Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier, Reviewed

More layers of the legend are revealed at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

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Bobby "Slick" Leonard at the July 29 film premiere at the Fieldhouse

Bobby "Slick" Leonard at the July 29 film premiere at the Fieldhouse

Bobby “Slick” Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier isn’t about Slick Leonard exclusively. True, the film relays the linear tale of a destitute Terre Haute wanderer turned basketball legend and Hall of Famer. Director Ted Green’s real intent, however, is to depict the impact one man can have on a family, a team, a city.

Green does right by his subject’s hoops history: his game-winning free throw to push IU to the 1953 NCAA title, his historic coaching tenure with the Pacers in the mid-1970s, and his colorful commentary in the radio booth. Those chapters of Leonard’s life are well-documented.

What isn’t well-known is Slick’s troubled childhood in the Wabash Valley. Born in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, he grew up poor in a shotgun house built next to railroad tracks. His parents were hard workers but had little in the way of education. He kept to himself, was often alone, and spent much of his youth being raised by neighbors.

The opening frames of the film show Green chauffeuring Leonard about town, traveling from one nostalgic location to another. Few buildings remain from his younger years. At one point, Slick stands in a patch of overgrown grass, detailing how he once played hoops on the long-vacant lot.

Two common threads in the movie are magnanimity and humility. When Green describes Leonard’s nonexistent relationship with his father, the coach simply says, “He was a good man. He never gave up.” Such words do not come off as loving exactly, but exude a plain kind of empathy.

» MORE: ‘Slick’ Flick: A Preview

Leonard also spends the entirety of the film deflecting praise to those who helped him achieve his goals. His standout years at Gerstmeyer High School were not a result of his many days on the practice court, but of a coach who trusted a young man’s ability. Winning three ABA titles with the Pacers wasn’t indicative of his coaching; it was the results of others’ blood, sweat, and tears. It wasn’t his success that helped solidify hoops hysteria in the Hoosier heartland; it was there to begin with.

Littered throughout the film are interviews with famous sports figures (Jerry West, Larry Bird, and others) who shared the court with “Slick” or were influenced by his playing days. The most touching interview moments, however, come from those who grew up with Leonard. A former high-school teammate wells up with tears when talking about Leonard’s absent dad. A high-school English teacher recalls how a boy from the wrong side of the tracks filled up gymnasiums everywhere he went.

Some of those featured in the documentary were on hand Tuesday night for its premiere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Before the lights dimmed, Leonard addressed the crowd. He was humorous, gracious, and ever-mindful of those who shaped his life. Once again, it wasn’t about “Slick.” It was about everyone else. “Thanks for inviting me to your party,” he said.

Featured image courtesy Mark Montieth on Twitter

 

 

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