Editor’s Note: WFYI will host the world premiere of its “Slick” Leonard documentary on July 29 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
You know Bobby “Slick” Leonard, right? His clutch free throws gave Indiana University the 1953 national championship. He coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles in the 1970s. As the color man on Pacers radio broadcasts since 1985, his thundering “Boom, baby!” catchphrase punctuates every Blue-and-Gold three-pointer, and when it appears an Indiana victory is all but certain, the 81-year-old warbles the opening lines to Willie Nelson’s “The Party’s Over.” How could you miss him?
Initially, journalist Ted Green, too, thought he knew something about the basketball legend. But when Green started doing preliminary research on Leonard for a documentary WFYI will air the first week of August, he realized he was familiar with only part of the story. “It’s great that there’s this huge built-in audience for a subject like Bob—everyone thinks they know him,” says Green. “But the best part is that there’s so much people don’t know. He’s a documentarian’s dream.”
Leonard, who made appearances in Green’s other features Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story, Naptown to Super City, and John Wooden: The Indiana Story, revealed a rarely seen personal side during the filming. Green wouldn’t divulge details (“You’ll have to watch the film”), but he let on that Leonard’s hometown, Terre Haute, plays a pivotal role, and key portions of the film delve into the basketball icon’s hardscrabble formative years. “If you’re hoping this is going to be full of beer-drinking stories, you’re going to be disappointed,” Green says. “I really wanted to fill in the holes, show people what they didn’t know, and capture the sweep of his entire life. Bob comes off like an extrovert, but in truth, he’s an introvert, and he’s been that way since his youth.”
The announcer’s reticence was evident when Green pitched the project. Leonard, says the filmmaker, didn’t feel worthy of being the subject of a documentary. But after some prodding from his wife and children, the reluctant subject relented and embraced becoming the star of the show. “He’s such a humble guy,” says Green. “He doesn’t think of himself as anything special.” But, Green adds, the way people react to Leonard is special: “I wanted to get to the bottom of that, to find out why so many people relate to him.”
Work on the film took 18 months. Green netted interviews with noteworthy Hoosiers and basketball luminaries including Larry Bird, Richard Lugar, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and some of Leonard’s teammates from the 1953 IU team.
Premiering just 10 days before Leonard’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the documentary promises some surprises, too. “Turn out the lights/the party’s over,” Leonard might sing as the capstone of his career begins sliding into place. But if Green has his way, the fun part—getting to know the real “Slick” Leonard—is about to begin.
Photo by Associated Press
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue.