SI Vault
Bruce Newman
December 18, 1978
Bob Leonard, the combative coach of the embattled Pacers and a legendary player of hoops and cards, nowadays needs every trick in the deck to keep pace
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December 18, 1978

Slick Gets In His Licks

Bob Leonard, the combative coach of the embattled Pacers and a legendary player of hoops and cards, nowadays needs every trick in the deck to keep pace

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When Nancy arrived at Indiana University in 1950, she met a boy named Charlie Crock. Crock was a friend of Bobby Leonard's, and one day during a phys-ed class he introduced the two. "I didn't like him at first." she recalls. "He used to stick his leg across the aisle in front of me when I was walking to my seat, and for a long time I thought he was a jerk." Eventually Leonard conned some girls in Nancy's dormitory into helping him get a date with her, and soon the two were going steady. Nancy was a serious student and at all times a very proper young lady; the day after she graduated from Indiana with degrees in physical education and business, she married Bobby Leonard, the original wild and crazy guy.

"It's a perfect example of opposites attracting," Hundley says of the Leonards' long marriage. "When we were all starting out, they were the couple you least expected to make it." There were, predictably, memorable moments. Once, after a round of golf, Slick and some of his cronies began to play gin in the clubhouse—and occasionally sip some gin, too. The game lasted until six the next morning. By the time the last hand rolled around, the clubhouse was so cold that Leonard had thrown a tablecloth over his head.

"On the last hand, Slick was down $368 to me," says Slim Sumerlin, the executive director of Market Square Arena. "He said he'd play me double or nothing for the whole pot, then he won the hand. I offered to drive him home, but I told him I didn't know how to find his house. He told me he'd show me how to get there, then he passed out in my car. I drove around for a long time until I finally found his house. When we pulled into the driveway, Nancy was standing there waiting for him."

"Nancy is fairly straight," says a member of the Pacers' staff. "She believes in moderation in all things. Slick is the one excess in her life she tolerates."

Leonard goes to great pains to accommodate his wife when he can. Last year, at her bidding, he saw a hypnotist who helped him stop smoking. When the pressures of his job conspired to get him back in the habit, Leonard at first sneaked cigarettes when Nancy wasn't around. Even now he will periodically wander out into the backyard of their suburban home for a smoke, rather than light up in front of her. He also rather emphatically does not discuss the good old days much anymore, particularly when Nancy is present. Evidently he considers it unrealistic to hope that she will appreciate the swashbuckling nature of some of his more legendary roisterings, the theory being that women don't mind being married to Errol Flynn, as long as he isn't constantly bringing up his wicked, wicked ways over the Brussels sprouts.

"Bob is afraid to talk much about the old days with anybody but the fellows who were there," says Nancy. "He's afraid that those old stories will make them all seem like a bunch of clowns."

But if Leonard and his mates were clowns, then e. e. cummings was right when he said, "damn everything but the circus." The Dead End Kids, as Leonard, Hundley, Elgin Baylor, Dick Garmaker and Frank Selvy were known on the old Minneapolis Lakers, played hard at everything. "In those days we all drank, smoked, caroused and played cards," says Hundley, now a broadcaster with the New Orleans Jazz. "Hell, we broke every training rule there ever was. But we loved to play basketball and you had to practically kill us to get us out of the lineup. One time we stayed up all night playing cards, and the game was so good we never did go to bed. The next day we had a game against New York in the old Armory that was televised on national TV. Slick hadn't been to bed for two days but he went out and scored 25 points. Afterward he just looked at me and laughed.

"Slick's hands always perspired," says Hundley. "He could ruin a deck of cards faster than anyone I've ever seen. Slick is a good gin player, but in those days we usually played poker—one-dollar ante, two-dollar bet. We'd play all night, and then we couldn't wait to get the game started the next day. We played in cabs, in the men's room at the airport, we didn't care. Sometimes the pots got to be $300, sometimes more; but for all of that and all the drinking, we never cared about the money. Most of us were only making $9,000 or $10,000 a year, but at the time it didn't seem to really matter."

In 1961 Leonard was traded to the Chicago Zephyrs and the following year was named the team's player-coach. The next season the franchise was moved to Baltimore, and Leonard became a full-time coach after a series of painful shoulder separations ended his playing career. But in his first full season as a head coach he had a 31-49 record and he was canned. In 13 seasons of coaching in the pros it was the first and last time Slick was fired. He moved his family back to Indiana and went to work as a salesman for a company that made high school class rings.

He stayed away from the game for four years. Then in 1968 he received a call from Pacer General Manager Mike Storen asking him to replace Larry Staverman, who had just been fired. Leonard took the job as a lark, figuring that he would be back pushing rings before the end of the year. "I never thought the league would last," he says, "but from that time forward, my loyalty was always to the ABA and we never even thought about the other league. It wouldn't have mattered to me if the leagues had never merged, and as it turned out for us, joining the NBA was like committing financial suicide."

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