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Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier" Captures the Essence of an Indiana Sports Icon

Ted Green, whose documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" vividly portrayed the accomplishments, triumphs and struggles of one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history, has now produced another compelling documentary about an Indiana sports icon: "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier" is a 90 minute journey depicting how a boy who literally grew up on the wrong side of the tracks became an elite college basketball player before averaging 9.9 ppg in a seven year pro basketball career that helped prepare him to become a championship-winning coach.

Younger fans who know Leonard primarily for his famous "Boom Baby" calls during Indiana Pacers' radio broadcasts may only be dimly aware that Leonard coached the Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and they almost certainly do not realize that Leonard was a basketball legend long before the ABA existed. Leonard was a high school star in Indiana and after receiving dozens of scholarship offers--including one from reigning NCAA champion Kentucky--he stayed in his home state to play for Indiana University. He averaged 16.3 ppg (second on the team) during the 1952-53 season and played a major role as the Hoosiers won the 1953 NCAA Championship. Leonard was a great leader, a superb floor general and someone who brought a spirit of camaraderie to every team for which he played or coached.

The extended trailer of "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier showcases Leonard's deadly outside shooting touch, details his exploits during the Indiana University's 1953 NCAA title run and describes how he both built and saved the Indiana Pacers franchise but what comes through most of all is that--beneath the fiery surface of his fierce competitiveness--Leonard is loyal and compassionate, grateful to his mentors and a willing mentor to others.

Leonard was not only a talented player in his own right but even early in his career he also had an eye for talent in others. Leonard met fellow future Hall of Famer Sam Jones when they both served in the military and Leonard suggested to Jones that he consider a career in pro basketball, something that--by Jones' own admission in an interview with Green--Jones had not thought about at all prior to meeting Leonard. Jones eventually won 10 championship rings with the Boston Celtics, more than any other player in pro basketball history except for his teammate Bill Russell, who captured 11 championship rings. When I interviewed Leonard more than a decade ago, he told me that Jones is the most underrated guard in NBA history. Leonard's insights enriched several of my articles, including Classic Confrontations: Boston vs. St. Louis and James "Captain Late" Silas Commanded Respect in the Clutch, but one of the best tips that Leonard gave me never made it into print because I did not have my own website at the time and did not yet have the opportunity to write any playoff preview articles: in the spring of 2004, Leonard told me that he expected the Detroit Pistons to win the NBA championship, even though his beloved Indiana Pacers--and several Western Conference teams, including the star-studded L.A. Lakers--would finish with a better regular season record. Leonard believed that Larry Brown's coaching, combined with the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace, would push Detroit over the top and he was right on the mark.

It is not surprising that Leonard recognized the Pistons' potential before most people did; he was a masterful basketball strategist whose Pacers posted a 6-2 record in seven game playoff series. Leonard so enjoyed his time with the Pacers that he turned down an opportunity to coach his alma mater, a job that eventually went to Bobby Knight. Leonard told Green that this worked out best for all parties concerned.

Leonard did not have much of a real opportunity to demonstrate his coaching chops in the NBA; he only coached for one and a half seasons in the NBA before his ABA tenure and he spent just four seasons with the cash-strapped Pacers after the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. Leonard has called games for the Pacers' radio network for nearly three decades and he is still a fixture courtside in Indiana, though his health no longer permits him to make road trips.

Leonard's Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement was long overdue but at least it happened in time for Leonard to enjoy that special moment with his family and friends. It is also wonderful and fitting that Green's documentary first aired shortly before the Hall of Fame ceremony took place. My life path does not currently enable me to write about basketball as much as I used to but I am so happy that the Hall of Fame's doors have finally, belatedly opened to several of the legends who I wrote so passionately about in the past 10 years, including Slick Leonard, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. ESPN, TNT, Slam and many other major media outlets have consistently dropped the ball regarding the ABA's significance in general and the specific accomplishments of those individuals but in the end justice has been done and that is what matters most. Green deserves much credit for persevering with his documentary work; PBS benefits from what he has done, while ESPN and TNT are that much poorer for not providing a wider audience for a top notch filmmaker who has brought attention to Roger Brown and Slick Leonard despite the NBA's efforts to flush ABA statistics, records and oral history down Orwell's proverbial memory hole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM



At Friday, August 29, 2014 3:14:00 PM, Anonymous Joe H said...

He has lived quite a life and it's nice to see him get inducted while he is here to accept/enjoy! Kudos to Jerry Colangelo for getting the ABA ball rolling! We need to lobby Jerry Colangelo to get the ABA stats added to the league record book!!

60 days until Opening Night.. I'm looking forward to an interesting season...!


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