Pacers' Nancy Leonard, first female GM in NBA, gets 90th birthday surprise

INDIANAPOLIS -- Nancy Leonard had no idea what was about to happen at halftime of Monday's Indiana Pacers game, the team she and her late husband Bobby "Slick" Leonard saved from financial demise more than 40 years ago.

She had no idea that for her 90th birthday inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, she would be given one of the state's highest honors for all she has done for the Pacers, the city and professional sports in Indianapolis.

Leonard, the first female general manager in the NBA with the Pacers, was honored Monday during halftime in a suite with team owner Herb Simon there to celebrate. She was honored with a Sagamore of the Wabash.

Nancy Leonard is presented the Sagamore of the Wabash by Earl Goode, the chief of staff for Gov. Eric Holcomb during halftime of Monday night's Pacers game.
Nancy Leonard is presented the Sagamore of the Wabash by Earl Goode, the chief of staff for Gov. Eric Holcomb during halftime of Monday night's Pacers game.

A Sagamore of the Wabash is one of the state's highest honors, given by the Indiana governor. In this case, Gov. Eric Holcomb, presented to Leonard Monday by Earl Goode, the governor's chief of staff.

The award states that the honoree is "distinguished by his (her) humanity in living, his loyalty in friendship, his wisdom in council, and his inspiration in leadership."

More: Slick's gone, Nancy Leonard is alone: Here's her story of being first woman GM in the NBA

Fearless leader

Leonard grew up in South Bend with one sister. Her mom taught school. Her dad, who worked in construction, managed a semipro baseball team. She knew sports. Leonard helped keep stats for her dad. She saw how a sports franchise was run.

"We were just average. We didn't have a lot," Leonard said in a 2021 interview with IndyStar. Her parents celebrated good grades, made sure the two girls had what they needed and didn't put up with nonsense.

When she left for college at Indiana University, her dad told her to watch out for all those guys.

One of those guys had his eye on Leonard at IU. Slick was a basketball player from Terre Haute who stuck his foot out in class as Leonard tried to walk by.

"I thought it was the dumbest thing," she said. But Slick wasn't dumb. Soon after that, he plotted to have some friends tell Leonard his blind date hadn't shown up and they desperately needed a fill in. She fell for it.

"I walk out into the dorm's reception area and I look over and there's that guy who stuck his foot out," she said.

Nancy Leonard is featured in a video program for her husband's celebration of life, Indiana Pacers legend Bobby "Slick" Leonard on Wednesday, May 12, 2021,  at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Nancy Leonard is featured in a video program for her husband's celebration of life, Indiana Pacers legend Bobby "Slick" Leonard on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Slick quickly grew on Leonard. "He was absolutely the nicest person," she said. "We went on a couple more dates and by this time he is really wearing on me because he is so nice."

The two were eventually married. And soon, Slick was coaching the Pacers and Leonard was named GM of the team.

Leonard remembers sitting in meetings with all men and fighting to save the Pacers.

"I was the only one who had the audacity to speak up," she said in 2021. "I could see the train coming down at full speed and I knew if it went off the track we would never get it back, ever. There were too many cities that wanted the Pacers. They would have been gone."

A telethon crafted by the Leonards saved the Pacers in 1977. From there the team, which had been a force in the ABA, kept itself afloat in the NBA and found success. The Pacers went on to pave the way for a professional football franchise in Indy.

Without the Pacers, people often ask Leonard, what would Indy be?

"I just say the Pacers needed someone to fight for them," Leonard said in 2021. "I fought for them. And I'm glad I did."

Nancy Leonard sits in an Indiana Pacers jersey featuring No. 90, in honor of her 90th birthday.
Nancy Leonard sits in an Indiana Pacers jersey featuring No. 90, in honor of her 90th birthday.

Other notable Sagamore winners

Thousands have received the honor, including astronauts, musicians, actors and politicians. Among the distinguished recipients are:

  • David Letterman

  • Eddie Rickenbacker

  • Eva Mozes Kor

  • Gus Grissom

  • President Harry Truman

  • Jeff Gordon

  • John Wooden

  • Muhammad Ali

  • Ryan White

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers' Nancy Leonard, 1st NBA female GM, receives Sagamore of the Wabash