News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

February 16, 2014

EDITORIAL: Distinction of honor

‘Slick’ Leonard deserves his place in Hall of Fame

TERRE HAUTE — People often describe Bobby “Slick” Leonard as the face of Indiana basketball.

Such descriptions flowed heavily again Friday afternoon, when the announcement came that Leonard had been chosen for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The assessment fits. The Hoosier state became nationally renowned for its basketball passion during the era when Leonard starred for the Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School Black Cats. He and the Cats won a sectional title under Coach Howard Sharpe in 1950. Leonard then played at Indiana University, leading the Hoosiers to the 1953 NCAA championship. After playing and coaching in the NBA, Leonard returned to his home state to coach the Indiana Pacers in the old, stylish, renegade American Basketball Association.

The ABA teams toiled in relative anonymity. Few people outside the league cities ever saw their games because the league lacked a TV contract. Those who attended, though, saw the real deal, especially from Leonard’s Pacers. He coached them to three ABA championships and 529 victories, and steered the franchise into the establishment NBA after the two leagues merged in 1976. Eventually, Slick began a quarter-century run as the Pacers’ radio color commentator, and colorful he’s been, hollering his trademark “Boom, Baby!” after Indiana’s 3-pointers.

Yes, Leonard and Indiana hoops are synonymous.

Yet, it should be remembered that Leonard is a Terre Haute story, as well. Born and raised here, Leonard grew up in the inner city during the Depression, snuck into the Indiana State Teachers College gym to watch John Wooden’s Sycamores practice, and was mentored by military veterans returning from duty. In an interview last year, Leonard said, “Terre Haute’s still my hometown. I don’t get back as much as I used to. My family has passed away over there. But, I had a lot of fun in Terre Haute. Terre Haute was good to me.”

And he’s been good for Terre Haute. He’ll represent the town in the Hall of Fame, upon his induction this September. The city holds an amazing niche there. Leonard will join former Terre Haute Garfield star Clyde Lovellette in the Naismith shrine, along with Wooden (who coached Indiana State for two memorable seasons) and former ISU and Boston Celtics great Larry Bird. In terms of Terre Haute natives inducted into major sports halls, Leonard joins former Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Max Carey, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Basketball Hall of Fame overlooked ABA players and coaches for too many years, but rectified that neglect by forming a special committee to consider those standouts. That led to the inclusion of former Pacers stars Mel Daniels and Roger Brown earning Hall plaques. Now their coach, the feisty, loud-jacket-wearing “Slick” Leonard, will be forever remembered alongside them. Thank goodness, the 81-year-old Hautean is able to enjoy that long overdue gesture. It is a richly deserved distinction, and his hometown is proud.

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