The life of Bobby “Slick” Leonard, former IU basketball star, coach and broadcaster for the Indiana Pacers and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who died last month at the age of 88, was celebrated Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis.
Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett announced during the event that May 29 would be recognized as Bobby “Slick” Leonard Day in the City of Indianapolis. The date was selected in recognition of his 529 wins as head coach of the Pacers from 1968 through 1980.
Family, friends and fans paid their respects at the home of the Pacers, a team that likely would not exist without Leonard and his wife, Nancy.
The Pacers ran into financial trouble shortly after the team joined the National Basketball Association in 1977 after winning three championships in the American Basketball Association, and was on the verge of bankruptcy and potentially leaving Indianapolis.
The Leonards hosted the “Save the Pacers Telethon,” raising enough money to keep the team in the city it has called home since 1967.
“A sports strategy for Indianapolis simply would not have been successful without the Pacers,” Hogsett said in a speech Wednesday night. “The Indianapolis of the 21st century, I dare say, would look very different today if it weren’t for the man that we celebrate today.”
Ted Green, who produced the documentary “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier,” said that Indianapolis would not be the same without the Leonard family and their efforts to save the team.
“Without Slick, I believe that this city would look a heck of a lot different than it does right now,” Green said. “We could be Louisville. We could be Columbus. But, we’re Indianapolis because of Slick.”
Before Leonard became a coach, he was an accomplished player at both IU and in the NBA. He is best remembered for hitting a game-winning free throw in 1953 to give IU a 69-68 victory over the University of Kansas. He was named third team All-American by the Associated Press in 1953 and was a consensus second team All-American in 1954.
“That was his team,” Phil Byers, a teammate of Leonard’s on the 1953 IU team, said in the “Heart of a Hoosier” documentary. “He took that team over.”
Leonard went on to play seven years in the NBA, mostly with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers.
Five years after Leonard’s playing and coaching days were through, he put on a headset and spent 36 years as a radio announcer for the Pacers, calling his final game just two days before he died. His “Boom Baby” catchphrase for a made 3-point basket became a part of the Hoosier dialect.
“Slick calls a play, it wasn’t for Billy Keller, but he ends up getting the last shot, which was a three pointer,” former IU and Pacers player George McGinnis said in a pre-recorded video segment Wednesday night. “Billy takes the three and made it, and he [Leonard] said ‘Boom Baby,’ all the way to the locker room.”
Leonard was admired as a mentor and a close friend by many people he came to know, including hall of fame players across generations such as McGinnis, Larry Bird and Reggie Miller.
“My senior year in high school, my dad fell off of a scaffold and was killed at his jobsite,” McGinnis said in the documentary. “He knew I lost my father, he knew I didn’t have a father. He always asked me how my mother was doing. I think it was around my second year, he told me he loved me, and that meant a lot.”
To his family, Leonard was a husband of 66 years to Nancy, father to five kids and “Grandpa Bob” to twelve grandkids.
“When that Leonard family got together, I’ll tell you what,” Green said. “I was privileged enough to be with them several times, and it was one hell of a time. You felt a lot of love in the room.”