Apr. 13—A poor kid from Terre Haute grew up to epitomize Indiana's basketball legacy and earned a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Bobby "Slick" Leonard made that improbable climb and became the face of the Indiana Pacers.
He has died at age 88, the Indiana Pacers announced Tuesday afternoon.
"Pacers fans will remember Bobby 'Slick' Leonard as the spirit of our franchise," the Simon family, owners of the Pacers said in a statement. "With a charisma, intensity, and wit to match his nickname, Slick made us champions. He was our biggest fan and our most loving critic, and he personified Pacers basketball for generations of Hoosier families. Most importantly, though, Slick and Nancy are our family, and his passing leaves an unfillable void in the hearts of everyone associated with this organization. We keep the entire Leonard family in our prayers, and we recognize and honor Slick for what he meant to our state both on and off the court."
At Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School, Leonard led the Black Cats to the 1950 sectional title. At Indiana University, Leonard captained the Hoosiers' 1953 NCAA championship team. In the NBA, he played seven solid seasons alongside Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Clyde Lovellette with the Lakers in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and the Chicago Zephyrs and Packers, and Baltimore Zephyrs.
As a professionals coach, Leonard guided the Pacers to three crowns in the ABA, an entertaining league largely disregarded outside its franchise cities. Those titles came in 1970, '72 and '73. He and his wife, Nancy, essentially saved the Pacers franchise with a homespun telethon in 1977.
More recent basketball fans knew Leonard as the folksy, long-time color analyst on the Pacers' NBA radio broadcasts who exclaims "Boom, baby" after 3-pointers.
A Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2014, Leonard spent more than 50 years as a part of the Pacers organization, both as a championship-winning coach and a broadcaster. As Pacers' head coach from 1968-1980, he won 529 games and three ABA championships and was later voted by a national sportswriters and broadcasters association as the ABA's All-Time Coach.
Named one of Indiana's "50 Greatest Players" and a two-time All-American at Indiana University, he captained the Hoosiers' Big Ten Championship teams in 1953 and '54. He then served in the U.S. Army from 1954-56 before playing seven years in the NBA, where he was named an All-Star in 1963.
Leonard also is enshrined in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the Indiana Sports Writers and Broadcasters Hall of Fame and was the first person inducted into the Indiana University Sports Hall of Fame. He was also honored as a member of Indiana University's All-Century Basketball Team.
Leonard is one of just six individuals in Pacers history to have a banner raised in his honor. Hanging from the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the banner honors his 529 victories as coach of the Pacers and his contributions to the game.
Slick and his wife, Nancy, have five children, 12 grandchildren, and six great grandchildren.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.