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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Remembering Hall of Famer and NCAA/ABA Champion Bobby "Slick" Leonard

Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and was finally inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, passed away earlier today at the age of 88. Leonard earned Hall of Fame induction as a coach, but he had an accomplished playing career as well. He was a two-time All-American at Indiana University, and he made the game-winning free throw in Indiana's 69-68 1953 NCCA Championship Game victory over Kansas. Leonard averaged 9.9 ppg during his seven season NBA career. During his time with the Lakers, Leonard's teammates included  Jerry West, and the recently departed Elgin Baylor

I first met Leonard in 2004 when I was researching my article about Roger Brown, the Pacers' great forward who had won the 1970 ABA Playoff MVP after outdueling Rick Barry in the ABA Finals (Brown scored 53, 39, and 45 points in the last three games of that series). Brown had inexplicably and unjustly not yet been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Leonard told me, "Roger Brown was a money player. Anytime the game was on the line, Roger was always there. Roger had tremendous ability--one of the greatest small forwards to ever play the game. I've seen everyone that came down the pike in the last 50 years--playing against them, coaching them or broadcasting them. Roger Brown deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

It was fascinating and a joy to speak with Leonard, who could provide informed takes about players from the 1950s all the way through the 2000s. It was wonderful to hear Leonard's insights about five decades of basketball history as we had wide ranging conversations about Sam Jones, James "Captain Late" Silas, and the NBA's current stars. Right after the Detroit Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace, Leonard told me during a one on one interview that the Pistons would win the 2004 title. In 2006, Leonard went against the grain, and did not list Steve Nash among his top MVP candidates. Leonard stated that Nash simply was not as good as Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant (Nash went on to win his second consecutive MVP, with Nowitkzi winning in 2007, Bryant winning in 2008, and James winning in 2009-10 and 2012-13).

Of course, we often talked about the many great players he coached with the Pacers, including Gus Johnson, the Hall of Famer who won his only championship ring as a key Pacers reserve in 1973. The Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA, yet it was nearly 40 years after the ABA-NBA merger before Leonard and the key players from the Pacers' championship dynasty received Hall of Fame recognition. I tirelessly promoted the Hall of Fame candidacies of Brown (who was finally inducted in 2013) and two-time ABA regular season MVP Mel Daniels, who was finally inducted in 2012. Brown passed away in 1997 and I never met him, but I had the privilege of interviewing Daniels on several occasions. Daniels passed away in 2015

Leonard shared with me his memories of the"Interstate 65" rivalry that pitted Leonard's Pacers versus the Kentucky Colonels. The Pacers beat the Colonels in playoff series in 1969 (coming back from a 3-1 deficit), 1970, and 1973, with the latter matchup taking place in the ABA Finals (the Pacers switched to the Western Division for the 1971 season). The Colonels won the final two playoff matchups, defeating the Pacers in the 1975 ABA Finals and in a 1976 first round miniseries (after the ABA got rid of the division format in the league's final season).

During his Hall of Fame speech, Leonard proudly spoke about his time in the ABA

We had some great times in the ABA...They talk about the ABA like we were a minor league to the NBA. Well, I played in the NBA and that's not true. If you want to go back and look at the players we ended up with in the ABA before the merger, you're looking at Moses Malone, you're looking at the Iceman--George Gervin--you're looking at Dr. J--Julius Erving. I can go on, Dan Issel--by the time the merger came, and David (Stern) was there then, we had the players and they needed our players as bad as we needed them, 'cause we'd gone broke...I had a frontline with the Pacers--and I've seen them all, all the frontlines that have come down the pike in the last 60 years or so--with Mel Daniels in the middle, George McGinnis at one forward and Roger Brown at the other forward. Those guys could have competed against any frontline that I've seen. Those were great, fun days. I had that frontline and in the backcourt I had Freddie Lewis, Donnie Freeman, Billy Keller, Tommy Thacker. Backing up the guys up front I had Darnell Hillman and Bob Netolicky.

After Leonard's coaching career ended, he spent more than three decades as a broadcaster for the Pacers. In recent years, he suffered several health setbacks that prevented him from going to road games, but he still did radio commentary for the Pacers' home games. Leonard was the first inductee in the Indiana University Sports Hall of Fame, and he is also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the Indiana Sports Writers and Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Leonard's trademark "Boom baby!" call for a Pacers' three pointer is used in a current national advertising campaign featuring Reggie Miller, the Pacers' Hall of Fame guard who played for the team from 1987-2005.

Ted Green made the documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" and he followed that with the documentary "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier." I recommend both films for anyone who wants to learn more about two Hall of Famers who the Hall of Fame almost forgot.

One thing is certain: real basketball fans will never forget player/coach/broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:57 PM



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