Original publish date: November 1, 2013
Slick; a nickname that conjures up images of loud suits, a big smile and winning basketball. Bobby “Slick” Leonard is Indiana Pacers basketball, period. His trademark phrase (seriously he trademarked it), “Boom Baby”, sums up Slick’s personality better in two words better than anything I’ll write in this article. Everyone remembers Slick’s drive to lead the Indiana Pacers to greatness during the ABA Championship years. Most remember Slick’s stewardship of the Pacers during the team’s fledgling first seasons in the NBA. But many have forgotten just how great a player he was. In high school, college and the NBA, Slick was a solid star and a force to be reckoned with on the court.
William Robert “Slick” Leonard was born in Terre Haute on July 17, 1932. It was a Sunday and I suspect that somewhere nearby there must have been an old lace-up basketball swishing through a net at the exact moment he greeted this world because his would become the most basketball blessed life of that Hoosier generation. He would grow to become an impressive 6’3″ 185 lb guard for the “Black Cats” of Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School where he was alternate on the 1950 Indiana all-star team. He would also excel as a tennis player, winning the state tennis championship as a senior.
Slick was heavily recruited by Indiana colleges, including Notre Dame, but finally landed with the Indiana University Hoosiers. As an aside, many of you know I collect oddball things. One of those “things” is a handwritten letter from a very young Bobby Leonard on the letterhead of the Central Hotel in “Terry Hot” in 1950. The letter was written to legendary Notre Dame football star & 3-time All-American basketball star Ed “Moose” Krause who had just taken over the job of Athletic Director for the Irish.
Knowing that Slick would become a hoops legend at I.U. makes the letter all the more interesting. It reads: “Dear Mr. Krause, I definitely would like to go to college, but I do not think I am financially able, I have had several letters from other schools, but it has always been my desire to attend Notre Dame. I like your set-up of not having co-eds as it gives the boys more time to attend to their studies. My grades were not so good during my first years in high school, but after I began to apply myself I have attained a “B” average. I will send you a copy of my grades as soon as possible. Sincerely, Bob Leonard”. The letter includes a separate sheet detailing his classes (Psychology, Print Shop, Sociology, Spanish, etc.) and, more importantly, his high school average and record for the Black Cats.
In spite of this letter’s intent, Slick became a star for Branch McCracken’s Hurryin Hoosiers squad. He captained two Big Ten championship teams and the 1953 NCAA championship team. Slick hit the game winning free throws that gave Indiana the victory over Phog Allen’s heavily favored Kansas Jayhawks team. Leonard was the Most Valuable Player for I.U. in 1952 and an All-Big Ten and All-American player in 1953 and 1954. As a sophomore he was MVP of the East-West college all-star game in Gotham Cities’ Madison Square Garden. The first player inducted into the Indiana University Sports Hall of Fame? Bob Leonard.
He was selected with the first pick of the second round of the 1954 NBA Draft. He spent the bulk of his seven-year professional playing career with the Lakers (four years in Minneapolis and the first year after the move to Los Angeles). He got the nickname “Slick” from a former Lakers teammate with a colorful nickname of his own, “Hot Rod” Hundley. After Bobby won a game of gin by blitzing a team truck driver after a game, Hundley said. “Boy, you sure are slick” and the name stuck. He spent his last two years with the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs, his final season as a player / coach. The team moved to Baltimore in 1964 where Slick coached them for one more year. For his seven years in the pros, Leonard earned less money overall than current Pacers shooting guard Paul George makes in one game.
In 1968, Leonard became the coach of the upstart ABA’s Pacers. He was “the coach” for the next 12 years including the first four in the NBA. Some of that time Slick also served as general manager. Leonard led the Pacers to three ABA championships before the ABA-NBA merger in June 1976. In the 8-year history of the ABA, Slick led the team to the Championship finals in 5 of those 8 seasons; the team never missed the playoffs.
Those 3 Championships are still to this day the only titles won by the Indiana Pacers. Although the NBA Pacers struggled during Slick’s tenure as coach, that was no reflection on this man’s ability. Speaking as a rabid fan who observed those early years, Slick never had a chance. Pacers management nearly gutted the team to meet the financial burdens imposed by the merger and never gave Slick the personnel to put together a winning team during those early NBA years.
I have a personal connection to those ABA teams, although it came long after that cork popped on the last bottle of locker room champagne. I organized and planned the ABA reunion in August of 1997 at the old Hoosier Dome. Former Pacers legend Bob Netolicky and team President Dick Tinkham steered the players and owners while my wife Rhonda & I handled many of the details. During that reunion, I witnessed firsthand how much the players loved and respected Bobby “Slick” Leonard. Not only Pacers players, but players from all around the league. I heard more than one millionaire ABA team owner present at that reunion claim that it was Slick and those great ABA Pacers teams that held that league together and brought it credibility.
Slick was the last Pacers coach at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum and the first coach at Market Square Arena. A good illustration of Bobby Leonard’s impact on Hoosier hoops, during the last practice at Market Square Arena after the players had left the floor, then Pacers coach Larry Bird asked for Slick to come out on the court. The legendary duo stood alone on the court in the house that Slick’s teams built. As the workers stood outside the perimeter poised and ready to tear up the floor, Larry legend threw a bounce pass to Slick and said, “I want you to take the last shot here.“ Of course, he made it.
Documantarian Ted Green, friend and subject of past columns, plans to follow-up to his popular film of last year, “Undefeated: The Roger Brown story” with a film about Bobby “Slick” Leonard titled “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier”. I was honored to assist in a small way with that production and equally proud of Ted’s newest venture. Green, whose previous documentaries profiled John Wooden, Indiana war veterans and Indianapolis’ climb from sleepy “Naptown” to a Super Bowl site, believes that a film about Slick is the next natural step.
“Hoosiers forget what a great player Slick was. They remember him as a coach, but he was a helluva player. He has done basically everything there is to do in basketball and at all levels, and he did most of it right here.” says Green “Plus, I don’t think a lot of people are fully aware of the amazing contributions he’s made to the game beyond his success with the Pacers. That’s one of my goals with this film, to illuminate his remarkable run from the beginning, show people stuff they don’t know, and hopefully open some eyes nationally. I’ve already discovered a lot of things that I believe will do that.”
Knowing Ted, the project promises to be just as colorful as Slick himself. Although Slick is one of only five individuals in Pacers history to have a banner raised in his honor,Ted believes he deserves more. Green, who told me last year that he believes Slick has a very good chance of being the next ABA inductee to the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, hopes to finish the film in time for a March madness release. Keep in mind, Ted released his film on Pacer’s star Roger Brown BEFORE the “Rajah” was elected to the Hall of Fame and his film on Slick could be just as timely.
I feel a kindred spirit in Ted Green. As Hoosiers become more-and-more familiar with his work, they quickly realize that Green gets more in depth on his subjects than anyone else. Ted, who calls this trait his “sickness”, will most certainly tell us things about Slick that we never knew about. Nobody digs deeper than Ted Green. “This will be my most extensively researched film yet. As a competitive journalist I want to play it a little close to the vest, but I can say that I’ve made several discoveries that I think will surprise even people who know Bob well, and will definitely open eyes nationally to the incredible impact on his sport that this man has had.” says Ted.
As for Slick’s shot at the Hall of Fame, Ted says, “I think there’s little doubt that Slick will get in someday, and like a lot of people around here, I’m hopeful that it’ll happen in the next class. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s a lock — the fact that we’ve had two ABA Pacers back-to-back in Mel and Roger could factor against Slick as well as George McGinnis, who’s also deserving. But if you look solely at impact, at winning and losing, at what the person meant to the league, I think Slick has to be next.”
Now 81 years old, Leonard returned to Terre Haute twice to drive filmmaker Green through the neighborhoods where he grew up. Together they visited the old Gerstmeyer gym, now incorporated into the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club, where Green surprised Leonard with impromptu visits by longtime friends including former prep school teammates the “Gerstmeyer Twins” Harley and Arley Andrews. Green filmed slick rolling through town, reminiscing about selling ice cream at Union Depot and of sneaking into the old Indiana State Teachers College gym in the late 1940s to watch Coach John Wooden drill the Sycamore players through basketball practices. Green is still in production and is looking for photographs not only of Bobby Leonard in his youthful days and his Gerstmeyer teams, but also of city scenes from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. If you can help, contact me and I’ll pass it on to Ted.
Leonard returned to the Pacers in 1985 as a color commentator, first for television, then on radio. He is in his 24th year as a Pacers broadcaster. Modern fans know him for his phrase “Boom, baby!”, which he shouts exuberantly after every successful three-point shot. Bobby “Slick” Leonard is the common thread running through Indiana’s accepted pastime and next week, you have the chance to meet him.
Bobby Leonard has written a new book, “Boom, Baby!: My Basketball Life in Indiana”, and he will recount many of these stories personally next Thursday evening in Irvington. Slick is coming to Bookmamas at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 14 to give a short talk and sign copies of his new memoir.
Leonard, in typical heartfelt modesty, has repeatedly said that his exclusion from the Hall of Fame doesn’t bother him. His focus has always been on getting “his guys” there instead. Mel Daniels got into the Hall in 2012 (alongside NBA Pacers icon Reggie Miller) and Roger Brown made it posthumously in 2013. Slick’s guys have made it, and with this class coming up, I hope that he makes it too. Come out to Bookmamas next Thursday and discuss it with Slick yourself. Tell them Al sent ya.