Slick. It was a catchy nickname. His teammates with the old Minneapolis Lakers did not bestow it because of how Bob Leonard handled the point guard role in the 1950s NBA.
It was a blurted-out comment by George Mikan, the first great pro basketball big man-turned-coach whom Leonard manhandled at gin rummy, which he never could have done in the paint.
“You’re too slick for me,” Mikan said after losing at cards on a road trip.
Players overheard it, liked the sound of it, and for the last 60 years, more people in Indiana knew Leonard as “Slick,” as if he was an extra in the movie “Maverick,” than Basketball Bob, who he really was.
Although maintaining good health had been a struggle since a major 2011 heart attack, it was still a shock when Leonard died Tuesday at 88 after so many years still associated with Indiana basketball and the Indiana Pacers, most recently through broadcasting.
Elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2014 because of his grand success leading the Pacers to championships as their coach in the old American Basketball Association, some forget Leonard was connected to the team even before it ever took a dribble.
He helped organize the original tryout camps for dreamers and wannabes in 1967. Some hopefuls showed up in farmers’ overalls. Everyone in Indiana thinks they can hoop and had to be shown the hard and sweaty way they couldn’t keep up with Roger Brown, George McGinnis, Jerry Harkness and Mel Daniels. Leonard merely whistled them into exhaustion and they cut themselves.
Leonard told a good story and possessed an encyclopedic memory. Long after he departed the court as a player and the bench as a coach, Leonard regaled listeners on Pacers radio. Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, one of the greatest shooters of all time, was a three-point king, and when he swished one of his signature hoops from afar, Leonard exclaimed “Boom, Baby!”
That was the name of Leonard’s biography he and I collaborated on, and it was a phrase Miller adored. Long into retirement, Miller slyly worked the comment into one of his fast-food commercials seen frequently during the recent NCAA basketball championships. I don’t know how many viewers noticed, but I did.
The stories. Bob never ran out. When working together at his home, we spent hours tape recording, and I spent much of the time laughing. When he inscribed my copy of the book, he wrote about how much fun we had. I had the feeling Bob always had fun.
Leonard was a 6-foot-3 guard who starred at Terre Haute Gerstmeyer. He once told me if given the year, he could name the large schools Indiana high school champion from, well, almost going back forever. He knew his hoops history.
Heck, he was part of hoops history.
Leonard, who hardly grew up rich, was recruited to play for Indiana University by legendary coach Branch McCracken, who bought a suit for him to wear at high school graduation and was like a second father to him.
Once, McCracken hosted players at an eatery in Nashville, and it was understood they would order the chicken dinner special. Leonard relished telling about the look that passed over McCracken’s face when he brashly ordered a comparatively high-priced steak instead.
The Hoosiers won two Big Ten titles and the 1953 NCAA title with Leonard hitting the game-winning free throw. Twice, he received All-American honors.
Oh, and Leonard met a girl, Nancy Root, freshman year at IU. They were married more than 60 years and raised five children. Nancy was not that much for basketball at first, but those who really know Pacers history recall a period when she was de facto general manager and the Leonards, as a duo, played a major role keeping the franchise financially afloat. They should probably be called Mr. and Mrs. Pacer.
The Leonards are revered in Pacers annals, and on Tuesday, owners Herb Simon, Steve Simon and the whole Simon family lavishly praised them.
“Pacers fans will remember Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard as the spirit of our franchise,” they said. “With a charisma, intensity and wit to match his nickname, Slick made us champions. He was our biggest fan and our most loving critic, and he personified Pacers basketball for generations of Hoosier families. Most importantly, though, Slick and Nancy are our family, and his passing leaves an unfillable void in the hearts of everyone associated with this organization.”
Leonard mostly played with the Lakers in the NBA, then the expansion Chicago Packers, who became Zephyrs, before coaching the Zephyrs and Baltimore Bullets. He guided the Pacers to three ABA crowns, and a banner flies in the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in homage, displaying what the casual observer would consider the quirkiest of all numbers. Amidst other flags advertising the jersey numbers of the Pacers’ greatest players is “529.”
The 529 represents the number of victories the team won with Bob Leonard as coach. A hundred times as many are the fans and friends he created for the Pacers with the wins, and later, with his radio aphorisms. I will miss the stories and the sound of his voice, as will all of them. Oh, for just one more Bob-boomed “Boom, baby!”