News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

November 23, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Letter from coach’s young daughter put pro sports, Christmas in perspective

Most of us sympathize with people forced to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That list is growing, now that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday, causing retail employees to join doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police, firefighters, emergency responders, military members, convenience store clerks, road crews and media to spend holidays at work. Ideally, we’ll feel gratitude when we require their services on those special days. Too often, their sacrificed time gets taken for granted.

Terry Leonard wanted the executives to remember her dad, and their family, at Christmastime.

And, amazingly, they listened.

The story seems utterly impossible in the corporate world of professional sports. It’s the stuff of Hallmark, made-for-TV movies, not the wild days of the old American Basketball Association. Yet, it happened. Bobby “Slick” Leonard, Terry’s dad, devoted the last few pages of his new autobiography, “Boom Baby! My Basketball Life in Indiana,” to that episode in the fall of 1971.

The appendix of the book, released this month, contains photo copies of a letter sent by Terry Leonard to then-ABA commissioner Jack Dolph, and corresponding letters from the league’s executive director and Dolph himself.

In a nutshell, 15-year-old Terry demanded to know why the ABA had scheduled the Indiana Pacers — coached by her dad, Bobby Leonard — to play a game against the Utah Stars in Salt Lake City on Christmas Day.

With passion, she stated her case against the holiday games and dressed down the league brass for even considering the concept. Her seven-paragraph note would bring the “Save Christmas” legions to their feet and cheering, well, “Boom Baby!”

Emphasizing that she wasn’t some ranting fan, the young girl explained that she has four younger brothers (including 4-year-old Tommy and a 7-month-old Timmy, experiencing his first Christmas), that most kids of ABA players are under age 6, that “this is a religious holiday when people are supposed to celebrate the birth of Christ” and not “a time for screaming fans, lockerrooms and strange, lonely hotel rooms,” and that “you will destroy Christmas Day for many families if you keep this game scheduled as is.”

There’s more.

“[My father] has never been gone on Christmas before and I think it is absolutely disgusting that he has to be gone this year just because the person who scheduled the games thought he had the right to schedule this one on Christmas,” she wrote in that Oct. 20, 1971 letter. “I don’t believe anyone has the right to take a father away from his family on this religious holiday unnecessarily. You cannot tell me that this game is necessary to be played on Christmas.”

The guy who scheduled the game, ABA executive director Thurlo McGrady, sent a return letter a week later, at the urging of Commissioner Dolph. McGrady’s response was primarily a throat-clearing explanation that business is business, with a suggestion that the league “might” consider taking future Christmases off. Two days later, Dolph sent Terry another letter, apologizing, admitting that she “may be right,” and promising to consider it in the future.

Anybody with at least a few decades of real-world living, and the skepticism that comes with it, would assume the story ended there. You can’t fight city hall, right? The kid’s letter gets filed and nothing comes of it.

The ABA did indeed conduct three games on Dec. 25 of its 1971-72 season, as scheduled, including a 150-129 loss by Leonard’s Pacers at Utah.

Then something changed. The league honchos apparently paid attention to Terry’s plea.

“When she wrote that letter, she got a response,” Bobby Leonard recalled in a phone interview last week from Indianapolis. “The ABA didn’t play any more games on Christmas Day.”

The league lasted four more seasons, before merging with the NBA. In those years — aside from a lone, stray game on Dec. 25, 1974, with San Diego playing at Utah — the ABA abandoned its routine of scheduling a handful of Christmas Day games. By contrast, the rival, more established NBA continued its tradition of playing multiple Christmas games.

You could hear the pride in Leonard’s voice as he recounted the outcome of that letter by his daughter, now Terry Leonard Grembowicz. Her rationale from 42 years ago rings true, still, for him.

“Really, when you stop and think about it — when you really stop and think about it — I don’t know why they have games on Christmas Day,” Leonard said last week. “I don’t know why, with all the other days in the year and all the other days during a basketball season, why that they would have to have it [scheduled]. It seems like television dictates everything.”

This season, the NBA has five games slated for that holiday.

Somebody should write a letter.

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

Coming up

Bobby Leonard looks back at his career, personal rivalries, his new book and his chances for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

See Perspectives, next Sunday.

 

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