INDIANAPOLIS — Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who led the Indiana Pacers to three ABA championships as a hall of fame coach, has died. He was 88.
The Pacers confirmed Leonard's death on Tuesday in a statement from team owners Herb and Steve Simon in which they called Leonard "the spirit of our franchise."
"With a charisma, intensity, and wit to match his nickname, Slick made us champions," the statement said. "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."
Born in Terre Haute on July 17, 1932, Leonard was a two-time All-American at Indiana University in a career that was highlighted by his game-winning free throw in the 1953 NCAA championship game.
He spent seven seasons in the NBA as a player before heading to the sideline, first with the Chicago Zephyrs and Baltimore Bullets, and later in Indianapolis with the Pacers.
Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2014, Leonard coached the Pacers to 529 wins between 1968-80, including ABA titles in 1970, 1972 and 1973.
The Pacers were in deep financial trouble in 1977 following the ABA-NBA merger. Leonard and his wife, Nancy, who served as general manager, had an idea to hold a telethon on July 3 to save team.
Their goal was to sell 8,000 tickets to make $2 million and keep the team in Indianapolis.
Late in the night, Nancy took the microphone.
"Bob," she said with a pause. "We're at 8,028." And the crowd erupted in cheers.
Leonard began a second career with the Pacers in 1985 as a color commentator on radio and television where he celebrated the team's 3-pointers with his trademark "Boom Baby!" call.
Pacers radio announcer Mark Boyle led off Tuesday's game with an emotional remembrance of his longtime broadcast partner.
"When Slick and I became permanent partners in 1994, I was excited, but I was a little apprehensive," Boyle said. "I was young. I was full of myself. And I actually thought, and I'm embarrassed to admit this now, I actually thought at the time, 'I wonder if this guy is going to cramp my style.' Wow. Twenty-seven years later, he's the best thing that ever happened to me professionally and that's not the half of it. This is a man that made all of us feel like a family member."
Leonard is survived by Nancy, five children, 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Teams and figures remember Leonard
NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, a teammate of Leonard's on the Lakers, said Leonard encouraged him as a young player.
I was very privileged to share my early professional years with Bob. He was so helpful and encouraging to me and I will always remember how kind and generous he was to me. He was one of the most competitive players that I was ever associated with. I was every thrilled for his success as a coach. His passing saddens me, he will be missed all associates across the NBA, particularly those who played and worked with him personally. My deepest condolences to his family and to the people of Indiana who so embraced him.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb released a statement honoring Leonard.
“Slick Leonard is an Indiana icon. He was the embodiment of basketball with his wide-ranging career starting with his days as a high school player in Terre Haute, going on to Indiana University to win a college national championship, and then his career with the NBA as a player, coach, broadcaster, and savior of the Indiana Pacers. His presence in the arena and in our state will be deeply missed. You can’t find anyone who doesn’t love Slick.”
"With a charisma, intensity, and wit to match his nickname, Slick made us champions."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) April 13, 2021
Statement from @PacersSportsEnt Owners Herb Simon, Steve Simon, & the Simon Family on the passing of Bobby “Slick” Leonard: https://t.co/doR1nPEbLi pic.twitter.com/xrso5tYvfA
RIP to the Terre Haute native & 1953 National Champion. pic.twitter.com/RJxhR7zsK4— Indiana Basketball (@IndianaMBB) April 13, 2021
No better person to represent IU, @Pacers, our city, our state than Slick Leonard. An icon. Responsible w/ Nancy for saving the franchise. Very fortunate to meet him 40+ years ago; he and my dad were classmates at IU. My thoughts and prayers are w/ Nancy and the Leonard family. pic.twitter.com/FJjLw8IfwD— Chris Denari (@ChrisDenari) April 13, 2021
Slick Leonard is the most important sports figure in Indianapolis history. More than Peyton and Reggie, because without Slick, there’s a strong chance neither would’ve had professional careers in this city.— Derek Schultz (@Schultz975) April 13, 2021
It’s impossible to overstate his impact. R.I.P. to an Indiana legend
I've been making some calls, letting former Pacers know about Slick Leonard's passing. Their immediate reaction says all you need to know about what they thought of him. He commanded their respect when they played for him and forever after.— Mark Montieth (@MarkMontieth) April 13, 2021
From the State Finals, to hitting IU’s NCAA title winning free throws, to surviving an NBA plane crash, to coaching ABA titles for Indiana, to saving @Pacers as an NBA franchise to coining “Boom Baby”, there has NEVER been a more all encompassing Indiana hoops legend.— Jake Query (@jakequery) April 13, 2021
God Speed. pic.twitter.com/SDeWSkJuGR