidren, separated by 14 years. The oldest, Terry, now a highly decorated third-grade teacher of more than 30 years in South Bend, helped keep her four younger brothers in line with Nancy-like efficiency, posting a checklist on the refrigerator for the boys to record their chores. A couple of women were hired to help clean the home and transport the kids, but Slick and Nancy were never far from their parental obligations. Nancy was probably the only NBA front office executive who drove an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, not to mention the only one who made Thanksgiving dinner for the family.
Sure, there was the time she was working at the office downtown and forgot to pick up her son, Tommy, at grade school, leaving him sitting out front of the school until 6 p.m. in that cell phone-less era. But that was by far the exception. Terry and the personal secretaries kept things flowing during the daytime, and Slick and Nancy handled things in the evenings and on non-game nights. It was busy, even chaotic at times, but it worked.
Nancy made sure of that. Slick might have been the ultimate macho coach who threatened players in practice, threw ball racks at referees during games and lifted slow-triggered timekeepers out of their seat at the scorer's table. But at home, she was usually the coach, the woman who made dinner, balanced the books and made the family trains run on time.
“They each had their strong points and that's the role they played,” Terry says. “Neither one tried to step into the other's major interest. She made it look effortless, looking back on it. She has a lot of energy anyway. She's just as competitive as my dad is, so she had the perfect personality to keep those plates spinning in the air.
“We lived a very normal life. Our life was no different than the lives of our friends. If you walked into our house, it wasn't the atmosphere I would imagine in the homes of some professional athletes now.”
Evidence of that was their listed telephone number. Although Slick was as big a sports celebrity as the city had during the 1970s, and Nancy had become recognized in her own right, they wanted their friends from out of town, and their kids' friends at school, to be able to reach the household if necessary.
“We didn't think we were such a big deal,” she says.
If she had simply worked behind the scenes and served as an assistant general manager for four years, her contributions would be significant. It can be legitimately claimed, however, that the Pacers owe their very existence in Indianapolis to her.
Slick led the Pacers to seven winning seasons and playoff appearances, five trips to the league finals and three championships in his first seven seasons as coach. The last one in the ABA, however, brought a losing record (39-45) as the core players who had starred on the championship teams grew old and departed or were traded away.
The move to a new league energized the fan base, but only temporarily. The attendance average jumped from 7,615 in the final ABA season to 10,129 in the inaugural NBA season, but the cost of doing business had gone up dramatically in Market Square Arena and the local ownership group at the time, officially known as Pacers L.P., was struggling to keep it together.
Upon the conclusion of the first NBA season, when the Pacers finished 36-46, the ownership group announced it needed to sell 8,000 season tickets before the following season to have the operating capital to stay afloat. According to those who worked for the franchise then, it was a genuine crisis rather than a marketing ploy. The team's credit card had not been paid off, and was no longer being accepted. Front office employees had gone without paychecks for between four and six weeks and were working in what Knapp describes as a climate of “constant tension and anxiety.” Slick was brought in to give a locker room-like pep talk. Knapp, recalling it as “a straight shot of adrenaline,” recorded it in case it needed to be replayed to re-energize the troops. Even the players had agreed to accept a delay in being paid – all but one, that is. Len Elmore's agent insisted that he be paid on time, or he would become a free agent because of the breach of contract.
The owners were in desperate need of cash, and had the promise of an additional $750,000 investment if the fans would make a financial show of faith. That, combined with the income of the ticket sales would raise about $3 million to guarantee the team's operation for the following season. According to the local newspapers, the marketing department had sold 5,720 season tickets in the three months since the season ended, but it needed another push to reach the magical 8,000 figure.
From her participation in the league meetings, Nancy knew of the growth that was coming to the NBA because of better television contracts and expansion. She also knew Indianapolis would never get another NBA team if it lost the Pacers. Her last and best hope was to simply put the team's urgent needs before the public and ask for help. The best way to do that was to conduct a telethon to raise money and sell tickets. But it needed to happen quickly, and the obvious time to do it was over the July 4 holiday, when people were off work. Only problem was, the end of June was approaching. She would have seven days to put it all together.
She gathered her 13-person staff and laid it out.
“Hey, guys, we're in trouble,” she said. “We can't lollygag around until August or September, we have to sell season tickets now.”
It was a defining moment for the Pacers, and for Nancy Leonard. All those years of attending basketball games with Slick had helped hone her competitive instincts, but she had them all along. Back in high school, she had been the only girl in the band's cornet section. Determined not to be outdone by the boys, she made it a point of earning the first-chair honor. This was merely another challenge. Running a busy household had been provided training as well. She knew how to meet a challenge.
“I just asserted myself,” she says. “We didn't have a choice.”
One of the first calls to organize the telethon went to Dr. Charles Rushmore, who worked for Indiana Bell and had experience with the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon. He said it couldn't be done, that the standard prep time for telethons was six months, but he agreed to help where he could. Another call went to Don Tillman, the programming director at WTTV-Channel 4, the local independent station that could clear room on its programming schedule on short notice. He agreed to air the event and provide all the necessary equipment at no charge.
“These two men gave us a crash course in Telethon 101,” Knapp recalls.
Every member of the Pacers front office went into a panic-driven fury, making arrangements and asking for help from local merchants and media outlets. The 500 Ballroom at the Convention Center was obtained at no cost. Local musical groups and other entertainers were rounded up to perform, at no charge. Arby's donated food for the workers. Front office members and volunteers manned the telephones to take pledges from callers. The team's trainer, David Craig, cut short his vacation and drove back overnight from Maine to take calls and pitch in where needed. Some of the players manned the phones for stretches of time, including Dave Robisch and Billy Knight.
All of the money raised was to be placed in an escrow account and would be returned if the pledges fell short of the goal. The cash collected would be used to purchase tickets to be given to charities. Rookie camp, meanwhile, was delayed until the franchise's fate was determined.
“I guess that sometime on July 4th I'll know whether it's time to drink champagne or just cry,” Slick told an Associated Press reporter before it began.
The Save the Pacers Telethon ran from 10 p.m. on July 3 to 2:30 p.m. on the Fourth. Channel 4 broadcast the entirety of it, and Channels 6 and 13 broadcast portions of it. Think of that: three local stations, all carrying the same program. On-air personalities from all three stations, as well as Channel 8, helped emcee the proceedings at various times. Taped pleas from the likes of Governor Otis Bowen, Indiana coach Bob Knight, Purdue coach Fred Schaus, ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel and former Pacers star George McGinnis – who had jumped to the NBA two years earlier because of the franchise's inability to pay his market value – were played for the television viewing audience.
Slick led the charge publicly, pep-talking the viewers into donating. Nancy supervised behind the scenes. Most of the calls brought donations of $10 or $20. Some people brought in cash personally, and telethon officials were shown on television pulling bills out of a large glass bowl and counting them on the floor of the ballroom. A few kids literally offered their piggy banks, or went through their neighborhoods to collect donations. Nickels, dimes, anything. A newspaper account later estimated the in-person cash donation at $30,000.
“It was a remarkable experience, to tell you the truth,” Knapp says. “I've never been part of such an emotional roller coaster. It felt like time was standing still. It was suspended somehow. You worked so many hours, you were physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Everything felt like it was technicolor. Your senses were on fire.”
They appeared to be close to reaching their goal with a couple of hours still to go when an accounting error was discovered. Slick took the microphone at 12:40 p.m. to make the announcement.
“We had a tabulation error of 822 season tickets – and we just found it,” he said, as if addressing his team in a late-game timeout huddle. “Our actual count is 6,730, as of 12:25. We've got an hour and 50 minutes to go.”
According to a Channel 13 broadcast report, some fans in the ballroom thought that bit of drama might have been staged to attract more donations, but its reporter stated Pacers officials seemed genuinely concerned. Tom Binford, a member of the ownership group but best known locally as the Chief Steward of the Indianapolis 500 and President and CEO of Indiana National Bank, went on television to ask businesses for larger donations. Business owners were citizens too, he said, and they also benefited from the economic stimulus the Pacers provided.
Finally, five or 10 minutes before the telethon was to go off the air, Nancy stepped forward with an announcement.
“Bob,” she said, her voice cracking from fatigue and emotion. “We're at 8,028.”
The fans in attendance “burst into bedlam,” as the next day's newspaper account put it. A uniformed Pacemate did what a uniformed Pacemate was supposed to do – clap and kick her feet into the air. Mayor William Hudnut, standing behind the Leonards, smiled broadly and clapped his hands above his head. Slick, at Nancy's urging, sang Back Home Again in Indiana.
The Pacers would stay in Indianapolis. For at least another year.
It had been a grassroots movement that reached all the way to the city's heart and soul, including its youngest fans. According to newspaper accounts, 11-year-old John Hargreaves from Plainfield had gone through his neighborhood with two friends and collected $18 door-to-door. Seven-year-old Carl Cushingberry had collected $15. A nine-year-old girl, Teresa Lynn, gave Slick a note that included $5.
“That was when I cried,” Nancy says today. “We were right at the number and these kids start coming in with coffee cans. They had gone up and down the street and collected coins. That kind of told me what the community thought about the Pacers, even people who couldn't buy season tickets.”
You just finished Part 2 of a 3-part series on Nancy Leonard's instrumental role in Pacers history.
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