Bobby “Slick” Leonard, one of the most celebrated, beloved members of the state of Indiana basketball family, has died. He was 88.
The first basketball player inducted into the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame, Leonard captained IU to the 1953 national championship — the first of back-to-back All-American seasons for the Terre Haute product. Famously, Leonard drained the game-winning free throw that lifted the Hoosiers to their second NCAA title. He finished his IU career with 1,098 points.
Leonard also played seven seasons in the NBA with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs before coaching the Chicago franchise — which later moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets — for two seasons in the mid-1960s. It wasn’t until the latter part of that decade the Leonard began to realize his greatest success as a coach, taking over the ABA Indiana Pacers in 1968. Leonard led the Pacers to 529 wins, five ABA finals appearances and championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973. His 69 ABA playoff wins were a league record.
Not only did he win games, Leonard and his wife, Nancy, helped rescue the Pacers’ franchise with a self-organized telethon in 1977. Leonard later served as a Pacers broadcaster for 35 years.
He deeply loved basketball in the Hoosier state, and during a chat with the Bloomington Herald-Times’ Andy Graham in 2013, Leonard relayed some of his favorite memories from his time at IU:
“We used to have free throw contests at the start of the year, up in the old gym, where we’d be training,” Leonard recalled. “This (Assembly Hall) area was all woods then. Branch would set up a big cross country-type training program out here, where you had to run till you dropped. And then we had to go inside and shoot free throws when we were tired.
“We’d shoot the free throws, and he’d keep track of them. And Branch would take the top three guys to the Nashville House, over in Brown County, to get a chicken dinner. I never will forget that. We’d go over there, and he’d be promoting this chicken dinner. He’d be saying, ‘You can eat it with your fingers!’ and stuff like that. And you could get a chicken dinner at the Nashville House for $1.75.”
Leonard paused to note that college coaches weren’t paid back then the way they are now, and that McCracken, while a generous soul in the most important ways, could be a bit tight with his cash.
“So everybody around the table ordered chicken,” Leonard continued. “They got to me, and I said, ‘I want that steak dinner.’ You should have seen the look on Branch’s face. He could’ve killed me.”
Leonard was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
“Slick has meant so much to me for such a long time,” IU coach Mike Woodson said in a statement. “Take a moment and think about this. He has meant as much as anyone in the state of Indiana when it comes to the game of basketball. He played the game with great flair. He coached with undeniable passion. His smile put everyone at ease. The man was a champion through and through whether it was with the Pacers organization or at Indiana University. Without question, he was a Hall of Fame human being. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his loving wife, Nancy, their children and everyone he touched on a daily basis.”