Slick Leonard saved Pacers and then became head of their family

Bobby "Slick" Leonard | File photo

For the longest time, Bobby “Slick” Leonard was the Indiana Pacers. And if Leonard wasn’t the face most known by modern Pacers fans, they should at least be thanking him for saving the franchise.

As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “Leonard was profoundly a Hoosier, as Indiana as they come.” Or as Pacers owner Herb Simon said in a statement, Leonard was the “spirit” of the Pacers.

Leonard died at the age of 88, the Pacers announced Tuesday. He took part of Pacers’ fans blue and yellow hearts with him.

“If there’s ever a statue in downtown Indianapolis, it should be at the the arena and be a statue of Slick.”

How much did Leonard care about the Pacers? Well, enough that he and wife Nancy put together a telethon in 1977 to raise money and keep the franchise afloat. Otherwise, there likely would be no Pacers today.

Leonard was born in Terre Haute, Ind., and eventually became a standout point guard at Indiana University. His free throw lifted the Hoosiers to a 69-68 win over Kansas for the national championship.

That alone would have made him a legend in Indiana. But there was so much more that followed.

Following a 10-year playing career with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Packers/Zephyrs, and several seasons coaching the Baltimore Bullets, Leonard became coach of his home-state Pacers in 1968.

The Pacers were members of the fledgling American Basketball Association, which popularized the 3-point shot and much of the wide-open play we see in the NBA today. Leonard’s team utilized both in winning three ABA championships.

He stayed on as coach after the ABA-NBA merger, but the Pacers were basically gutted because of the financial burdens that resulted. Still, he lasted another four seasons — before moving into the broadcast booth in 1985. And that is how most of today’s Pacers fans remember him most fondly.

Leonard’s catchphrase of “Boom baby” when a Pacers player buried a three echoed from Mishawaka to Evansville, and all points in between.

“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me professionally, and that’s not the half of it,” Pacers radio voice Mark Boyle told the Indy Star of their time calling games together. “This is a man that made all of us feel like a family member.”

Slick All Across The Land

I’m not old enough to remember Leonard as anything but an analyst for Pacers radio broadcasts. I grew up near Akron, Ohio, south of Cleveland. It is Cavaliers country.

Still, growing up as a die-hard NBA fan, I often took time to listen to broadcasts of teams all across the league. At the time, the Pacers were the only other team I could hear clearly in Ohio.

This was back in the days before the Internet, before the days of NBA League Pass and maybe even before ESPN and TNT. If any of those things were around, I sure don’t remember knowing about them.

But I was more than just someone who followed the Pacers. I came to have a deep admiration for the passion for basketball in Indiana — starting (and some might say ending) at the high school level. To this day, I am a Buckeye who suffers from an intense case of “Hoosier Hysteria.”

Steve Alford, Bobby Knight and the IU teams of the 1980s are partially responsible for that. So is the movie “Hoosiers.” And yes, so is Leonard.

I remember listening to him on the radio for the first time and thinking, “Who is THAT guy?” He talked about the game like your dad would if you were sitting in the arena and eating a hot dog. There was no deep-diving into what the coach might be thinking. There was no over-analyzing every play gone wrong. There was no fluff or arrogance of any kind.

It was just straight basketball. It was just a man who loved the game, and very clearly adored the Pacers.

Over time, it became clear that Leonard was more than just a member of the Pacers’ family. He was the head of it.

About the Author

Sam Amico
Sam Amico has covered the NBA on a full-time basis for OutKick, Sports Illustrated and FOX Sports, and has been a regular contributor to CBS Sports, the Boston Herald and NBA.com.

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