Leonard, McGuire shape today's NBA while offering bridge to past
The NBA once consisted of a mere 10 teams and 80 players. Trains were the preferred mode of travel for road trips and none of those journeys stretched farther west than St. Louis.
"Slick" and "Tricky Dick" are the ultimate throwbacks, the last players who donned uniforms for a significant number of games in the 1950s still working full-time for NBA teams. Leonard, 77, is the Indiana Pacers' radio analyst. McGuire, 83, is one of the New York Knicks' college scouts. They had more company a year ago, but the list of veterans from the Eisenhower era is dwindling quickly. Boston television analyst
So it's down to Leonard and McGuire, two pioneers still putting in their time and putting up with the grind, still drawing paychecks that are much larger than the ones they received for playing. Their playing careers overlapped four seasons, but they have more in common than that. Both work for teams in their home state. Each finished his playing career as a player-coach. Both are honored by banners hanging in their employer's arena. McGuire's bears his jersey number, 15, which
These two guys, in fact, would have made an effective backcourt combination. McGuire recalls Leonard as a great shooter. Leonard recalls McGuire as a great passer. No doubt they would have gotten along just fine on the court and off, given their meshing skills and blue collar sensibilities.
Leonard has a saying that he repeats to players, coaches or anyone in the league contemplating retirement: "Don't get off the bus." In other words, stay involved as long as a team will have you, because you'll find nothing else as exciting. He and McGuire got on the bus as players, were kicked off briefly after losing seasons as coaches, but found a way back on and have refused to give up their seats.
Leonard, a native of Terre Haute, Ind., entered the NBA in 1956, after a two-year Army hitch. He played four seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers and one for the Los Angeles Lakers, then was selected by the immortal Chicago Zephyrs a year later in 1961, when the league expanded to nine teams. He averaged a career-high 16.1 points his first year in Chicago and was player-coach in 1962-63 before repeated shoulder separations forced him out of uniform. He coached one season full-time after the franchise moved to Baltimore, but was let go in 1964 after a 31-49 record with the hapless franchise.
He returned to Indiana and spent a few years selling class rings, but returned to coaching in 1968 with the ABA Pacers. His teams won three titles in his first five seasons, and he became the ABA's all-time winningest coach. He was let go by the NBA Pacers in 1980, but returned a few years later as a full-time radio analyst. The upcoming season will be his 25th in that capacity, in which he's re-established himself as a local legend.
McGuire, a native of Rockaway, N.Y., entered the NBA in 1949 with his hometown Knicks. He played 11 seasons in the NBA, eight in New York and three in Detroit, and was a seven-time all-star. He was player-coach in 1959-60, and then a full-time coach three more seasons. He returned to coaching with the Knicks in 1965, then traded places with
McGuire, sometimes called Mumbles by friends, doesn't say much, and can be difficult to understand when he does. His brother Al, the former Marquette coach and college basketball analyst, was the better talker but a lesser player.
"The only time I was ever confident in my life was when I was on the court," McGuire said. "I'm not confident talking. I stay away from speaking engagements. But I was confident on the court because I felt I belonged."
Leonard, a compelling storyteller with a sharp memory, is the better spokesman for his era.
He recalls all those nights Nancy drove him to the Minneapolis train station in sub-zero weather. The players would drink or play cards in the club car or sleep in a cramped bunk before arriving in Chicago about 8 a.m., and then catch another eastbound train. Teammates were closer then, physically and emotionally. They were poorer, too, but probably had more fun than today's players.
"We didn't stay in no big-time hotels, and we were two to a room," Leonard said. "We always had four guys to a cab, and it was a wrestling match to get out first because the last guy had to pay."
While few players of that era were eager to grab a tab, some were notoriously evasive.
"If you had [Lakers teammate] Hot Rod Hundley with you, he was going to try to get out of paying for anything," Leonard said. "I remember one time,
"I'm telling you, Rod was a tightwad. He wouldn't pick up a tab if his life depended on it."
Owners were cheap, too, usually out of necessity. Most teams in the 1950s didn't have full-time trainers, and visiting teams used the services of part-timers provided by the home team.
"There was one guy in St. Louis named John," Leonard said. "His wife always baked cookies for us. He was a really nice guy, but he couldn't tape. I didn't want to embarrass him, so I'd let him tape me and then I'd go back to my locker and cut them off and wrap my own ankles."
Another parcel of common ground for Leonard and McGuire is that neither is a nostalgia-riddled old-timer, sitting on the front porch and dreamily recalling the glory days of two-handed set shots and canvas sneakers. That's why they're still viable employees. They've stayed current.
"The kids today are so much better than we were; they're so much more athletic and stronger and they shoot better," McGuire said. "People don't really know how good they are, and how hard they work at it. They are probably the greatest athletes in the world; they're unbelievable.
Says Leonard: "It's still fun. I still really enjoy seeing rookies come into the league and seeing how they progress."
Of course if you stay in the game for as long as Leonard and McGuire have, you accumulate some growing-old pains. McGuire takes pain-numbing shots for the arthritis in his knees, needs a cane to walk, and had cataract surgery in January. All of that makes commercial air travel an even greater annoyance. Leonard had a heart attack several years ago on a western road trip, and a stent was implanted in his artery. He's had two hips replaced, and this summer had back surgery to fuse vertebrae.
But they both keep going. Keep looking forward to the next game.
"I'm going to play this baby all the way out to the end," Leonard said. "That retirement thing doesn't do anything for me. I'm going to play it all the way out to the end."