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June 29, 2014

‘Slick’ production: Documentary to show a lesser-seen side of Bobby Leonard, just days before his Hall of Fame induction

In a new documentary, Indiana basketball legend Bobby Leonard serves as the leading man.

His hometown of Terre Haute provides much of the supporting cast.

“They say it takes a village. It has seemed like the entire Terre Haute population has gotten behind this project,” said filmmaker Ted Green. His documentary, “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier,” premieres 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 29 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse at Indianapolis. Green spent 18 months researching Leonard’s life from his youth in Terre Haute to his basketball career as a standout player at Gerstmeyer High School, Indiana University and in the NBA, and as a coach and announcer with the Indiana Pacers through the club’s evolution from the wild American Basketball Association to the National Basketball Association.

The highlights of Leonard’s path may seem well known. The influence of coach Howard Sharpe at Gerstmeyer. The NCAA championship won at IU. Three ABA titles by the Pacers with “Slick” as their coach. His trademark “Boom, Baby!” call for every Pacers 3-pointer as their radio color analyst.

His selection last winter to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

His story runs deeper, though, said Green, a former sports journalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Miami Herald and Indianapolis Star. The story’s roots lie in Terre Haute. The enthusiasm of community members in the town helped bring it to fruition.

“There’s a lot of people from Terre Haute who are in the movie, or behind the scenes trying to make it happen,” Green said by telephone from Indianapolis last week, “and that’s a testament to Bob.”

The local faces and voices show up right alongside those of basketball greats Larry Bird, Jerry West, Reggie Miller, Elgin Baylor, Mel Daniels and Bob Netolicky, as well as fellow Terre Hautean and former major league baseball pitching All-Star Tommy John and former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. In a trailer for the film, Green — its narrator — describes Leonard as “a hardscrabble child of the Depression,” just before, Leonard’s childhood friend, Denny Stevens, poignantly explains, “Everybody knew the situation [for Bobby], and a lot of people helped.”

Indeed, during an interview last winter with the Tribune-Star, Leonard himself detailed the kindness of others shown him through his boyhood years, growing up on the avenues in Terre Haute.

“My time in Terre Haute goes back to a group of Marines that kind of adopted me after World War II, right there in my neighborhood,” Leonard said in that interview. “They went back to night school and welded a big basketball goal and put it down in Sullivan’s backyard. That’s where I started.”

Among several Terre Hauteans appearing in “Heart of a Hoosier” are Susie Dewey (one of his teachers at Gerstmeyer), Clyde Lovellette (a fellow Terre Haute hoops star already in the Hall of Fame), Terry Dischinger (a former Garfield standout who played under Leonard’s coaching in the NBA at Baltimore), and another former Gerstmeyer basketball hero Arley Andrews.

From old friends to teammates and players, there’s a common thread in their thoughts about Leonard.

“All of them, in their own way, speak of Bob’s heart, in terms of his toughness, coming out of a really hard background,” Green said. “This is definitely a rags-to-riches story.”

Symbolism and timing accompany Green’s project. The price for a ticket to the July 29 premiere is $5.29 — signifying Leonard’s 529 victories as coach of the Pacers. (They’re available through Ticketmaster and at the Bankers Life box office.) The 90-minute show debuts 10 days before Leonard’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 8 at Springfield, Mass. Green began working on the film a year and a half ago, long before Hall voters announced Leonard’s selection last February.

On Aug. 7, the eve of the induction, Indiana public broadcasting station WTIU will also air “Heart of a Hoosier.”

Green has long believed Leonard deserves Hall of Fame membership, but the voters had picked two other Pacers icons — Daniels and the late Roger Brown — in the previous two ABA voting sessions, which were established to recognize greats from that long-overlooked league from the late 1960s and early ’70s. The selectors’ decision to next add the Pacers’ former coach pleasantly surprised Green.

It also gave him some extra work on the film.

“That changed my storyline a bit,” Green said.

That plot contains some surprises, he added. Leonard’s connections span decades and every level of his lifetime, ranging from Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke to boxer Jack Dempsey and Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman. Some of the most touching stories and twists, though, come from Leonard’s old friends, neighbors and family, which Green said has “treated me like a son.”

“I think Slick has a very genuine kindness and a very genuine empathy for people who are going through tough times,” Green said, “because he’s done that himself.”

The trailer for the documentary closes with an emotional Leonard, who turns 82 next month, acknowledging his attachment to Hoosiers and the state.

“I love Indiana people,” he says, voice breaking, “and they’ve always loved me.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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