INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Fans were brought to tears over the loss of a Indiana sports legend Tuesday evening after the news that Bobby “Slick” Leonard had died at age 88.
He was a championship player with the Indiana Hoosiers, a championship coach with the Indiana Pacers, and, for decades, the beloved color commentator for the NBA team.
Leonard’s free throws won Indiana University the 1953 NCAA championship over Kansas. But those who know agree, Leonard’s influence went far beyond his time at IU and with the Pacers.
Without the Pacers, Indianapolis might not have secured the Colts. Without professional sports, the city may not have become the center of college and amateur athletics, headlined by this year’s all-Indiana NCAA men’s basketball tournament due the coronavirus pandemic.
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Leonard was a legend in his own time.
“He was like a father figure,” remembered former Pacers player and NBA Hall of Famer George McGinnis. His No. 30 jersey is retired in the rafters of Bankers Life alongside the No. 529 jersey of “Slick” Leonard. His number stands for each victory Leonard had as the Pacers head coach over 12 seasons, winning three championships in the American Basketball Association.
McGinnis said “Slick” was tough but gentle, and organized fun team activities such as picnics and horseback riding during the offseason to bring the players together as a unit, which paid off during the season.
“He touched all of us in so many different ways, we loved him,” McGinnis said. “He could be really tough but the next day he’d put his arm around you and tell you how much he loved you and that what he was doing is because he wanted you to be a better player.”
It was during those years that Leonard originated his signature “Boom, Baby” call for a successful 3-point shot.
It was Game 7 in the playoffs against the Denver Rockets with Denver up 2 points. The play call was for McGinnis, but he was covered.
“Billy Keller, launched a three. And Bob said “Boom” as he launched it and then went down said “Baby.” And that became ‘Boom, baby,'” remembered documentary filmmaker Ted Green, who put a movie together about Leonard’s life in partnership with WFYI in 2015.
“And we win that game on that 3-point shot and ‘Slick’ said ‘Boom, baby,’ and that’s the first time I ever heard it,” McGinnis agreed.
Still, the Pacers franchise was in trouble in the late 1970s. Nancy Leonard, Bobby’s wife and the team’s assistant general manager, organized a successful telethon to get fans to buy tickets. Still “Slick” was the face.
“The ABA was a rough league and a lot of teams folded,” Green said. “Imagine if the Pacers had folded. Would we have gotten the NCAA (headquarters) here? Would we become the amateur sports capital?”
“If there’s no ‘Slick’ Leonard, there’s no Pacers,” said Jeff Rickard, program director and morning host for 93.5/107.5 The Fan. “If there’s no Pacers, there’s no Colts. If there’s no Pacers and Colts, we probably don’t have the thriving sports city that attracts the NCAA tournament.”
Rickard interviewed Leonard every Wednesday morning on his radio program, telling stories in a way that only he could.
“He’d call us from the hospital one time,” Rickard remembered. “You couldn’t stop ‘Slick.’ He’d had a heart attack; he’d had COVID.”
But, he didn’t want to miss out spending time with this friends, all over the state.
News 8 Sports Director Anthony Calhoun said Leonard’s advocacy for basketball both on and off the court will be missed. “The person you saw and you listened to on the radio was the same person you saw in person. He was passionate about the game of basketball and passionate about his Pacers. The fact that he’s still today the all-time leader when it comes to wins for a Pacers coach, I don’t think that record will ever be broken.”
McGinnis would talk with Leonard every two weeks, but it was every day for a while when McGinnis’s wife died.
“Even though he was going through his own problems, he take the time to call me. That meant so much to me,” McGinnis said.
It’s just a small window into a man who seemed larger than life.
That’s why a Bankers Life Fieldhouse banner may be good, but to those who knew Leonard and those who know Indianapolis believe something more visible is needed.
“His statue should be outside the arena for sure,” McGinnis said.
“No one deserves one right downtown in the heart of the city like Bobby Leonard,” Green agreed. “My heart breaks for his family but I will say I think his family includes this entire state.”
“He will always be an institution in Indiana far beyond sports,” Rickard added. “Slick is going to be missed and there is no way to fill that hole that’s going to be in our hearts.”
Leonard was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
“Whatever days I have left on the Earth, I will always remember ‘Slick.’ Every day for the rest of my life,” McGinnis said.