By Mark Bennett
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
His spirited coaching turned the Indiana Pacers into that innovative, long-lost league’s one true dynasty. Because the ABA lacked a national TV contract, much of America never saw “Slick” swirling in his loud sports jackets on the sidelines, hollering directions to talented players such as Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky, George McGinnis, Freddie Lewis and Billy Keller.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why the red-white-and-blue league got disrespected so much for so long, compared to the establishment NBA. The ABA guys could go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s best. In fact, they did. In preseason NBA-ABA exhibition games played from 1971 until the two leagues merged in 1976, ABA teams won 79 games, compared to 76 by the NBA teams. That includes a 118-115 Pacer victory over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in ’74.
Leonard led Indiana to three ABA championships.
He belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass. Every NBA coach with more than two titles is in the Hall. Slick should be, too. Not only did he win those championships in a star-studded league — the ABA roster included Dr. J, Moses Malone, George Gervin, Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, Connie Hawkins, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, Billy Cunningham and the aforementioned Pacer greats — Leonard also guided the franchise through the biased merger with NBA that nearly put the Pacers and the three other ABA surviving teams in long-term financial straits.
Again, Slick should be in the Hall.
The Terre Haute native offers some vivid recollections of those days in his new book, “Boom Baby! My Basketball Life in Indiana.” Some of his most colorful stories revolve around the rivalry between the NBA and the upstart league. Particularly, with former Boston Celtics coach and front-office exec Red Auerbach. There was no love loss between them. In “Boom,” Leonard recalls coaching Baltimore in the NBA against Auerbach’s Celtics. After Auerbach sent an enforcer into the game to rough up Baltimore standout Terry Dischinger (also a Terre Haute native), Leonard said he strode up to the Boston bench and told Red to “get [Jim Loscutoff] off of Dischinger or I’m going to beat your butt.”
As Leonard said, his career resume includes several years of coaching and playing in the NBA, so he knows the distinctions between the two leagues. Any lingering skepticism about the ABA’s quality can be answered by those head-to-head matchups. Not only did the ABA hold an edge in those games, but it posted a 31-17 advantage in 1975-76 — its final season before the merger.
“If you look at the record, we overwhelmed ’em,” Leonard said.
The Naismith Hall of Fame has taken notice of the ABA, which lasted from 1967-76. In 2011, its Election Review Committee created a new “direct-elect” category which focused attention on players who spent their best — or all — of their years in the ABA. Since that change, Pacers icons Daniels and Brown earned long overdue Hall inductions. Leonard also appeared on the ballot as a coach but wasn’t chosen. He’ll be on the ballot again this month. The induction Class of 2014 will be announced during the NBA All-Star Game Weekend in mid-February.
Each of the past three years, Hall voters have been apprised of Leonard’s career resume, stretching from his college years with the NCAA champion Indiana Hoosiers to his NBA playing and coaching career, his 529 victories with the Pacers in the ABA and NBA, and his quarter-century in the broadcast booth with the Pacers.
In this month’s interview, Leonard insisted he won’t fret if the Hall of Fame never calls his name, emphasizing, “I wasn’t a fair-haired boy, when it came to coaching.” His aggressive style was an offshoot of one particular desire, which mattered more to him than honors.
“I’ve had so many honors and everything in my career that [Hall of Fame induction] really isn’t a priority with me,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t bother me one way or the other, and I really don’t care. And I was like that as a coach. I wasn’t one of those coaches that was shaking hands all the time with the opposing coach. I went out there for one reason, and that was to win.”
And he did, at what any objective observer would say was the game’s highest level. For that, Leonard deserves a plaque in Springfield alongside pro basketball’s other former coaches with three or more championships — Phil Jackson, John Kundla, Pat Riley and, yes, Red Auerbach.
Mark Bennett writes for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.