Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
Still, their perceptions may boil down to scenes from the movie “Hoosiers,” a red-sweatered Bob Knight, and ESPN Classic highlight reels of Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, John Wooden and Reggie Miller. Iconic images and timeless memories, no doubt — the icing on this state’s cultural cake. Yet, the rich ingredients in the layers below remain mysteries to folks elsewhere who would nonetheless label this state as historically hoops-crazy.
Most likely, they know little about life before Knight at Indiana University, the Indiana Pacers’ amazing ABA years, Roger Brown and Billy Keller and Mel Daniels.
They would know even less about the thrill of winning an Indiana high school basketball sectional, or an innovative, legendary, 5-foot, 7-inch prep coach from Terre Haute named Howard Sharpe.
Bobby “Slick” Leonard is the common thread through those vital but oft-overlooked facets of Indiana’s pastime.
Those connections build the storyline of an upcoming documentary on Leonard’s life by award-winning filmmaker Ted Green.
“It’s basically how he, in so many ways, represents Hoosier basketball,” said Green, whose previous documentaries profiled Wooden, Brown (the underrated Pacers great), Indiana war veterans, and Indianapolis’ climb from a sleepy metro to a Super Bowl site.
In Leonard, Green found a Terre Haute native who “has done basically everything there is to do in basketball, and did it here.” At Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School, Leonard led the Black Cats to the 1950 sectional title, early in Sharpe’s coaching career. At IU, Leonard captained the Hoosiers’ 1953 NCAA championship team. In the NBA, he played seven solid seasons alongside Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Clyde Lovellette. As a pro coach, Leonard guided the Pacers to three crowns in the ABA, an entertaining league largely disregarded outside its franchise cities.
It’s a colorful tale, for sure. Green hopes to finish the film in time for release next March, when hoops fervor peaks in Indiana.
Even today, most basketball fans in Indiana know Leonard only as the folksy, long-time color analyst on the Pacers’ NBA radio broadcasts who exclaims “Boom, baby” after 3-pointers. The story stretches back to the Great Depression, though, when Leonard grew up in Terre Haute. “Bob’s story is a remarkable one,” Green said. “He came from almost nothing.”
Now 81 years old, Leonard and his wife, Nancy, twice returned to Terre Haute to drive Green through the neighborhoods where he lived as a kid. One of the houses, near 13th 1/2 and Chase streets, still stands, they discovered. They visited the former Gerstmeyer gym, now part of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club, and Green surprised Leonard with drop-in visits by longtime friends such as Harley and Arley Andrews, Keith Youngen, and one of Slick’s former teachers, Susie Dewey. Green filmed their reminiscences of Leonard.
Leonard spins a few yarns, too, of trains rolling through town, of selling ice cream at Union Depot and of sneaking into the old Indiana State Teachers College gym to watch Wooden putting the Sycamores through basketball practices in the late 1940s. “He’s still sharp and his memories are fantastic,” Green said. “His talk about Terre Haute is amazing. It really inspires me. Those bonds are very close.”
Green plans to hear more remembrances during additional stops in Terre Haute in the coming months. He’s looking for photographs not only of Leonard in his youthful days and his Gerstmeyer teams, but also of city scenes from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Anyone willing to share such pictures can call Green at 317-403-6003.
It’s all part of telling an untold story. Such a quest inspires Green, a Princeton and Northwestern trained journalist who worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Miami Herald and Indianapolis Star before turning to documentaries in 2010. The first, “John Wooden: The Indiana Story,” included reflections by players from his brief but formative debut as a college head coach at Indiana State. “My favorite part [of the film] was his years in Terre Haute,” Green said.
Likewise, Green’s documentary “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story,” highlighted one of the greatest professional players that most fans never knew. Brown buckled defenders’ knees with shifty moves and led the Pacers to ABA titles in 1970, ’72 and ’73. The mere mention of Brown, who died in 1997 at age 54 of cancer, brings wistful tears to the eyes of former teammates and rivals.
The Brown film was released in February — the same month Brown finally received selection into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The honor was long overdue and rights a wrong. The NBA banned Brown and other teenage collegians, most wrongly accused, after they were linked to a gambler. Brown sat out six years before the rival ABA formed in 1967 and the Pacers made him their first signee.
“My goal with Roger Brown was to illuminate this amazing player that people didn’t know,” Green said.
He aims to do the same with Leonard, and thinks Slick, too, deserves induction into the Naismith shrine in Springfield, Mass. The elitist snub by the NBA old guard seems to be fading, with the recent recognition of Brown and other ABA players. Leonard’s three ABA titles and 387-270 record in the league make him worthy of the same.
Regardless, Green expects to someday see a statue of Leonard outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse — the Pacers’ home court in Indy — as “sort of a Harry Caray figure.”
Green added, “People just look at him as, ‘He’s one of us. He’s a Hoosier.’”
Terre Haute Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.