The most important sports figure in Indianapolis history is no longer with us.
The second I saw the news of Bobby “Slick” Leonard’s passing on Tuesday, I fired off a tweet saying as much. Twitter is rife with hyperbole and overreaction, but I knew that statement, even in the emotional, immediate aftermath of the devastating news, was grounded and true.
That’s because without Slick Leonard, there are no Indiana Pacers. Sure, they would’ve still existed, but they’d be a distant memory in this town, Indiana’s version of the ABA’s long-dead Virginia Squires or Kentucky Colonels. Even after leading the Pacers to a trio of championships and making them the greatest franchise in ABA history, Leonard and his wife Nancy still needed a last-second telethon to save the NBA Pacers in the tenuous post-merger years.
If that season-ticket sales drive fails and the Pacers fold, are Richard Lugar and Bill Hudnut as aggressive with the civic-sports strategy that has transformed Indianapolis into the sports-centric city it is today? Is the Hoosier Dome ever built, and if not, does Bob Irsay direct his fleet of Mayflower vans past Indy to Phoenix instead? Does that mean that in 2021 Indianapolis is still a cutesy, minor league Midwestern town, like Omaha? (No offense, Omaha.)
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Slick Leonard had stuck to selling high school rings instead of collecting championship ones. Folks in Indianapolis will be forever grateful that he dedicated his life to the Pacers, and even more so to the state of Indiana itself as the most prominent basketball figure in a basketball-crazed state for more than a half-century.
Unlike Indiana’s other beloved sports figures, like Peyton Manning, Reggie Miller, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, or John Wooden, every significant achievement of Slick Leonard’s life and career occurred within the bounds of this state. He was born in Indiana, kickstarted Gerstmeyer High School’s run of state title contention in Terre Haute, won a collegiate national championship in Bloomington, and then three pro championships in Indianapolis.
Outside of a seven-year professional career before the Pacers even existed, he never spent a prolonged amount of time away from Indiana. He’s not remembered most for what he accomplished thousands of miles away from Monument Circle, like Bird and Wooden. He didn’t give us eighteen years and then leave Indiana in the rearview mirror, like Reggie. Nothing against Peyton, but we don’t have to share Leonard with Tennessee, New Orleans, Denver, and crappy pizza chains. Slick Leonard is ours.
While it would be easy to simply list his on-court accomplishments — All-American and national champion at IU, the most wins in Pacers history, the most championships in ABA history, a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame — to underline Slick’s importance, his legacy goes so much deeper than that. Before putting a ball in a hoop or a football across the goal line, loving Indiana is a pre-requisite for becoming an adored sports figure here. Slick didn’t just love Indiana, he was Indiana. He spoke with a uniquely Hoosier drawl. He snuck away at halftime to shake hands, crack jokes, and smoke Winstons with Pacers fans from the cheap seats. What other sports icon would do that? Slick Leonard isn’t an adopted Hoosier, or an honorary Hoosier – he is Hoosier-dom itself. For that he stands alone among Indiana’s sports icons.
Everything that earned him that status came naturally to Leonard, who grew up in a trailer in Terre Haute. He acknowledged it as part of his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2014, describing “a love affair with the fans and the people in the state of Indiana. It’s a love affair that’s gone on for years, and I wish it could go on forever.”
From the first Pacers tryout in 1967 to last Sunday’s win over Memphis, there hasn’t been a single moment where Slick wasn’t the institutional face of the franchise. The void he leaves behind is impossible to fill. But while he may no longer be with us, his wish in that speech has already been granted. The love affair that Slick Leonard had with Indiana, and that all of us in Indiana had with him, will never expire. Other athletes or coaches might someday surpass his incredible accomplishments. They might bring championships home to Indiana, earn retired jerseys, or Hall of Fame elections. But the magnitude of reciprocal love between Bobby Leonard and this state will never be duplicated.
Maybe most of all, Leonard connected with Hoosiers as a broadcaster. His tenure behind the microphone alone would have made him a beloved figure in this town. From the highs of the 1990s to the lows of the post-Malice years in the late 2000’s, Slick’s boisterous “Boom, baby!” would cheer you up even if it was coming en route to a loss after a garbage-time Mike Dunleavy three. He scaled back his involvement after suffering a heart attack on the team bus in 2011, and a few falls and health issues sidelined him for several months in recent years, but Slick remained on home radio broadcasts until his passing.
According to Mark Montieth, he used to tell his players not to “get off the bus,” or relinquish their spot in the game they loved. He followed his own advice, refusing to let the basketball joyride end – whether it was on the court, working the phones to keep a great, fledgling franchise alive, or stamping basketball history with his presence from the booth every night.
Slick Leonard stayed on that bus until the very last day.