Bobby "Slick" Leonard has etched his name forever on the Mount Rushmore of Indiana basketball, and in Boom, Baby! he shares memories from his storied career. Leonard takes readers inside the Indiana locker room with legendary head coach Branch McCracken and onto the court when he hit the deciding free throws as the "Hurrying Hoosiers" topped Phog Allen's Kansas Jayhawks. He recalls the NBA's early years, including being drafted by a Baltimore Bullets team that folded soon after selecting him. He tells of his time as the winningest coach in the ABA's nine-year history, securing three championships in his first five seasons with the Indianapolis Pacers. In his final act, "Slick" endeared himself to new generations of Hoosier hoops fans as the longtime Pacers radio voice, with his trademark call "Boom, Baby!" for a successful three-point shot.
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About the Author
Bobby “Slick” Leonard has been a broadcaster for the Indiana Pacers since 1985. He coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s and played seven seasons in the NBA. He was a star player on Indiana University’s NCAA champion “Hurrying Hoosiers” team in 1953. He lives in Carmel, Indiana. Lew Freedman is an award-winning journalist and the sports editor at the Republic newspaper in Columbus, Indiana. He has previously worked for the Anchorage Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of more than 50 books, including The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History, Cubs Essential, “Then Ozzie Said to Harold . . .”, The Best Chicago White Sox Stories Ever Told, White Sox Essential, and Fergie: My Life from the Cubs to Cooperstown with Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. He lives in Columbus, Indiana. One of basketball's all-time greats, Larry Bird led Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA championship game. The Hall of Famer was a 12-time All-Star in 13 NBA seasons with the Boston Celtics. He led the Celtics to three NBA championships and was named the league's Most Valuable Player three times. Bird later coached the Indiana Pacers for three seasons and later served as team president. He is the only person in NBA history to be named Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. He lives in Naples, Florida.
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My Basketball Life in Indiana
By Bobby "Slick" Leonard, Lew Freedman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Bobby Leonard and Lew Freedman
All rights reserved.
Growing up in Terre Haute
The basketball player nicknamed "Slick" was born William Robert Leonard on July 17, 1932, in Terre Haute, Indiana. The youngster was born into the Depression that was afflicting his home town in the same manner as it insidiously diminished life and caused hardships in much larger cities across the United States.
Terre Haute is located near the western border of Indiana, almost on the Illinois state line, about 75 miles mostly west and slightly south of Indianapolis. It is home to Indiana State University, which boasts a long basketball tradition. Among the school's coaches was John Wooden, who is regarded as the finest college basketball coach in history. The school's biggest star player was Larry Bird, who led the Sycamores to the NCAA Championship Game in 1979 and later became a friend of Bobby Leonard.
The city is situated along the Wabash River and is the hub of the Wabash Valley. In Terre Haute, the intersection of 3 Street and Wabash is known as "The Crossroads of America." The name Terre Haute means "high land" in French because the settlement was located above the Wabash River.
In the 1930s, when Bobby Leonard was growing up there, Terre Haute's population was about 63,000. It is now about 61,000.
One of Leonard's overlapping contemporaries in Terre Haute was another famed basketball star. Clyde Lovellette was a senior at Terre Haute Garfield when Leonard was a sophomore, and they never played against one another in a varsity game but grew to know one another well in ensuing years. Lovellette went on to an All- American career at the University of Kansas, won an Olympic gold medal, and was an NBA star with the Minneapolis Lakers, Cincinnati Royals, St. Louis Hawks, and Boston Celtics. Lovellette and Leonard even played on the Lakers together long after both had left Terre Haute.
"Terre Haute was a railroad town," Lovellette said. "We had all kinds of trains going through. They had huge yards there. We had big manufacturing plants. It used to smell quite a bit. It wasn't always a pleasant odor. It was big enough for small-town boys like Bobby and myself when we were growing up."
Because of the few-year age difference and the fact that they attended different Terre Haute high schools, Lovellette, who also still lives in Indiana, and Leonard did not become closer friends until a little bit later in life when they were teammates on the Minneapolis Lakers.
"Bobby was a nice kid," Lovellette said. "When we were in college, we came back in the summer and socialized, and we'd play ball."
I was born at the end of the Depression, but it was a struggle for my family. Life was a struggle all the way. We lived in what they called shantytown in Terre Haute. A shantytown was basically poor people, but you didn't notice it because everybody was poor and the house we lived in was called a shotgun house. That was because if you fired a shotgun, the shot would go right through it from end to end. Anyone who grew up poor in most parts of the country knows what a shotgun house is.
There was a front room with a pot-bellied stove and a bedroom in the middle. Everybody slept in that bedroom. There was one bedroom for the house. The kitchen had a wood stove. Outside the back door was a pump where you got your water, and a little bit further away, about 20 or 30 yards away, was the outhouse. If you had to go to the bathroom at night, we had a chamber pot and one of my first jobs to do in the morning was to empty the pot at the outhouse.
My mom was named Hattie Mae and she was raised in Glasgow, Kentucky. My dad was Raymond Albert. He was from Staunton, near Brazil, not far from Terre Haute and there was no work there, so he came to Terre Haute. I had a step-sister, Donna Mae, and another sister, Darlene, who was four years younger than me. We had Hattie Mae and Donna Mae, and now I have a granddaughter, Stella Mae.
I had other chores, too. One of the main things I did from the time I was small was to handle the coal bucket. We were right on the railroad tracks. I never could get away from those darn railroad tracks. A lot of that is torn down now because Indiana State built there. I was right around those trains all of the time. I used to go out with a coal bucket and the coal cars went by and dropped coal. I'd fill up the bucket with coal that fell off those trains. That was free fuel for us.
The bucket was a big round thing, but it had a spout you could use to transfer the coal from the bucket into the little door on the stove. I used to stand out front and watch the Dixie Limited go through. They had a really big depot down the road, which is also part of Indiana State University now. I used to stand out there, and by the time the train got to the area where we lived, it was slowing down and the conductors were standing down on the steps of the cars. The tracks were no farther from me than from the back porch to the front porch of the house I live in now.
We had all kinds of trains coming through. Some of them were passenger trains, some of them were freight trains, and we had the coal cars. I was about six or seven years old, and I liked the Dixie Limited, a passenger train. That was special to me because the conductors always waved to you. The big thing to me was wondering where they were going. When the dining car and the club car passed, I'd wave at people and they'd wave back. The Dixie Limited.
Times were tough financially. The Depression was over, but it wasn't that easy to tell. It may have been over technically the way the government measures things, but unemployment was high and it took a long time to get people back to work and making a living wage. My dad was a ditch digger. By 1938 or so when I was six or seven, he made $12 a week. I always remembered that. Two doors away in shantytown there was a bar, and every Friday night when my dad got paid my mom was in there. They got paid in cash. He and all of the other workers, the poor guys who got paid in cash, ran a bar tab all week. Beer was a nickel or 10 cents a glass. At the end of the week, payday, they'd have to pay off their bar tab.
On Friday night my mom went to the neighborhood bar to make sure that he didn't spend more than he owed on that tab. It was the same at the grocery store. You ran a tab all week at this little dinky grocery store, McMillan's Grocery Store, and she had to pay that grocery bill. I don't know what the rent was. Rent couldn't have been more than $6 a month.
Terre Haute was called "The Crossroads of America" because Highway 40 ran west through there and Highway 41 ran north and south. Now Interstate 70 has pretty much replaced 40 West.
Terre Haute was always a working man's town, and the big money man in town was Tony Hulman. He was Hulman and Company, the Clabber Girl Baking Powder Company, and the Indianapolis 500. Hulman owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ran the Indianapolis 500.
When I was little in the 1930s, there is no question the whole country was having hard times. We used to stand in commodity lines and they would give you a few cans of food and some flour, some basics. They took an old broken-down building to use, and my dad and I would take a gunny sack. You'd stand in the line and the government would give you things. That was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, and that was one of his relief plans.
In elementary school I remember families that were a little bit better off brought in used coats and they donated them for the other kids. I was in third grade and the teacher took me over there. I wasn't going to go. But she knew. "Come on, Bobby, I'm going to take you," she said. "I want you to pick out a coat." I picked out a coat, and I was really happy with it because it was warm. I took that thing home and my dad made me take it back. That's the pride he had.
Starting about when I was only four years old or so, I had a habit of running off and my parents and step-sister had a hard time corralling me. Once I got outside I wanted to see what was going on and I could go pretty far away before they found me. Well, my mom was pregnant and was going to have a baby, my sister. She had a midwife and she didn't want me running away and she didn't want me in the house with the midwife. So they tied me to the clothesline. A huge storm came up, and it was strong enough that it blew out the front window of the house. And here I was, tied to the damned clothesline. It was thunder and lightning and everything. They forgot about me when the baby was coming. I got more than a little bit wet that day, and scared, too.
Around the time I was 10 or 11, in the early 1940s during World War II, I got a job pushing an ice cream cooler with Eskimo pies and fudge bars. You'd get your cart and they filled it up and they cost a nickel apiece. You would get one penny for each one sold, and they would get four cents. The troop trains would come through that depot, so I just went to the train station and parked that cart. I'd sell out two or three times a day. I was selling so many I got the idea to start selling them for a dime. I was making more money than the guy who owned the coolers. I was making six cents a bar and he was making four cents. That was my territory, so I had no competition.
Then the prison trains began coming through. They carried prisoners of war, taking them east, I think to Virginia. I was out there on a hot summer day, and the cars were open air. The MPs stood there on the steps holding carbines in case anyone tried to escape. I was standing there and all of a sudden a big roll of money came out of the car. I guess they wanted a lot of ice cream. I no more than leaned over to pick up that money than an MP had a carbine right on me. He said, "Hey, boy, you give me that." I was going to give him a free ice cream bar, but I changed my mind then. The first time I saw a train with prisoners of war I was surprised. It amazes me now that they would bring prisoners all of the way across the water and all of the way across the country. I never thought about it then.
A lot of people around us got jobs with the Works Project Adminis-tration. They repaired sidewalks and roads. The president also came up with the Civilian Conservation Corp where people went out and planted trees and that kind of stuff. Things were tough, but that all changed.
I didn't have an older brother to show me, so I got into sports with my friends. There was an alley behind our house, and about a half block down was the Sullivans' backyard. This was a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, part of St. Anne's Parish. In the Sullivans' backyard they had an old leaning barn with a basketball goal.
The Sullivan kids were older than me, high school aged, and I was about seven years old going on eight. The first time I went over there it was baseball season. At that time you didn't concentrate on just playing one sport. If it was baseball season, you played baseball. Football season you played football, and basketball season, you played basketball. But I started playing basketball myself.
I never had a basketball, but the Sullivans did. They had a little bit better house than we did, and they had a basketball that they left on the back porch. I'd go up on the back porch and get their ball. All they said was, "Now make sure you put the ball back."
The backboard was wooden and there were times when there was no net. But when there was a net, at least you could see when the ball went through. I'd shoot for hours and hours by myself. I had a make-believe guy that I was playing against. It was one- on-one, and I beat him every time. I always made the last shot. It was some kind of life. I did this after school, and I spent almost all my time down there. Because it was another sports season, nobody else was playing but me. There were some older guys that were in high school that would play out there on Sunday afternoons, but that was about it. That was the start for me in basketball.
I got started playing baseball in a completely different way. The football coach at Rose Polytechnic Institute (that's what they called it before they changed it to Rose- Hulman Institute of Technology) was a guy named Phil Brown, and his son, Jeff, ran an ad in the newspaper looking for kids who wanted to play baseball. They didn't call it Little League yet, but it was the same type of thing for kids. I was 10, and we were good. The team was called the Terre Haute Jays, and we won two state championships in our age group.
The thing that changed everything for us, the whole family, and the whole country was December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember it so well. I was walking down the street, and it was an unusually warm day. People had their screen doors open, and I could hear the radios blaring in those houses I was passing. It was about 11:00 in the morning, and that changed things.
The first way it changed things was because they set up defense plants to make ammunition, and my dad and a lot of the other workers around the neighborhood got jobs in them. They used to carpool to work. The money was different. The money was better than before. The bombing of Pearl Harbor sent us into World War II, of course, but I don't think I will ever see again during my lifetime the esprit de corps we had in the United States during the war.
Suddenly, people were working 24 hours a day, around the clock, in those plants. Everything was rationed like certain kinds of food, gasoline, and rubber. You couldn't get a pair of basketball shoes then even if you had the money to buy them.
At that age — I was 11 — my heroes were the high school kids in the neighborhood who were playing football and basketball. A lot of them came to Sullivans to play, maybe 15 of them. They were high school juniors and seniors, guys like Charlie Mount the fullback, Joe Thornberry the quarterback, and others. They were my heroes, and when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they joined up. Twelve of them joined the Marine Corps. Joe Thornberry and Charlie Mount joined the army. Joe and Charlie both got killed in the Normandy invasion, the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. The other 10 or so guys were in the big invasions in the South Pacific, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima.
Once in a while they would get a 30-day furlough and they would come back and visit, and I would see them. There was an amazing thing about them — they all made it back from the South Pacific despite going through some vicious landings.
After the war they went back to get their high school diplomas. We had welding, woodshop, auto shop, print shop, and just about every other kind of shop. We were preparing guys in Terre Haute to work in the factories. This was after the defense plants weren't needed anymore.
After they got back, they tore down that barn in Sullivans backyard. But they also put in the nicest looking basketball goal you can imagine. They put it together at night welding class. There was a big oak tree and they put up a light so you could step out on the porch and turn the light on and play at night. That's when I started playing with them on Sunday afternoons. They were working during the week when I was in school.
We had just enough guys to play five-on-five half-court. Sometimes we broke it down to three-on-three and if you won you got to stay on the court and play again. I was much younger than they were, and they were much bigger and stronger. They were men. They knocked me around. It was quite an experience, but that was really how I got started playing basketball. It was a whole different ballgame when I was playing with those guys than when I had been shooting by myself. I was the youngest, and I was the last guy picked.
When we took a break we would go up and sit on Sullivan's back porch and old Ma Sullivan would make us some coffee. Those guys would tell stories about the islands from the war, and my eyes would be as big as saucers because it was vicious stuff. It was scary. They would tell stories about being in the trenches and the Japanese would try to infiltrate the lines with guys who spoke English and they'd send them right in with you and say, "Hey Joe." Then you would be trying to advance and you'd pass some of your comrades hanging from a tree skinned alive. That's how vicious it was.
After they got back from the war, they were still young and they had been through this fighting. They were pretty wild. They still had that young wildness in them. On Friday nights they would go out on the town and they taught me how to spit-shine shoes. They brought their dress shoes and a decent pair of pants with them and they always said, "If your hair is combed and your shoes are shined, you can go anyplace." They set their shoes out, and I'd shine all of their shoes for them and have them waiting for them on Friday night. It was about 10 pairs of shoes. They paid me a quarter a pair. Two dollars and a half. I was pretty happy about that deal.
Excerpted from Boom Baby! by Bobby "Slick" Leonard, Lew Freedman. Copyright © 2013 Bobby Leonard and Lew Freedman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Larry Bird vii
Chapter 1 Growing Up in Terre Haute 1
Chapter 2 High School Hoops 11
Chapter 3 Going to IU 27
Chapter 4 Playing for Indiana 37
Chapter 5 Varsity Breakthrough 45
Chapter 6 National Champs 65
Chapter 7 Going for Two in a Row 65
Chapter 8 Being Drafted and Being Drafted 73
Chapter 9 Going Pro 85
Chapter 10 Becoming Slick 97
Chapter 11 Go West, Young Men 111
Chapter 12 Off to the Windy City 121
Chapter 13 Out of the Game 131
Chapter 14 Call from the Indiana Pacers 141
Chapter 15 Pacers Become Champs 153
Chapter 16 Big Winners in Indy 167
Chapter 17 The Wins Keep on Coming 177
Chapter 18 Indianapolis Title Town 189
Chapter 19 Chasing a Fourth Crown 199
Chapter 20 On to the NBA 211
Chapter 21 NBA Struggles 221
Chapter 22 End of the Coaching Line 231
Chapter 23 Boom, Baby! 237
Chapter 24 As Serious as a Heart Attack 247
Epilogue: Broadcasting Forever 255
About the Authors 267