Nancy Leonard: The Driving Force Behind Slick, Pacers (Part 3)
Part 3 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 2 focuses on Nancy's work in the front office and her role in keeping the Pacers in Indianapolis. Read Part 2 »
The franchise saved, the Leonards returned to the dirty work of the day to day operations. Although the bills could be paid, the financial issues didn't magically disappear because of the telethon. Slick was the coach and general manager, and handled all basketball matters. Nancy took care of the rest. Neither trespassed on the other's territory, and both commanded respect.
“She was the iron fist in a velvet glove,” Knapp says. “She was strong, but boy, she did it in a way that half the time you don't even know you were being punched. She was very fair, but she was tough as nails. She wasn't some sweet mother-housewife taking care of the paperwork. She was running the ship. She always gave the impression she had everything under control, and I always had the feeling that I shouldn't bring any of my personal problems to the office.
“She's a perfectionist. You just simply had to do things the right way, and if you didn't do it right you did it over again. I swear, she was the Energizer bunny before there was one. She just never stopped. ”
Darnell Hillman, who played five ABA seasons and one NBA season with the Pacers, saw her in action as often as any of the players.
“She expressed herself,” he says “She wasn't derogatory, but she would let you know what worked in the past, and how things should be done. Nancy has a presence about her. She doesn't come in and take over the show, but you'll certainly know who she is. She's not loud, but before the meeting's over, you'll know who she is.”
Hillman benefited from her decisive manner when the NBA put on its first slam-dunk contest in the Pacers' first season in the league, copying the ABA's event from the previous year. It was conducted like a tournament, with a contestant from each team going head-to-head with another one over a period of several weeks. The field was gradually reduced to two survivors, and they competed at halftime of the final game of the championship series between Portland and Philadelphia in June.
Hillman won it, over Golden State's Larry MacNeil. But his selection to represent the Pacers hadn't been an obvious one. Although he carried the nickname Dr. Dunk because of his jumping ability, he was 27 at the time. Two of his teammates, Dan Roundfield (23) and Mel Bennett (22), were younger and equally athletic. A dunk-off to determine the team's representative might have been in order.
Recalls Hillman: “Nancy walked into practice one day while we were shooting, explained the contest, and said 'Darnell's going to represent the team. Any questions?' We all looked at one another and said no.”
Other administrative decisions were far more serious and immediate. The infamous Blizzard of 1978 struck on Jan. 25, the day after the Pacers had played Cleveland at MSA. The Pacers were due to fly out that day for a game at Cleveland to be played the following day, and gathered at the airport. The weather forecast was increasingly ominous, however, so Nancy called the league office. She was told the team had to get on the plane if it left for Cleveland, and that a $50,000 fine would be levied on the franchise if it didn't show for the game. Nancy feared – correctly, it turned out – the team would be stuck in Cleveland for a few days if the blizzard turned out to be as bad as predicted, at a great financial cost to the franchise. Defying the league's advice, she called the traveling party back from the airport. The game was later postponed and rescheduled.
Bill York, the head of the Pacers stat crew from the founding of the franchise in 1967, as well as the supervisor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media room for many years, isn't surprised by that story. He compares Nancy to Tony Hulman, the former owner of the Speedway. She, like he, solved problems efficiently by bringing questions to department heads, listening to their ideas, and then acting accordingly and quickly. No ego hangups, no office politics, no slacking, just clear-headed thinking for the good of the organization.
“She and Sandy Knapp ran everything,” York says of the Pacers' early NBA years. “Nobody questioned what they did. And all of her ideas seemed to be good ideas.”
Throughout the ABA seasons, when she contributed in an unofficial capacity, and then in the early NBA years, when she was on the payroll, Nancy and Slick were responsible for establishing and maintaining a family atmosphere that was unique to the Pacers. She took personal interest in the players and their families. She and Slick had a couple of parties each year at their home for the players, stat crew and front office members, or they attended parties hosted by others. They were events where, as Hillman says, “you could get to know someone in street clothes.” Even today, she remains closely connected to the players from those early teams, and their families. Whenever a former Pacers player dies – such as Roundfield last year and John Barnhill a month ago – she is among the first to know and to reach out to that player's wife or other family members.
Many people deserve credit for the fact the Pacers franchise still exists in Indianapolis. The original owners got it off the ground and nursed it along in its infancy, barely making ends meet. A man in Lafayette, Lyn Treece, put up $100,000 to buy Mel Daniels from the Minnesota Muskies, which, combined with the addition of Slick's coaching, transformed the team from average to champions. Mel and Herb Simon bought the franchise to keep it from moving to Sacramento in 1983.
Nancy Leonard belongs in the group of saviors as well, both for initiating and directing the life-saving telethon, nursing the operation along in the early years in both paid and unpaid capacities and helping to establish a family atmosphere unique to professional basketball. But jobs in professional sports tend to be transient. The Leonards already knew that, and had in fact enjoyed an improbable 12-year run with the Pacers, but the team's financial strains and the inevitable detrimental impact on the won-loss record was bound to bring changes.
Slick and Bill Eason, who had put up the $3 million entry fee into the NBA, had once flown to Florida to meet with former Kentucky Colonels owner John Y. Brown, who had received $3 million in the “merger” agreement between the NBA and ABA, to try to convince him to buy the Pacers, without success. When the franchise eventually landed in the hands of Californian Sam Nassi, along with Jerry Buss, everything changed. Executives were brought in from other cities, and the once-proud family-run organization became a mini-corporation, run by out-of-towners who thought they knew better.
It was the antithesis of how the Leonards had done it, and the two sides clashed. Slick recalls becoming so angry once that he backed up one of the execs against a wall and physically threatened him. He was more relieved than anything to have to leave the organization in 1980, and Nancy, of course, went with him. They lived apart from basketball for awhile, just as they had done before the ABA was formed, and tended to their family and business interests.
When Slick was brought back as a broadcast analyst in the mid-1980s, though, Nancy happily returned, too. This time as a fan. He established a new career on the radio, and his signature “Boom Baby!” declaration after every Pacers three-pointer has become part of the state's basketball lexicon. She remains a presence, too. But while he tends to keep a low profile, she works the room.
“She knows 20 times more people down there than I do,” he says.
Her pregame routine starts with a dinner salad in the Best Locker Room, always at the same table – usually with longtime friend Nancy Keene, but sometimes with a grandchild or other friend. She then takes a pass through the media room to visit with old friends and pick up the game notes that are distributed to reporters. She also stops in one of the private rooms on the floor level reserved for family members and friends of the players and other team officials. Eventually, she takes her seat in the front row behind the scorer's table at midcourt.
Even as a fan, she is no less competitive or concerned with decorum at games than when she was in charge of the front office. Just ask Derrick Rose. During Game 3 of the Pacers' first-round playoff series against Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2011, the Bulls points guard responded to a heckler with profanity, within earshot of children, while reporting to the scorer's table. At halftime of Game 4, Nancy was waiting for him in the tunnel leading to the Bulls' locker room, and scolded him loudly as he walked by.
Although her children have long since moved out on their own, she hasn't slowed down much. She has, by her estimation, served on eight to 10 boards for church and charity organizations, and volunteered for several more groups. She's currently on a board for the Methodist church. Many years ago, at Collins' urging, she helped start a home for women in recovery from alcohol addiction called First Step Inc., for which she served as President.
Her primary occupation since leaving the Pacers has been as a real estate agent with F.C. Tucker. Her clients have included several team employees, including coach Frank Vogel, broadcaster Mark Boyle and players such as Jeff Foster, Brad Miller, Anthony Johnson, Al Harrington and Derrick McKey.
Vogel's wife, Jenifer, and Nancy became close friends through the process of finding their home when they moved to Indianapolis in 2007. They still joke about setting up an arranged marriage between the Vogels' daughter and the Leonards' grandson.
“She's a good negotiator and has great savvy in the industry,” Vogel says. “She was really very helpful.”
She has kept the business of family running, too. Slick admits to never having seen one of his paychecks, because Nancy has always taken care of the finances. He can relax, knowing everything is handled.
“I said just so I leave enough that you can live in dignity when I go,” he jokes. “So, boy, she rat-holed everything she could.”
Slick and Nancy have both had serious health issues in recent years. Slick had a heart attack in Portland on a road trip in 2003 and missed several weeks of games. Then in March of 2011, he went into cardiac arrest on the team bus following a win in New York. He was given four electric-shock jolts to his heart before he was revived. Medics usually give up after two and pronounce the patient dead, but the Pacers' assistant trainer, Carl Eaton, ordered them to try again. “He's tough!” Eaton shouted. “Keep trying!” Slick also fell while visiting Larry Bird in 2012, hitting his head on a concrete surface outside of Bird's home in Nashville, Ind., and broke some ribs.
Nancy's scare came in 2009 on the Pacers' return flight from China, where it had played preseason games. Reacting to her prescription meds and the long flight, she passed out. The plane made an emergency landing in Minneapolis, where she was hospitalized. She later had a pacemaker implanted.
The Leonards have no plans to back away now, though, certainly not with the Pacers contending for a title again after all these years, and likely not ever. One of Slick's pieces of advice to players is, “Don't get off the bus.” In other words, stay associated with the game for as long as you can, because nothing else is as exciting. Slick and Nancy are too much a part of the Pacers, and the Pacers are too much a part of them, for either of them to step away voluntarily.
How long can they go? Slick seems invulnerable, and Nancy has bloodlines in her favor. Her grandmother lived to 104, and an uncle to 103. They still live as independently as possible. Not that many years ago, Slick could be found on the roof making repairs. Nancy still gets on her hands and knees on summer days, pulling weeds when the need arises and the weather cooperates.
They will remain a presence at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for as long as they can, hoping for one last championship to complete the cycle.
And Nancy will drive.
You just finished Part 3 of a 3-part series on Nancy Leonard's instrumental role in Pacers history.
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