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Slick's Journey From Terre Haute to the Hall of Fame (Part 1)

Part 1 of a 2-part series on Pacers legend Slick Leonard's basketball career, which began in Terre Haute, Indiana and will lead him into the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Click here to read Part 2

It's one of his favorite sayings, advice awarded to so many players over so many years that it comes back to him like an undying echo.

“Don't get off the bus.”

It's Slick Leonard's way of reminding NBA players to stay in the game, in whatever capacity they can, for as long as someone will have them, because they'll never find a job as exciting as being employed in basketball. You can own a business, you can work 9 to 5 for someone else, maybe you can do absolutely nothing for the rest of your life, but why would you do that when you can be paid for being in basketball? Play it, coach it, broadcast it, scout it, administrate it, hell, sweep up after it if you have to, but don't get off the team bus. Even if you're only metaphorically riding it.

Photo Gallery: Slick Through the Years

Many of the players on the receiving end of all those little advice assists over the years bring it back to him when they see Leonard at games today, regardless of what they're doing in the game and who's paying them to do it. 

“Hey, Slick! I'm still on the bus!”

Thing is, nobody has ridden the basketball bus like Leonard, whether it's all those actual butt-in-the-seat journeys along thousands of roads across the country or the symbolic rides that go with drawing a paycheck from the game. From a high school career in Terre Haute in the 1940s, to a college career at Indiana University, to a professional career in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago, to coaching gigs in Baltimore and Indianapolis (which also included a run as a general manager) and to a broadcasting career in Indy that's outlasted all the others, Leonard has ridden the buses in all capacities. 

He's celebrated countless wins and mourned his share of defeats on a bus. He's won and lost thousands of dollars in games of poker and gin on a bus. He got his nickname on a bus. He very nearly died on a bus. It would be appropriate, wouldn't it, if he rode one all the way to Springfield, Mass. for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Friday? Think of all the money he could win along the way if he could find a willing poker player.

***

Robert “Slick” Leonard is 82 years old, has been married to his college sweetheart, Nancy, for 60 years, hit the game-winning free throw in the NCAA championship game as a player, led his teams to three ABA championships as a coach, and will soon be in the basketball hall of fame.

His legacy, however, at least to those who know him, is his personality. He was wild in his younger days, and semi-wild in his middle-aged days, seemingly investing in nearly every vice known to man. He drank, he smoked, he gambled and he swore, but he was and is the ultimate people person. His toughness, his compassion, his sense of humor and his sense of fun have made him universally beloved. He has as much right to an ego as anyone, given his accomplishments and fame, but has remained as grounded as a broken airplane.

He grew up poor even by Depression era standards in Terre Haute in the 1930s. Even worse, his relationship with his father left him emotionally impoverished. Thanks to the support of many relatives, neighbors and coaches, he managed to stay out of trouble most of the time. And rather than growing angry and bitter, as many would have, he acquired a hunger for accomplishment and relationships. Inevitably, he was instilled with humility, too. Those qualities would serve him well in life, as a player, coach and husband.  

He was a standout high school player, an All-American guard at IU, and the MVP of the East-West College All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden following his senior season. He was the 10th pick of the NBA draft, which put him at the top of the second round, and after a two-year Army hitch, played seven seasons in the NBA. He describes himself as nothing more than an above-average player in the pros, a claim supported by his career scoring average (9.9), but he could have played better and longer if a series of shoulder injuries hadn't forced retirement.

It was coaching – specifically that part of it with the Pacers – that offered him a template for greatness and earned his entry into the Hall of Fame. His first stab at the job came as a 29-year-old player-coach for the Chicago Zephyrs in the1962-63 season. The franchise moved to Baltimore the following season, where it became the Bullets and Leonard became a full-time coach. He was a young mentor with a young team that included several players who would go on to have successful careers – Walt Bellamy, Terry Dischinger, Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery and Rod Thorn among them – but wasn't yet mature enough to win. The Bullets finished 31-49, and the team's impatient leadership fired Leonard. 

The basketball part of his life was over. Or so it seemed. The Leonards, whose family now included three children, moved back to Indiana, to Kokomo, where he took a job with Herff-Jones, a manufacturer and distributor of class rings, yearbooks and other school items. He roamed his territory of 58 schools, where his name still carried weight with school principals and athletic directors who remembered his heroics at IU, plying his wares. Nancy organized and administered the operation from their home and the children spread out on the living room floor to package the orders, a miniature assembly line. 

With Nancy teaching at Taylor High School, they built a new home on the outskirts of town – the first they had ever owned – and settled into a peaceful life. Had the American Basketball Association not been brought into the world they might still be living there, retired and fairly anonymous. But it was, and it offered Slick a second chance to prove himself in the job for which he was best suited.

Not right away, though. Leonard wasn't about to risk his family's security on a new league with a crazy red, white and blue ball and a three-point shot that had been taken from the failed American Basketball League of the early 1960s, so he rejected inquiries into his interest in coaching. He wound up endorsing the hire of Larry Staverman, who had played for him in Chicago and Baltimore. He did agree, though, to be a consultant for the team as a favor to Pacers general manager Mike Storen, who had worked in the Zephyrs and Bullets front office while Leonard coached in the NBA. Along with fellow Terre Haute native Clyde Lovellette, Leonard ran a camp in June of '67 that attracted dozens of dreamers – some recall more than 100 – to the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Three public scrimmages were held, the third of which drew 3,800 fans. Clearly, the city was hungry for a professional team.

Bobby Slick Leonard

The only way to separate wheat from chaff was to find out who was in condition, so Leonard lined up the glory-seeking hopefuls and had them run sprints until some were recycling breakfast. Then, the story goes, he told them they hadn't seen anything yet, they'd be running more the next morning. Most of them didn't bother to show up.

The Pacers sought out Leonard again early in their second season. They had one of the league's more talented teams after acquiring center Mel Daniels, but started just 2-7 under Staverman. Leonard still didn't think the ABA would last, but he had seen enough to realize he wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with it and he knew he finally would have enough talent to have a winning team. At the very least, he figured he could take the $20,000 or so the Pacers offered him to coach the rest of that season and pay off his new furniture. He knew better than to give up his Herff-Jones business, though. He drove in from Kokomo for practices and games that first season, often scheduling workouts for the evening so he could make his sales calls. After that first season, in June of '69, he talked a developer into selling him a double lot in Carmel for $8,100, and built a more conveniently located home. He and Nancy still live there. 

What happened next remains the highlight of Pacers franchise history. His teams won ABA titles in 1970, '72 and '73, and reached the championship series in 1969 and '75. He won more games than any ABA coach, and enlivened the league with his fearless sideline demeanor. He lit up his team, and a city, too. 

Daniels, two-time ABA Most Valuable Player, recalls the first practice at Brebeuf High School after Leonard took command. He took a mid-range jump shot, something he had been doing to no complaints to that point, but was immediately and loudly informed that would no longer be tolerated. His role would be to stay near the basket.

Bob Netolicky, four-time All-Star, was threatened with a hockey stick after a desultory first half in a game against the Minneapolis Pipers in Duluth, Minn. during the 1969-70 season. Leonard picked one up from a stack of them in the halftime locker room and began chasing after Netolicky, who found a safe place in a bathroom stall. Leonard, intent mostly on injecting some adrenaline into his player, and the rest of the team, broke the stick over the top of the door.

Roger Brown, who didn't easily submit to trusting authority figures, was left behind on a road trip shortly after Leonard took over as the coach, just to let him know his attitude needed to improve.    

George McGinnis once begged Leonard to stop with all the sprints after one particularly brutal practice, thinking he was about to have a heart attack. Leonard said not to worry, he'd faint before his heart gave out, and someone would carry him off the court if he did.

Leonard went after referees and opposing coaches, too. He famously threw a ball rack near the Pacers bench onto the court at referee Ed Rush during a game at the Coliseum, spraying balls in all directions. He was summoned to New York to meet with commissioner Mike Storen, the former Pacers general manager, and fined $1,000. Leonard was shocked. “Mike, come on, a thousand dollars?!” he said. “OK, we'll waive the fine,” Storen said. 

He kicked a ball that had been placed on the foul line into the stands in Salt Lake City during a timeout, partly to liven up a dead crowd. “If there had been goalposts up there, I might have made a 40-yard field goal,” he says.

And, in San Antonio in 1975, he confronted the timekeeper at the end of regulation play of Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. Bob Smith had waited too long in Leonard's opinion to start the clock on a Spurs' possession that could have won the game with three seconds left. They missed the shot, but Leonard charged to the scorer's table, banged his fist on the timing apparatus, and shouted at Smith. As Smith stood up and started to climb over the scorer's table to fight back, Leonard grabbed him by his lapels and shook him. A referee separated the two while the benches cleared and fans showered the court with debris. The Pacers won the game in overtime, and required a police escort to the locker room.

The Pacers went on to take a 3-0 lead in the series, but the Spurs came back with two victories. Blood ran hotter with each game, and before Game 6 at Market Square Arena, Leonard brought it to a boiling point. 

Bobby Slick Leonard

“If they want to fight, let's fight,” he told local reporters, adding “if (Spurs coach) Bob Bass steps across that center line Wednesday night, I'll deck 'im.”

Imagine the consequences of such a public statement today. 

The Pacers clinched the series with a 115-100 victory in Game 6. Leonard's only haymaker, though, was strategic. The Spurs' backcourt, George Gervin and James Silas, had combined for 81 points in the previous game in San Antonio, so he moved 6-9 forward Darnell Hillman to the backcourt to guard the 6-7 Gervin, thus freeing Don Buse and Kevin Joyce to take turns on Silas. Gervin scored 34 points, but needed 27 shots to do it. Silas scored 17, hitting 7-of-16 shots. Overall, the Spurs hit just 43-of-101 attempts while McGinnis roamed wild and free with 32 points, 23 rebounds and 14 assists.

That game as much as any reveals the foundation of Leonard's success. He instilled his players with a street-fighter's attitude, and he wasn't afraid to make dramatic changes in strategy on the spur of the moment. More than once he changed the offense at halftime of a game. “An entirely different offense,” Hillman recalls. 

He also was capable of savvy motivational ploys. When the Pacers played Utah in Salt Lake City in the seventh game of the 1972 semifinals, he sent trainer David Craig into the locker room with about four minutes left in the first half to tape a $20 bill underneath each of the players' seats. When he was finished talking strategy, he told them to stand and look underneath their chair. “See that $20,” he said. “Just imagine that floor out there being three feet deep in $20 bills, and under those bills are championship rings. Do you want it or are you going to let them have it?” The Pacers, who had trailed the series 2-0 and 3-2 and in need of one more win, led by four points at the time. They held on for a 117-113 victory and went on to win their second championship.

The bottom line of it all was an attempt to give his players spirit and confidence, and Leonard did that as well as any coach who ever lived. “Walk out there like you own the damn joint,” he'd tell them before playoff games on the road. His players still recall the special feeling they shared walking through the tunnel to the playing court amid hostile fans. The result: the ABA Pacers had a 6-2 record in Game 7s, and all three of their championships were clinched on the road – in Los Angeles in 1970, New York in '72 and Kentucky in '73. 

You just finished Part 1 of a 2-part series on Pacers legend Slick Leonard's basketball career. Click here to read Part 2

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