There was less than half an hour before the game, and Bob (Slick) Leonard sucked hard on a cigarette, the filter tip clenched tightly between his lips, his eyes focused on something that wasn't there. The smoke from the cigarette floated out of his hand in a series of little corkscrews and formed a wreath around his head.
"Some nights it wouldn't take anything at all to get him started," says Hot Rod Hundley, Leonard's roommate when they played for the Minneapolis Lakers in the late '50s. "When he drank he got mean and after a few he'd tell me to give him a cigarette. So I'd try to give him one but he'd grab the whole pack out of my hand, and right away he wanted to fight everyone in the bar.
"Back in 1959, when Slick was captain of the Lakers, the two of us dropped by Buster's Bar in Minneapolis one afternoon. He saw this guy, this huge guy, and he decided he had to arm wrestle him. Slick was a hell of a competitor—drinking, card playing, arm wrestling; anything he did he wanted to beat you. So he went off to arm wrestle this guy, and I was sitting there having a drink when I heard a loud noise. I looked over and Slick was all laid out on the floor. The big guy had not only pinned Slick's arm, he'd knocked him out of his chair. I said, 'Hey, that's the captain of the Lakers lying on the floor.' "
Sitting there in the empty dressing room at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis recently, Slick Leonard looked like the man who fell to earth. The Indiana Pacers, the team he has coached for 11 seasons, were in the midst of a streak in which they would lose nine of 10 games. No one coaching in the NBA has been with one team for a longer period of uninterrupted service than Leonard, but Pacer fans had begun to grow uneasy and it seemed they might want Leonard's head. His pregame oration to his players was passionate, but not stirring. The players listened politely. When it was over, somebody opened the door for them and they silently filed out.
December 18, 1978
"If anybody could get a team up for a game, it was Slick," says Roger Brown, a star forward for the Pacers during eight of the team's nine years in the American Basketball Association. "He was crazy and he wanted to win so much that he'd pick a fight with anybody he thought wasn't putting out. Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky and I were all deputy sheriffs, so we always carried side arms. Some of the other guys on the team had permits to carry guns, too, and sometimes to ease the tension before a game we'd practice our quick draws on each other in the locker room. Slick would always be able to get our attention, though. He used to like to grab a hockey stick at halftime when we were getting our butts beat and try to start a fight with Neto or one of the guys. Those guns didn't scare him. Neto was his particular whipping boy; some of the time Neto deserved to be, but even when he didn't. Slick would usually go ahead and scream at him for our amusement."
You wonder about Slick Leonard these days, whether he wouldn't be happier sitting out on his front porch, a gin and tonic in hand, dredging up old stories from the wild and woolly days of the ABA, and before that the NBA—the real one, where men were men and those who weren't didn't make it through rookie camp.
Leonard doesn't dwell on the past, however; perhaps because the statute of limitations hasn't run out on all of it. But you know right away that Leonard fondly remembers those days, that his opinion of the modern pro ballplayer is not high and that he believes most of the fun has gone out of coaching. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the players you don't see these days," he says. "When I was in the league, I played hard. I loved to compete and I don't understand people who don't play that way. They say the coach should motivate the players, but that's impossible. If they don't have the guts and desire, they're not going to win. You can ride a thoroughbred but you can't ride a dog."
By keeping the Indiana franchise alive (three championships) during some of the drearier ABA days, Slick Leonard, as much as anyone, eventually helped bring about the 1976 merger that aligned the Pacers. Denver, San Antonio and the New York Nets of the ABA with the NBA, CBS, Brent Musburger and the fabulous One-on-One Halftime Dunking for Dollars Show.
Few coaches have ever been as closely identified with a team as Leonard has been with the Pacers. The club's media guide announces on page 2 what everybody in Indianapolis has known for a long time: "Bob Leonard is the Indiana Pacers."
If Slick Leonard is the Katharine Hepburn of professional basketball—impertinent, charming, stubborn, argumentative—then Nancy Leonard is his Spencer Tracy. Nancy and Slick have been married for 24 years, and when he was asked to be the Pacers' general manager in 1976, he suggested that his wife be named assistant general manager. Slick has always despised office work, and so for three seasons Nancy has run the organization's day-to-day operations. Few women in professional sports have achieved the front-office eminence that Nancy has. In fact, few NBA franchises have as many women in key positions as the Pacers, who have three.
When Nancy arrived at Indiana University in 1950, she met a boy named Charlie Crock. Crock was a friend of Bobby Leonard's, and one day during a phys-ed class he introduced the two. "I didn't like him at first." she recalls. "He used to stick his leg across the aisle in front of me when I was walking to my seat, and for a long time I thought he was a jerk." Eventually Leonard conned some girls in Nancy's dormitory into helping him get a date with her, and soon the two were going steady. Nancy was a serious student and at all times a very proper young lady; the day after she graduated from Indiana with degrees in physical education and business, she married Bobby Leonard, the original wild and crazy guy.
"It's a perfect example of opposites attracting," Hundley says of the Leonards' long marriage. "When we were all starting out, they were the couple you least expected to make it." There were, predictably, memorable moments. Once, after a round of golf, Slick and some of his cronies began to play gin in the clubhouse—and occasionally sip some gin, too. The game lasted until six the next morning. By the time the last hand rolled around, the clubhouse was so cold that Leonard had thrown a tablecloth over his head.
"On the last hand, Slick was down $368 to me," says Slim Sumerlin, the executive director of Market Square Arena. "He said he'd play me double or nothing for the whole pot, then he won the hand. I offered to drive him home, but I told him I didn't know how to find his house. He told me he'd show me how to get there, then he passed out in my car. I drove around for a long time until I finally found his house. When we pulled into the driveway, Nancy was standing there waiting for him."
"Nancy is fairly straight," says a member of the Pacers' staff. "She believes in moderation in all things. Slick is the one excess in her life she tolerates."
Leonard goes to great pains to accommodate his wife when he can. Last year, at her bidding, he saw a hypnotist who helped him stop smoking. When the pressures of his job conspired to get him back in the habit, Leonard at first sneaked cigarettes when Nancy wasn't around. Even now he will periodically wander out into the backyard of their suburban home for a smoke, rather than light up in front of her. He also rather emphatically does not discuss the good old days much anymore, particularly when Nancy is present. Evidently he considers it unrealistic to hope that she will appreciate the swashbuckling nature of some of his more legendary roisterings, the theory being that women don't mind being married to Errol Flynn, as long as he isn't constantly bringing up his wicked, wicked ways over the Brussels sprouts.
"Bob is afraid to talk much about the old days with anybody but the fellows who were there," says Nancy. "He's afraid that those old stories will make them all seem like a bunch of clowns."
But if Leonard and his mates were clowns, then e. e. cummings was right when he said, "damn everything but the circus." The Dead End Kids, as Leonard, Hundley, Elgin Baylor, Dick Garmaker and Frank Selvy were known on the old Minneapolis Lakers, played hard at everything. "In those days we all drank, smoked, caroused and played cards," says Hundley, now a broadcaster with the New Orleans Jazz. "Hell, we broke every training rule there ever was. But we loved to play basketball and you had to practically kill us to get us out of the lineup. One time we stayed up all night playing cards, and the game was so good we never did go to bed. The next day we had a game against New York in the old Armory that was televised on national TV. Slick hadn't been to bed for two days but he went out and scored 25 points. Afterward he just looked at me and laughed.
"Slick's hands always perspired," says Hundley. "He could ruin a deck of cards faster than anyone I've ever seen. Slick is a good gin player, but in those days we usually played poker—one-dollar ante, two-dollar bet. We'd play all night, and then we couldn't wait to get the game started the next day. We played in cabs, in the men's room at the airport, we didn't care. Sometimes the pots got to be $300, sometimes more; but for all of that and all the drinking, we never cared about the money. Most of us were only making $9,000 or $10,000 a year, but at the time it didn't seem to really matter."
In 1961 Leonard was traded to the Chicago Zephyrs and the following year was named the team's player-coach. The next season the franchise was moved to Baltimore, and Leonard became a full-time coach after a series of painful shoulder separations ended his playing career. But in his first full season as a head coach he had a 31-49 record and he was canned. In 13 seasons of coaching in the pros it was the first and last time Slick was fired. He moved his family back to Indiana and went to work as a salesman for a company that made high school class rings.
He stayed away from the game for four years. Then in 1968 he received a call from Pacer General Manager Mike Storen asking him to replace Larry Staverman, who had just been fired. Leonard took the job as a lark, figuring that he would be back pushing rings before the end of the year. "I never thought the league would last," he says, "but from that time forward, my loyalty was always to the ABA and we never even thought about the other league. It wouldn't have mattered to me if the leagues had never merged, and as it turned out for us, joining the NBA was like committing financial suicide."
As a favor to Staverman, Leonard had helped organize the Pacers' rookie camp in 1967, the year the ABA was formed, so when he arrived nine games into the 1968-69 season, some of the players knew what to expect. "I was sorry to see him again," recalls Roger Brown. "I knew what kind of disciplinarian he was from the rookie camp, and that was all I needed to know."
Brown was 26 years old in his rookie season in the ABA, and for him the new league was like a rebirth. He had been formally banned from playing in the NBA because of his alleged involvement in a point-shaving scheme while at the University of Dayton, and though he was later absolved of wrongdoing, he never played in the NBA. Brown had silken moves and a soft shooting touch, and was once described by Leonard as being the Elgin Baylor of the ABA. But in his first year with the Pacers he never came close to playing as well as he was able to, and when Staverman was fired, he apologized to him for costing him his job.
Brown seemed to be testing Leonard at the very outset, playing only in spurts, coasting when he could. Leonard, meanwhile, saw in Brown a potential star, but he concluded that to develop the potential he first would have to get the player's attention. Ten years later Brown still can't believe what happened next. "He left me off a road trip," Brown says. "I was shocked when it happened, because I knew what my ability was and I couldn't believe he'd actually try to get along without me.
"The team's next road trip was to Minnesota, and I was so mad that I made up my mind every time I got my hands on the ball it was going up. Well, up it went, and most of the time it went in. We won the game, I went for about 30, and that was the start of Slick as the master psychologist."
Brown went on to become the Pacers' alltime leading scorer, laboring in the oblivion of a league without a network-TV contract. In 1970, when the Pacers won their first ABA title, defeating the Los Angeles Stars four games to two. Brown pumped in 53, 39 and 45 points in the final three games, and shot 63% from the floor.
One of the changes brought about by the merger was the elimination of the three-point basket, which had been an ABA fixture but was considered too gimmicky by the conservative old NBA. Leonard loved the added dimension the downtown shots brought to the game, particularly late in the last period when all seemed lost. "Slick hated to go for a tie if it was possible to win the game with a three-pointer," says Don Hein, the Pacers' longtime TV broadcaster.
"He was the greatest coach I ever saw in the last minute and a half of a close game," says Brown. "He wasn't afraid of anything, because to him it was only a game. The line he would always repeal to us in a crucial situation was 'No tears, no fears,' and yet Slick is a man who cannot stand to lose.
"One time we were down by two points with just a few seconds to play, and during a time-out Slick told everybody to clear out the side and let me take my man one-on-one. We all knew that there was no way this guy could stay with me, that I was sure to get-the two and put the game into overtime. But Slick told me that after I had taken my man in deep. I was supposed to turn and fire the ball out to Rick Mount, who would be standing behind the three-point line. It was strange, but when he gave you a play like that, you really believed it was going to work. We ran it just like he told us to and it worked like magic. I don't know how many games Slick won for us with decisions like that."
When the merger was finalized, the ABA lost more than the red, white and blue ball and the three-point basket. As the ABA soon learned, the NBA giveth and the NBA taketh away. What it mostly took was a $3.2 million entrance fee ¬¨¬®¬¨‚àÇ from each of the four former ABA clubs, all TV money for three years, plus the right to participate in the college draft the first year. Not only did this drain the cash reserves of Arena Sports, Inc., a group of eight investors that owned the Pacers, but it also left Leonard with a bad case of the shorts in the personnel department. Brown, Mel Daniels. Freddie Lewis. Billy Keller and Mount had all retired or been traded; George McGinnis had defected to Philadelphia; and the draft was just something the Pacers felt every time one of their creditors breathed down their necks.
In May of 1977 the eight owners decided that they could no longer sustain such large losses, and they announced on a Wednesday that they were filing for bankruptcy on Friday, which was payday for the players. Had that happened, all of Indiana's players would have automatically become free agents, thereby stripping the Pacers of their assets.
Anxious to keep its prime tenant, the company that controls Market Square Arena met the player payroll and began an intricate series of moves to keep the franchise solvent.
When all the figures had been added up, it was clear that to keep the team from folding, 8,000 season tickets had to be sold in June. But when July dawned, only 5,300 tickets had been bought.
At that point a local television station suggested running a telethon to sell the remaining season tickets and save the club. The tickets were sold, time was bought, players with expensive contracts were traded for players who were willing to work for carfare, and Pacer officials said they could see "a light at the end of the tunnel."
As a competitive basketball team, however, the Pacers don't seem to be getting any closer to the end of that tunnel and the light is beginning to look like a 20-watt bulb even though Leonard ranks fourth in career wins behind Red Auerbach, Alex Hannum and Red Holzman. Last summer, Leonard impetuously guaranteed 40 wins this season. He remains convinced it is still possible, but last week the Pacers were 10-15 and struggling to avoid last place in the Midwest Division. In what may have been the least slick move of his career, Leonard coined the team's official 1978-79 slogan—"Baby, we're due!"—which could go on to outlive even the 1977-78 Philadelphia 76ers' memorable "We owe you one." A local reporter has already suggested the slogan may have to be revised to "Baby, we're done."
The Pacers' problems haven't come about because the director of player personnel hasn't been trying. Since Sept. 1 of last year, Leonard has traded Forward Billy Knight for Adrian Dantley and Mike Bantom; Guard Don Buse to Phoenix for Ricky Sobers; acquired, then cut, the fabled backcourt man Johnny Neumann, who once mooned a startled home crowd while taking off his warmup pants; sent Dantley and Center Dave Robisch to Los Angeles for James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash; traded No. 1 draft choice (1978) to Portland for Guard Johnny Davis and the No. 3 pick, which was used to draft 6'11" Rick Robey from Kentucky; signed Forward Alex English as a free agent; acquired Forward Corky Calhoun from Portland for a second-round draft pick in 1980; and sent Tatum to Boston for cash plus the Celtics' first-round draft choice in 1980. That's trying.
Edwards, the 7'1", 230-pound pivot-man, is rounding into a quality player, though his defense doesn't impress all that many people yet. He was averaging 19 points and 8.7 rebounds a game last week, leading the Pacers in both categories. Davis is a razzle-dazzle performer in the backcourt, where he teams with Sobers, who led the Pacers in scoring and was third in the league in assists last year. What the Pacers lack is a big forward who can score and some capable backup players. Leonard has always substituted sparingly, but this season his bench has been reported missing in action.
Missing, too, are the pioneers who made the ABA what it now is—the NBA. Brown, who operates a car wash in Indianapolis, says, "When I go into the dressing room to say hello, Slick or Davey [Trainer David Craig] will usually come up to me and say how much they miss us, the old guys, pulling our guns on each other. I guess things have changed a lot in the Pacer locker room."
Slick Leonard was dressed in black slacks and a black pullover, and with a glowing cigarette sticking out of his face, he looked like a big lump of coal. Behind his eyes it was 1958 again and the Minneapolis Lakers' chartered DC-3 had just taken off from St. Louis in a cold mist.
"As soon as we got up in the air the plane's electrical system failed," he was saying. "We couldn't go back because of the mist, so we headed for Minneapolis. We were up there about four hours with no heat and no lights, and the pilot told us we were lost and running out of fuel. It got pretty scary. There it was three o'clock in the morning, and we were buzzing some town until pretty soon all the lights started coming on. We couldn't read the terrain, but the pilot thought he saw a cornfield, so he decided to try and set it down."
Hot Rod Hundley picks up the story. "They were flying the plane with the windows open in the cockpit," says Hundley, "shining flashlights at the ground, hanging their heads out to try to see where they were going. Incredible stuff. One of the pilots ended up getting frostbite from sticking his head out in the snowstorm. When they started to take the plane in, Elgin got out of his seat and went to lie down on the floor in the back of the plane. Everybody else was just sitting there kind of quietly, saying their prayers, when Slick looked over at me and said something I'll never forget. 'Rod,' he said, 'if we don't make it, baby, at least we got to smell the roses.' That's Slick. He always did know how to smell the roses."