It shouldn’t have to take a purchase of a book, or a move to his home state, to make you aware of the existence of one Bobby “Slick” Leonard, but sometimes you’re lucky enough to have the introduction forced upon you.
If you’ve read Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls,” there’s no doubt that the aside about the former Indiana Pacers coach captured your fascination. The images of the former NBA coaching washout that used to dribble the ball up and down the train tracks as an Indianan youth in years prior to downing “a few dozen beers” with players before putting them through the literal paces in practice the next day, screaming and yelling and eventually winning them over. Tilting at big man Mel Daniels while drawing a chalk line some three feet from the goal and telling him never to shoot outside of it. Railing at his players for calling each other racial slurs while still allowing them to (literally) bring western-style guns and holsters into the locker room to play cowboys and Indians. Making it mandatory that his players get together for a drink after the game, whether the tipple was “apple juice” or something stronger.
Also, winning those three ABA championships, the most in league history.
Leonard took over for the Pacers during the 1968-69 season after head coach Larry Staverman was fired after a 2-7 start. After some legendarily rough practices and the benching of star forward Roger Brown (who was left at home for one road trip), Indiana went on to win 42 of its final 69 games before losing in the ABA finals to the Oakland Oaks. Leonard’s Pacers went on to win three of the next four ABA championships after that, utilizing a (should-be) legendary crew that included Daniels, Brown, Bob Netolicky, long-range distance specialist Billy Keller, speedster Freddie Lewis, and eventual star forward George McGinnis.
Slick was a bit of an incorrigible hothead, once being fined for throwing an entire rack of red, white and blue ABA basketballs at a ref, challenging his players’ ability to both compete on the court and drink him under the table off of it. It was a different era, and challenging a players’ commitment or outright professionalism didn’t come off as some form of brand-building or even denigrating. It came off as, “come on, man, I know where you were last night. I just need 48 minutes from you tonight.”
That’s the PG-rated version of things, at least.
It was after Leonard’s coaching career ended, that his PG-rated version of things led him toward a new gig, working the radio broadcasts of Pacer games. Slick is known for his famous “boom, baby!” call that he tosses out each time a Pacer hits a three-pointer, but his contributions to the airwaves thankfully run a bit deeper than that. Not only is the dude funny as hell, he can peel off a needed bit of commentary and insight that doesn’t feel rote or obvious or planned, almost akin to a mostly-silent colleague on press row offering a rare tidbit after a quarter’s worth of keeping to himself. That isn’t to say Leonard is short on words, he can talk up a storm, but there’s quality and precision there.
I can relay as much first-hand, after spending a couple of my teenage years in Indiana and moving back to the state for good a decade ago. Driving around and listening to Slick Leonard and Mark Boyle call Pacer games as the snow melts and the days get longer is a fantastic privilege. I share no allegiances with the Pacers, I will never forgive Reggie Miller for pushing off of Michael Jordan or Chuck Person for punting the basketball in Chicago Stadium, but Slick Leonard’s presence makes living in my adopted home state all the more easier. And seeing him charm the paying faithful in the concourse of the Pacers’ home stadium during halftime will never get old.
His induction into the Hall of Fame is long overdue. The Pacers are credited in ‘Loose Balls’ as acting as the ABA’s version of the Boston Celtics, and if that league ever had a Red Auerbach clone, it would certainly be Slick Leonard. That might come off as too easy a comparison, but it rings true. Slick encompassed everything about what made that league great – he was on his second chance after tumbling out of the NBA, he was quick to fight his players if he felt like they were dogging it but even quicker to fight anyone that came after his guys, and he wasn’t afraid to take chances.
He was beloved for a reason. And he won, for the same reason.
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