Leonard's Legacy: Ten Things That Make Him Slick
- He got his nickname from Hall of Famer George Mikan, who coached the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1957-58 season, Slick's second season in the NBA. That season's rookie, Hot Rod Hundley, had been the first pick in the draft and was a hero in West Virginia, so two exhibition games were scheduled in the state. After the first one in Morgantown, the bus was rolling toward another town a couple of hours away. Most of the players were asleep, but Slick was playing Hollywood Gin with Mikan. He recalls Mikan asking him if they should stop to let the players get something to eat. Slick agreed, and just as the bus stopped and the lights came on, he blitzed his coach. “How about buying me a cup of coffee, you're too slick for me,” Mikan said. Hundley, who was sitting behind them, had just woken up and heard the comment, and decided that should be Leonard's nickname. It stuck.
- He had a shrewd business sense even at an early age. As a kid from a poor family, he was always looking for ways to earn money. He landed a job selling ice cream Eskimo pies from a cart downtown. The arrangement was to sell them for a nickel apiece, and he would get a penny for each sale. But he took the cart to the south side of town and sold them for a dime each, thus earning six cents – more than the man who owned the cart.
- His signature moment as a college player, of course, was his game-winning free throw in the championship game of the NCAA tournament in 1953. The Hoosiers, playing defending champion Kansas in Kansas City, were tied in the final minute when Leonard drove to the basket and drew a foul with 27 seconds remaining. He missed his first attempt but hit the second for a 69-68 lead. Kansas missed a shot from the right corner on its final possession, and Leonard was carried off the court along with coach Branch McCracken. Leonard rarely lacked confidence, but freely admits to being “scared to death.” And when reporters came to him in the locker room to tell him that McCracken had bragged that his junior guard had ice water in his veins, he delivered one of his classic lines: “If that was ice water, it sure felt awful warm when it was running down my leg.”
- He hit another memorable game-winning foul shot as a senior at Terre Haute Gerstmeyer in what was one of his all-time slickest moves. In the season-opener, the first game played in the school's new gymnasium, one of Leonard's teammates was fouled in the final seconds and had a chance to hit game-winning foul shots. Leonard, according to an Indianapolis News account in later years, “shooed the offended Gerstmeyer player away from the line and the excited officials and opponents failed to notice the switch.”
- He survived a plane crash as a member of the Minneapolis Lakers team that nearly perished en masse in Iowa in 1960. Following a Sunday afternoon loss to St. Louis, they were to fly home on the team-owned 1930s-era prop plane, but an electrical outing put them in serious peril. It's a long and dramatic story, one that can be read here. The two co-pilots who managed to put the plane down safely in a cornfield in Iowa were later honored at a game in Minneapolis, and the Lakers players each kicked in $50 to give them $250 each for saving their lives.
- He kept running into Clyde Lovellete, so to speak. They grew up a year apart in Terre Haute, with Lovellete heading off to Kansas in '49 and Slick to Indiana in '50. Lovellette starred on a national championship team in '52, while Leonard helped lead IU to the national championship over Kansas in '53. They played against one another often in the NBA, and Leonard suffered a shoulder injury that led to the end of his playing career when he ran into one of Lovellete's screens. They worked together in running the Pacers' open tryout camp in June of '67, and remain close today.
- He wasn't afraid to fight. While coaching in the NBA, a Celtics player had roughed up his young star, Terry Dischinger. He recalls walking down to Boston's bench, grabbing coach Red Auerbach by his shirt collar and threatened violence if Auerbach didn't get the offending player out of the game. “I saw a little fear in his eyes, because he knew I was serious,” he told documentary producer Ted Green. He punched one of his own players while coaching the NBA Pacers, Mickey Johnson. Walking into the locker room after a homecourt loss, Johnson aggressively approached Slick to complain about his playing time. Slick instinctively responded with a punch that knocked down Johnson.
- His signature broadcasting call for Pacers' three-point shots, “Boom Baby!” originated during a playoff game in Denver in 1973. The Pacers led the series 2-1, but trailed Game 4 by two points in the final minute. During a timeout, Leonard drew up a play for George McGinnis to get the ball near the basket. In Leonard's recollection, McGinnis got the ball but was double-teamed, so he threw a cross-court pass to Keller. The newspaper account, however, reported that McGinnis was too well-guarded to get a pass, so Darnell Hillman delivered a pass to Keller on the left wing instead. Keller faked, dribbled to his left and fired a shot over 6-4 Claude Terry that gave the Pacers a 96-95 lead with 14 seconds remaining. As Keller's shot swished through the net, Leonard pumped his fist and shouted “Boom!” He then quickly added, “Baby!” Why? That was just Leonard's way of talking. He often added “baby” to comments when he was fired up. Such as in “Let's go, baby!” It just came out that way naturally. The Pacers went on to win the game, 97-95, and a legend was born. Nancy eventually copyrighted the phrase, but the Leonards have freely let anyone associated with the Pacers use it – such as Reggie Miller, who named his film production company “Boom Baby Productions.
- He hit the last shot ever taken at Market Square Arena. The very last event at MSA, following the final exhibition there in 1999, was a Pacers practice. Coach Larry Bird thought it would be appropriate if Leonard hit the final shot in the building, so he had Leonard come out to hit a layup after the workout was complete. Equipment manager/prankster Joe Qatato grabbed a ball and hit a shot after Leonard's, so Slick had to do it again. After PR director David Benner had shut off the lights that day, the final, final Pacers moment at MSA came when Reggie Miller planted a kiss on the center circle before heading home.
- His opinion still carries weight. When the Pacers were on the verge of elimination from their first-round playoff series with Atlanta this past season, trailing 3-2, he called coach Frank Vogel. Vogel called him back within five minutes, and Leonard offered his thoughts on the lineup he thought would be most effective against the Hawks. Perhaps Vogel was planning to go that route anyway, perhaps not, but he utilized the suggestions and the Pacers came back to win the final two games of the series.
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