There was less than half an hour before the game, and Bob (Slick) Leonard sucked hard on a cigarette, the filter tip clenched tightly between his lips, his eyes focused on something that wasn't there. The smoke from the cigarette floated out of his hand in a series of little corkscrews and formed a wreath around his head.
"Some nights it wouldn't take anything at all to get him started," says Hot Rod Hundley, Leonard's roommate when they played for the Minneapolis Lakers in the late '50s. "When he drank he got mean and after a few he'd tell me to give him a cigarette. So I'd try to give him one but he'd grab the whole pack out of my hand, and right away he wanted to fight everyone in the bar.
"Back in 1959, when Slick was captain of the Lakers, the two of us dropped by Buster's Bar in Minneapolis one afternoon. He saw this guy, this huge guy, and he decided he had to arm wrestle him. Slick was a hell of a competitor—drinking, card playing, arm wrestling; anything he did he wanted to beat you. So he went off to arm wrestle this guy, and I was sitting there having a drink when I heard a loud noise. I looked over and Slick was all laid out on the floor. The big guy had not only pinned Slick's arm, he'd knocked him out of his chair. I said, 'Hey, that's the captain of the Lakers lying on the floor.' "
Sitting there in the empty dressing room at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis recently, Slick Leonard looked like the man who fell to earth. The Indiana Pacers, the team he has coached for 11 seasons, were in the midst of a streak in which they would lose nine of 10 games. No one coaching in the NBA has been with one team for a longer period of uninterrupted service than Leonard, but Pacer fans had begun to grow uneasy and it seemed they might want Leonard's head. His pregame oration to his players was passionate, but not stirring. The players listened politely. When it was over, somebody opened the door for them and they silently filed out.
"If anybody could get a team up for a game, it was Slick," says Roger Brown, a star forward for the Pacers during eight of the team's nine years in the American Basketball Association. "He was crazy and he wanted to win so much that he'd pick a fight with anybody he thought wasn't putting out. Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky and I were all deputy sheriffs, so we always carried side arms. Some of the other guys on the team had permits to carry guns, too, and sometimes to ease the tension before a game we'd practice our quick draws on each other in the locker room. Slick would always be able to get our attention, though. He used to like to grab a hockey stick at halftime when we were getting our butts beat and try to start a fight with Neto or one of the guys. Those guns didn't scare him. Neto was his particular whipping boy; some of the time Neto deserved to be, but even when he didn't. Slick would usually go ahead and scream at him for our amusement."
You wonder about Slick Leonard these days, whether he wouldn't be happier sitting out on his front porch, a gin and tonic in hand, dredging up old stories from the wild and woolly days of the ABA, and before that the NBA—the real one, where men were men and those who weren't didn't make it through rookie camp.
Leonard doesn't dwell on the past, however; perhaps because the statute of limitations hasn't run out on all of it. But you know right away that Leonard fondly remembers those days, that his opinion of the modern pro ballplayer is not high and that he believes most of the fun has gone out of coaching. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the players you don't see these days," he says. "When I was in the league, I played hard. I loved to compete and I don't understand people who don't play that way. They say the coach should motivate the players, but that's impossible. If they don't have the guts and desire, they're not going to win. You can ride a thoroughbred but you can't ride a dog."
By keeping the Indiana franchise alive (three championships) during some of the drearier ABA days, Slick Leonard, as much as anyone, eventually helped bring about the 1976 merger that aligned the Pacers. Denver, San Antonio and the New York Nets of the ABA with the NBA, CBS, Brent Musburger and the fabulous One-on-One Halftime Dunking for Dollars Show.
Few coaches have ever been as closely identified with a team as Leonard has been with the Pacers. The club's media guide announces on page 2 what everybody in Indianapolis has known for a long time: " Bob Leonard is the Indiana Pacers."
If Slick Leonard is the Katharine Hepburn of professional basketball—impertinent, charming, stubborn, argumentative—then Nancy Leonard is his Spencer Tracy. Nancy and Slick have been married for 24 years, and when he was asked to be the Pacers' general manager in 1976, he suggested that his wife be named assistant general manager. Slick has always despised office work, and so for three seasons Nancy has run the organization's day-to-day operations. Few women in professional sports have achieved the front-office eminence that Nancy has. In fact, few NBA franchises have as many women in key positions as the Pacers, who have three.