So you thought you know Slick ...
Jul. 31, 2014
For sheer entertainment value, what I would like to do is write a few of my personal experiences on the road for seven years with Bobby “Slick” Leonard, but that would do neither of us much good in the long run.
Thankfully, Ted Green has gone one better.
The Emmy-award-winning documentarian who brought the Roger Brown story to life in his last project, “Undefeated,” has followed up with an emotional, revealing, funny and ultimately heartwarming film of Leonard’s life, “Heart of a Hoosier,” unveiled to the public last night on the big screens at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Even for those of us who have been privileged to work closely with Slick for years, who have traded countless stories and tried to match him mug for mug, the challenge for Green was to tell us something we did not already know about one of the most beloved men in the history of Hoosierdom.
That challenge was met early with a stark and emotional depiction of Leonard’s early life living through the depression on “the Avenues” in Terre Haute, in a tiny house with a loving but overwhelmed mother and a distant and overworked father. Not that Leonard complained, even when he told the story of being leashed to the clothesline outside as a 4-year-old the night his sister Darlene was born – even as a thunderstorm blew through.
“The forgot about me,” Slick said with a laugh.
Might’ve been the last time that happened in this most memorable life.
Roughly the first half of the film was devoted to Slick’s early youth, his high school and college stardom and his underrated NBA career that was brought to a premature end by a blind pick from fellow Terre Haute star Clyde Lovellette, who Leonard will join in the Hall of Fame in August.
Without spoiling too much of the show, some of the stories are priceless.
After Leonard hit the winning free throw for IU in the 1953 NCAA championship game, McCracken told the media his team captain “has ice-water in his veins.”
The reporters then gathered around Leonard.
“If that was ice-water,” he said, “it sure felt warm running down my leg.”
The joy of ’53 was muted by the pain of ’54, when Slick, driving for what would’ve been the winning back, was called for a charge against future Notre Dame A.D. Dick Rosenthal. All these years later, it’s clear Leonard is haunted, and more than a little angry, about that call – although the exchange between Leonard and Rosenthal is priceless.
This was not a glossed-over tribute. The film was candid about Leonard’s famous life off the court, crystallized in an early run-in with IU coach Branch McCracken, whose three commandments were no smoking, no drinking and no gambling – which just happened to be three of Leonard’s favorite things.
With old running mate Hot Rod Hundley in attendance, Slick touched on those times in his speech before the film.
“Hot Rod and I had a lot of fun in those days, a lot of fun – on and off the court,” he said, as Nancy buried her face in her hands and leaned on his shoulder.
Particularly illuminating were the stories of Leonard’s successful but brief career in the NBA, including the famous tale of the 1960 crash landing of the Minneapolis Lakers’ team plane in a cornfield near Carroll, IA.
Of course, the rest of the film focuses on Leonard’s impact as the coach of the three-time ABA champion Pacers, his role in managing the transition to the NBA, and his shared responsibility – along with wife Nancy – for helping save the financially troubled franchise for Indianapolis.
Along the way there were interviews with former teammates and friends from all phases of Leonard’s life, including Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, George McGinnis, Billy Keller, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Terry Dischinger, Bob Pettit, Sam Jones and, of course, Hot Rod Hundley.
Among the most entertaining came when the subject turned to the seemingly endless collection of loud leisure suits Slick wore on the sideline during the ABA years.
Nancy: “Do we have to talk about that?”
Netolicky: “He had a wardrobe Goodwill wouldn’t take.”
The basketball world has known for years of the legend of Slick Leonard.
Now, the world will know much more about the man.
The broadcast premiere will be Thursday, Aug. 7, at 9 p.m. on WFYI. Do yourself a favor and set your DVR, because you’re going to want to watch this more than once.