Bob ‘Slick’ Leonard, Hall of Fame coach who got his start with the Baltimore Bullets, dies at 88
By Michael Marot
Apr 13, 2021 at 11:38 PM
INDIANAPOLIS — Bobby “Slick” Leonard was selected as the ABA’s greatest coach. Hall of Fame player George McGinnis considered him a genius.
On Tuesday, the Indiana Pacers announced that the man who led them to three ABA championships during a Hall of Fame coaching career had died. No details about the 88-year-old Leonard were provided but he had been in failing health in recent years.
“He was the greatest,” McGinnis said in March. “He loved all of his guys and, yes, he had his days. If you got on the wrong side of him, it wasn’t going to be a good deal for you.”
But, McGinnis added, there was a big difference between Leonard and Indiana Hoosiers coach Bob Knight: After Leonard ripped into you and “wore you out, he’d take you out for a beer and say ‘You know I love you, I’m doing this for your own good.’”
Leonard became one of the crown princes of Indiana basketball. But while he was embraced for his Hoosier roots and ABA genius, Leonard honed his skills as the Baltimore Bullets’ coach in 1963-64.
During the first year of Baltimore’s return to the NBA after a nine-year absence, Leonard led a team flush with rookies to a 31-49 record.
“We called them the ‘Kiddie Korps,’” Leonard said of the starting five — center Walt Bellamy, forwards Terry Dischinger and Gus Johnson and guards Rod Thorn and Kevin Loughery — who had four years’ NBA experience between them. Only 31 himself, Leonard was the league’s youngest coach in his first full year at the helm: He’d taken over the club the year before, at midseason, when it was the Chicago Zephyrs.
“He understood players and had a feel for them,” said Thorn, the team’s No. 1 draft pick and former head of basketball operations for the NBA. “Slick let you know that he cared about you. If he saw you were down, he’d catch you after practice or in your room on the road. He’d talk to you in a fatherly way, if you needed a pick-up. We’d play golf, have dinner or a beer. He understood what buttons to push to get the most out of you.”
Leonard resigned in 1964 when the Bullets rejected his demand for a multiyear contract. After a few years in business, he signed on with the ABA’s Pacers in 1968 and led Indiana to championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973.
“Slick would adapt his style to fit your strengths,” Dischinger said. “A lot of coaches try to put square pegs in round holes, but he put the players he had in the best position to be successful.”
Leonard scored points with him early on, said Dischinger, who’d played for the coach in Chicago in 1962-63.
“There, I’d been voted NBA Rookie of the Year, beating out [Boston’s] John Havlicek,” Dischinger said. “Toward the end of the season, we played the Celtics and they put a goon on me, [Jungle] Jim Loscutoff, who tried to get me to fight him. I didn’t fight, but I made 16 free throws.
“Anyway, after the game, Leonard went over to the Boston bench and tried to fight [coach] Red Auerbach. The Celtics had to keep Slick from stuffing Auerbach’s cigar down his throat. Does that show that he cared about his players? I’ll cherish that moment for the rest of my life.”
Leonard went 573-534 in 14 seasons as a coach, winning 529 in 12 seasons with the Pacers. But the legacy went far deeper.
The star tennis player at Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School chose to play basketball at nearby Indiana University. He wound up leading the Hoosiers to two Big Ten titles, was a two-time All-American and made the winning free throws to give Indiana the 1953 national championship.
Decades later, he was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in school history and was part of the Hoosiers’ all-century team.
“He has meant as much as anyone in the state of Indiana when it comes to the game of basketball,” new Indiana coach Mike Woodson said. “He played the game with great flair. He coached with undeniable passion.
“His smile put everyone at ease. The man was a champion through and through whether it was with the Pacers organization or at Indiana University. Without question, he was a Hall of Fame human being.”
After serving in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, Leonard played professionally for seven years with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers.
But his greatest moments as a professional came with the budding franchise that hired him in 1968-69 and that he worked with for more than a half-century.
“Pacers fans will remember Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard as the spirit of our franchise,” team owner Herb Simon said in a statement. “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 (his wife) Nancy are our family, and his passing leaves an unfillable void in the hearts of everyone associated with this organization.”
Leonard took the Pacers to the ABA Finals in his first season — and four more times over the next six years, winning titles in 1969-70, 1971-72 and 1972-73.
“He was the best coach that I ever played for in last shot, pressure situations,” McGinnis said. “In the seventh game, he would change the entire offense. It was genius. I think that’s why if you look at the Pacers, they won all three championships, I believe, in seventh games on the road.”
Leonard did more than just win, too.
In 1977, the folksy Leonard and his wife helped organize a telethon that saved a franchise facing financial ruin after moving from the ABA to the NBA.
He was let go after the 1979-80 season, failing to post a winning in the Pacers’ first four NBA seasons.
But he re-emerged as the color commentator on Pacers television broadcasts in 1985. He later moved into the radio booth where the plain-talking, storytelling Leonard coined his trademark phrase “Boom, Baby!” whenever Pacers players made 3-pointers.
Leonard was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2014. He’s also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the Indiana Sports Writers and Broadcasters Hall of Fame and was the first person inducted into the Indiana University Sports Hall of Fame.
His victory total with the Pacers, 529, hangs on a banner in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters.
Gov. Eric Holcomb called him the “embodiment of basketball” and an “Indiana icon.”
“His presence in the arena and in our state will be deeply missed,” he said in a statement. “You can’t find anyone who doesn’t love Slick.”
Leonard is survived by his wife, their five children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.