Last Friday, just a few days after I finished reading Bobby “Slick” Leonard’s autobiography, Leonard was announced as a member of the 2014 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
We Hoosiers have known for ages that Slick belonged in the Hall of Fame. He guided the Indiana Pacers to three ABA championships in the 1970s when the top players in the ABA were just as skilled as those in the rival NBA. And, of course, we’ve loved Slick and his “Boom, baby!” proclamations as a Pacers radio broadcaster for the last two decades.
But, I didn’t appreciate the breadth of Leonard’s basketball acumen as a player, coach and ambassador until reading his book, appropriately titled “Boom, Baby! My Basketball Life in Indiana” and written with Lew Freedman.
Ten things I learned from the book:
1. One of Leonard’s teammates on the 1953 national championship Indiana University basketball team was a Fortville native, Jim DeaKyne. Leonard was a first-team All-Big Ten selection from that squad, while DeaKyne was a reserve. I’ve done some rudimentary research on DeaKyne and haven’t come up with much. So, if anyone knows more about what would be a rare Division I national championship player to come out of Hancock County, drop me a line.
2. Five players from the 1953 title squad, including Leonard, were drafted into the NBA. Leonard went in the second round of the 1954 draft to the Baltimore Bullets. While Leonard served two years in the military, the Bullets folded and the Minneapolis Lakers acquired his rights. Leonard finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1956-57 after averaging 11.2 points. Boston’s Tom Heinsohn won the award.
3. On what was, for those days, a rare plane flight between cities for a professional sports team, Leonard and 21 Minneapolis players, staff and DC-3 flight crew survived a January, 1960, crash landing in an Iowa cornfield. The flight from Minneapolis to St. Louis went down in the dead of night and the incident gained national attention.
“We were all scared,” Slick recalls of the moments before the plane’s emergency landing, later learned to be due to electrical problems. “I thought to myself, ‘What a hell of a way to die.’ Then Tommy Hawkins said to me, ‘Slick, do you think we’re going to die?’ And I said, ‘Hell, no.’”
4. Leonard’s top four Indiana high school basketball players of all time, only one of which is a surprise to me: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, George McGinnis and — the relative unknown — Wee Willie Gardner. After starring at Indianapolis Attucks, Gardner did not go to college. He was eventually signed by the New York Knicks, but after scoring more than 25 points per game in training camp, it was learned Gardner had a heart murmur and his career was over before it started.
“There is no question in my mind that if he could have played he would be in the Hall of Fame today,” Leonard comments. “Thankfully, he is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.”
5. Leonard earned the ‘Slick’ nickname from George Mikan in a card game. (A vast amount of Leonard stories revolve around card games and beer. This is a guy you want to be friends with.) Mikan, the most famous player in the Minneapolis-era of the Lakers franchise, was coach of the team when Leonard was on the squad, and Mikan, Leonard and “Hot Rod” Hundley were killing time during a bus trip near Charleston, West Virginia.
“I had blitzed George all of the way across West Virginia in that gin game and he said, ‘How about buying me a cup of coffee? You’re too slick for me,’” Leonard writes.
Hundley overheard Mikan, immediately began calling Leonard ‘Slick,’ and it stuck.
6. One of the must underrated players in pro history, according to Slick, is Elgin Baylor, a teammate of Slick’s with the Lakers. “Nobody could play better,” Leonard says. “He’s as good as any of them that ever came down the pike.” Leonard goes on to compare Baylor to Michael Jordan. Leonard and Baylor played on the last Lakers’ team in Minneapolis as well as the first year the Lakers played in Los Angeles.
7. Slick and Red Auerbach — not friends. Slick believed that Auerbach had called Slick “a dog.” And they just generally never cared for one another.
8. Twice in a matter of months, IU athletic director Bill Orwig offered Leonard the head coaching job with the Hoosiers after Lou Watson was let go in 1971. Leonard turned it down both times, and Bobby Knight got the position.
Leonard writes that he would have patterned himself after his college coach, Branch McCracken, had he accepted the job. Leonard was content having fun coaching in the pros, and he isn’t convinced he would have been cut out for the Hoosiers sideline:
“One thing about the college game is the handshake line that they have afterwards that they say is sportsmanship. You don’t see that in the pros. It’s a joke because none of them want to do it. The losers don’t even want to get near those guys. That’s a bunch of baloney. I’m totally against it. Your heart has just been broken and you have to shake hands when all you want to do is just throw up or lie down on the floor and hide your face.”
9. In 1969-70, Leonard’s second season as head coach of the Pacers, they beat the Pittsburgh Pipers 177-135 (in regulation, no overtime) to break the professional basketball scoring record. Indiana went on to win its first ABA championship that year.
The Pacers also scored 172 points in a victory in Leonard’s first season as head coach, as well as games of 133, 131, 143, 128, 122, 125, 144, 143, 132, 140 and 134 points — in consecutive games.
“When I say we could score points, we really could score points,” Leonard notes. “We didn’t have a lot of those 89-85 games you see today.”
The style evoked Leonard’s college days with the “Hurryin’ Hoosiers,” a high-scoring team in their own right. “The big thing at Indiana was that if we could control the backboards, we really controlled the game,” he explains. “If you’ve really worked where you had that fast break down to a system — and we did — you could score points fast.”
10. Leonard wanted to draft Larry Bird out of Indiana State to the Pacers, but was overruled by management.
These are just a few of the interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes in “Boom, Baby!” The loving relationship between Leonard and his wife, Nancy, is a constant theme. The couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary this year. Nancy, it turns out, was one of the the first female chief executives of a professional sports franchise, but details of her front office duties with the Pacers in the 1970s were kept under wraps at the time.
The book opens with Leonard’s upbringing in the 1930s and 40s in Terre Haute — Leonard’s parents never watched him play a game, and he was a state champion high school tennis player.
Leonard’s pro playing days with the Lakers and Chicago Packers/Zephyrs are recounted, as are his coaching beginnings with the Zephyrs, where he was a player-coach.
And, of course, the origin of the “Boom, Baby!” cheer is detailed.
The book, published by Triumph Books, is available for purchase online and in stores. Visit triumphbooks.com for more information.
Brian Harmon is the sports editor of The Greenfield Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3227 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.