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May 10, 2014

Historical perspective: Bob Leonard soon to be subject of new documentary film

TERRE HAUTE — At nights and on weekends between 1940 and 1964, Jim Enright was an esteemed college and Olympics basketball official.

During the day between 1930 and 1974, he was a sportswriter for the Chicago Herald-American.

Believing Enright to be one of the most knowledgeable men covering college athletics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association asked him to write a preview for its annual Official Collegiate Basketball Record Books.

Enright was called upon to summarize the 1952 basketball season for the 1953 Record Book and the 1953 season for the 1954 Record Book.

In 1953, he referred to Clyde Lovellette as the 6-foot-9 “point-producing terror from Terre Haute, Ind.” who won the national scoring title with a 28.4 average for the Kansas Jayhawks, champions of the 14th annual NCAA tournament in 1952.

In the 1954 Collegiate Basketball Record Book, Enright predicted that Indiana University, 1953 NCAA champion, also would win the 1954 tournament. He explained:

“Anchor man for this Hoosier repeat is Bob Leonard, Terre Haute Terror II. The first such Terre Haute Terror was Bud Taylor, the bantam battler way back when boxing was boxing instead of just another television medium.

“This fellow Leonard is to basketball what Robin Roberts is to baseball, Ben Hogan to golf, and Eddie Arcaro to horse racing, with or without Native Dancer.

“Such a rating covers a lot of ground — but so does Leonard. Pound-for-pound, dribble-for-dribble, pass-for-pass, and shot-for-shot, Bob is without question the game’s greatest individual player in my book.

“As the quarterback of the Indiana team, he also reacts to steamheated pressure with cucumber coolness . . ..”

Those words describe the man now known as “Slick” after he hit the free throw to give the Hoosiers a 69-68 victory over Kansas in the intense 1953 title game.

After producing the 2013 award-winning documentary, “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story,” a provocative biography of the former Indiana Pacers star, filmmaker Ted Green is putting finishing touches on a film chronicling Leonard’s rags-to-riches story.

Green’s timing is impeccable. Long after he began working on the film, Leonard was chosen for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The film will be introduced at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on July 29, 2014.

From the time he was four years old, basketball was all Bobby could think about.

“One year at Christmas,” his mother Hattie Leonard told me in 1979, “we got Bobby a bicycle. His father Ray and I thought he would like it. But he and his friends took it apart and sold the parts. He was disappointed he didn’t get a basketball.”

Leonard’s passion for the game continued through grade school at State Laboratory, McKeen School, McLean Junior High School and Gerstmeyer High School. Phil Cartwright, his coach at McLean, said Leonard was small but had a lot of natural ability.

“Our ‘gym’ was the outside tennis court,” Cartwright reminisced 35 years ago. “We played our home games at Garfield High School. I think that Bobby was more interested in basketball, to the exclusion of everything else, then any kid I have ever known.”

Howard Sharpe, Leonard’s future coach at Gerstmeyer, watched Leonard compete favorably against older and bigger kids at the North 13th St. firehouse.

“He did not mature as quickly as some of the other boys,” Sharpe said. “He was still 5-4 and played on the B team as a sophomore. In his first varsity game as a junior he scored 21 points as Gerstmeyer upset state-ranked Evansville Bosse. 41-37.

“The 1949-50 Gerstmeyer team during his senior year was one of my best teams. He was 6-3 and we won the Sectional over Fontanet but lost in the Martinsville Regional final game to Ellettsville by two points when a kid named Hanna hit one at the buzzer.

“Bob was simply a great high school player,” Sharpe added. “He had radar-like shooting range from 21 to 25 feet. One of the biggest jokes I kid the people from Indianapolis about is that he was named ‘an alternate’ to the Indiana All-Star team.”

Coach Branch McCracken’s Hurryin’ Hoosiers did not fulfill Enright’s prophecy though the first five and their valuable sixth man returned: 6-foot-9 Don Schlundt. Dick Farley, Charlie Kraak, Burke Scott and former Terre Haute Wiley star Dick White.

After repeating as Big Ten champions, the Hoosiers were eliminated by Notre Dame, 65-64, in the Eastern Regional semifinals of the 19545 NCAA Tournament.

LaSalle, featuring All-America Tom Gola, defeated Bradley of the Missouri valley Conference in the 1954 NCAA title game. Leonard was named to most every 1954 All-America team. There were 24 teams invited to the 1954 classic, two more than in 1953. Only one team from each major conference, at most, received a tournament bid.

College basketball has changed considerably since 1953. Players are much bigger and the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament (now 68) has increased. In 1953, and for many years thereafter, there was no 3-point shot, no dunks and no shot clock.

Freshman were ineligible for varsity play when Leonard enrolled at IU and, in 1953 and 1954, colleges played four quarters. The NCAA Tournament was not on television but IU’s regular-season home games were carried in black and white by WTTV.

On June 15, 1954, Bob married Susan Root of South Bend, his girl friend since his freshman year. Residing in Carmel, they soon will celebrate 60 years together and have raised five children.

From 1954 to 1956, Leonard was in the army. He was drafted by Baltimore, which sold his services to the Minneapolis Lakers, the first NBA dynasty. Lovellette was his teammate. In his second season there, George Mikan gave Leonard the moniker, “Slick,” after a card game. The Lakers were transferred to Los Angeles in 1960.

Leonard enjoyed a solid seven-year career in the NBA averaging 9.9 ppg. In 1961-62, his best statistical season, he averaged 16.1 ppg. with the Chicago Packers.

Among Bob’s biggest feats were achieved after his playing career ended. As coach of the Indiana Pacers for 12 years+, he won three American Basketball Association titles: 1970, 1972 and 1973. The Pacers made a transformation to the NBA in 1976. His tenure as Pacers’ coach ended, at age 48, in 1980.

Leonard became an analyst for Pacers’ games in 1985 on television and, then, radio, with play-by-play announcer Mark Boyle. He adopted “Boom, Baby,” as his trademark.

 

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