Slick Stories - In Memory of Slick Leonard
By Peter Vecsey
Damon Runyon was a Slick Leonard character.
I should probably stop right there. Daring to amplify and illuminate that declaration when Slick is not here to deny or confirm the stories I’m about to blab, could get me in trouble with his immediate family spread densely throughout the state of Indiana.
At the same time, anyone who knows anything about Slick knows everything you’re about to read is unassailable. Still, many may feel it’s too soon following his passing last Tuesday at 88 to exhume the 98-proof quintessence of the man.
On the other hand, I can opinion with complete certainty Slick would not only unequivocally approve of toothsome stories about his life being re-told in some cases, divulged in others, he’d encourage the courage to do so.
How can I be so sure? Robin Miller supplied proof positive when we spoke Sunday. At 19, with no journalistic background, he began covering the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star after a year of answering phones in the sports department.
Been there, done that, and so has everyone in the Vecsey family.
During that year of manning phones, Miller, not knowing his place, would call Slick at home (“841, 1520”) and question him about the last game, or the upcoming one. “I’m 18, what I know what I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do. Even though it was an off day, and I asked him countless dumb questions, he always talk to me for ten minutes or so.”
That formative relationship rapidly developed into the real deal when Miller began hanging around the Pacers on a regular basis. The hallowed Hoosier welcomed ‘Jimmy Olsen’ into his company, and the cub reporter was given free rein to enter the locker room at halftime. He even sat in on two team meetings.
“Slick taught me how to read a racing form, took me to my first strip club, and I learned how to use the word fuck as a noun, a verb and an adjective.”
A few years ago, Miller authored ‘We Changed the Game’ (with Bob Netolicky and Pacers’ founding father Dick Tinkham) about the team’s nine-year existence of mischief and misconduct. He stayed in constant touch with Leonard.
About a week before Slick died, Miller, undergoing cancer treatment in a clinic, called him in the hospital where Leonard’s long-damaged heart was functioning at 40 percent capacity.
“Hey, Robby, need any money? You gotta take care of your grandkids. How come I didn’t have this kind of (pension) money when I could’ve spent it on something worthwhile? Doesn’t do me any good now.
“I got an idea, Robby; when you’re finished with your treatment, why don’t you pick me up and we’ll go to the races in Anderson. You can drop me home at night.”
When Roger Brown died, his eulogy was held at Market Square Arena. George McGinnis was first to speak but stopped abruptly when he began to cry. Mel Daniels got up and cried even more. It was Miller’s turn.
As he was about to get up, Slick mockingly asked, “You’re not gonna start crying, too, are you? We’re here to celebrate his life. Let’s put some life into this.”
At last, the evidence I initially promised.
Given Slick’s unrestricted permission, Miller told a story that’s supposed to stay in the locker room. About the time a beautiful woman emerged from the stands before a game and approached Brown, who was on the layup line, so to speak.
“If you take the first shot of the game, I’ll know we’re going to get together later tonight,” she said suggestively.
Off the opening tap, Miller recounted, Brown “hoisted a 40-footer…an air ball.”
Last week, as Miller was getting ready to hang up, Slick said, “I love you, Robby."
“I love you, too.”
In Ted Green’s six-year-old must-devour documentary (‘Heart of a Hoosier’) about Slick Leonard, Hall of Fame coach Branch McCracken insisted his Indiana University players do not smoke, drink or gamble.
“Those were Bob’s three favorite occupations,” wryly noted Green, the narrator.
One night, a game of quarter and a half stud poker was underway at a den of iniquity when a police raid took place. Everyone made a mad dash for the exit except Slick. “I stuffed the quarters and half dollars in my pocket.”
The next morning’s paper listed the rounded up participants. Leonard’s name was not among them. His sigh of relief wasn’t exhaled before McCracken arrived at his room. He ordered Slick to be in his office at 3 o’clock.
“He tore me apart. He really reamed me,” Slick recalled in the doc. He said, ‘If I ever have to call you in here again, only one of us will walk out.’
“And you know which one that’ll be,” Slick retorted “as I took off. I know he was laughing after I left. From then on, I was the team leader.”
In 1953, Slick converted the free throw that ultimately decided a 69-68 win over Kansas (think Dean Smith) for the NCAA title. At the 27-second mark, he’d been fouled driving to the halo. He claimed to be a decent free throw shooter, but gagged the first try.
“The pressure was on for the first one. I thought the pressure was really on now.”
Nothin’ but macreame!
A misfired corner shot with two seconds remaining elevated the two-time All American to pinup status. Interviewed at midcourt, McCracken said Slick had “ice water in his veins.” Slick chuckled. “It felt more like warm water running down my leg.”
Bob Netolicky played on two of the three Pacer championships coached by Slick. Like many of the players, he tested Leonard, physically and verbally.
The most aberrant skirmish between the pair occurred in Duluth, Minnesota soon after Slick replaced Larry Staverman 13 games into the ’68-69 season. Wielding a hockey stick found in the locker room, Slick chased Neto, accused of cruising in the first half.
“I escaped by locking myself in the bathroom. He broke the hockey stick against the door.”
Another season, Slick, decked out in his customary leisure suit (only its color changed day to day), wrestled with Neto in the mud and the scrubs outside a hotel in West Hempstead as the team checked out.
Decades before Latrell Sprewell twice choked P.J. Carlisemo at Warriors’ practice, Slick engaged in a shoving match with an especially reluctant George McGinnis outside a bar. McGinnis pushed Slick so hard to the ground, his comb over flipped sides, says an eyewitness. No problem. Slick got himself upright and returned to the bar with McGinnis and resumed drinking.
Incensed by something Slick said at practice, Mel Daniels pinned him against the wall by the throat until he lost consciousness.
Yet, to Mel’s dying day, he pledged unending allegiance to Slick. If ever needed, he vowed to do anything, or be anywhere, for him.
Same for McGinnis, who says Slick was like a father to him. George’s dad had died in a construction accident. Slick shouldered the role and expressed his love for him.
Meanwhile, Neto was so happy the Pacers reacquired him he eagerly accepted backing up McGinnis, being steadily berated by Slick and trying unsuccessfully to drink him off the barstool for money, a bet Daniels failed to cash either.
“Foster Brooks got all his routines from Slick,” Neto maintains. “If we were on a losing streak, he was likely to stop in a bar before a game and have a few pops or more.
Billy Keller remembers what happened when the Pacers lost a few straight. “He’d have sunglasses on, and hang out far away from us at the end of the airport terminal. Then he’d come late to the bus, and wouldn’t talk to us. He let us know he wasn’t happy.”
Slick’s competitive spirit would be fable fodder except there was nothing imaginary or exaggerated about it. Keller recalls an exhibition in Slick’s birthplace, Terre Haute, against an NBA team.
“He was real angry at us and didn’t mince words. Then he kicked the chalkboard so hard it tipped over and reversed itself. It hit him in the head. He was about ready to fall. After helping him, we got the hell out of the locker room cause he started throwing balls.”
Netolicky vividly recollects the Pacers losing three or four straight and the upshot. Slick felt the players were panicking. He had them dress early for a home game, and they just sat in the locker room while he read them the riot act individually and collectively.
“We’re a family, and we’re getting away from what life is all about,” Slick seethed. “Starting tonight, we’re going to have a team prayer. We’re going to pray for each other. Understand?! Now, bow your mother fuckin’ heads.’”
It’s not like Neto is revealing secrets. Slick drank (and smoked) a lot almost to the end of his life. Then again, he probably stopped only when Nancy was on patrol. He also fought a lot throughout his playing and coaching careers. Furthermore, often drank with the person he’d just fought, friend or foe.
I’m unsure of the exact year, 1973, perhaps, but I’ll never forget the brawl in Indianapolis pitting the Pacers against Al Bianchi’s Squires. It raged so out of control, the police were forced to get intimately involved. They took their lumps. Which got Bianchi and several players arrested and escorted downtown to get booked.
Pacer executives futilely tried to intercede. David Craig, the Pacers’ long-time team trainer, told me “Slick went to the police station and tried to bail out his friend Bianchi. He no doubt wanted to have a drink with him.”
Craig was hired by Slick shortly after graduating college. They met at Sandy’s Pound Tavern, 38th& Collins, directly across from the Pacers offices.
“Do you know who I am?” Slick asked.
Craig assured him he did.
“Well, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m from Indiana University, and I’m thinking about hiring a kid from Purdue. Let’s have a drink. Not long after, he informed Craig he’d been hired.
“Be here tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.”
“Will you be there?”
“No, that’s why I’m hiring you.”
Craig wound up working 38 years for the Pacers, 35 as head athletic trainer, and three in the front office.
“Slick was one of the most natural leaders I ever met. Players knew he cared. That’s why he could get the most out of them. He pushed them hard. And he loved them.
“He’d give you hell, and then buy you a beer,” Billy Keller said.
Craig said it best: “Slick had an ability to put an arm around a player’s shoulder, and one foot up his ass.”
One shoulder Slick declined to massage was Rick Mount. From the start of training camp, the Hoosiers’ remarkable guard seemingly had it in for the state’s and Purdue’s all-time seamless shooter. Even before, actually, at the off-season press conference to announce his signing.
Team president Mike Storen drafted Mount (3,800 season tickets were sold overnight) over the obstreperous objections of Slick, intent on keeping his championship rotation in tact.
“I asked Storen why Slick didn’t attend,” Mount told me in an interview in September 2017. “I was told he didn’t want me here. Then I don’t want to be here.”
Storen refused to trade Mount. Then went to Kentucky and “left me holding the bag.”
Mount said he came to camp in great shape, but pulled a hamstring. In 66 games, he averaged a mere 12.6 minutes. “I could’ve gone to Seattle. Lenny Wilkens saw me play in an all-star game in Memphis and said he wanted someone he could pass to. I wanted to stay home.” The Sonics instead drafted Downtown Freddie Brown.
In Mount’s first rookie scrimmage, “I hit six threes. After each make, Slick would say, “We’re not at Purdue now, Mount.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You’re gonna sit here and eat shit?”
“You’re just gonna sit here and eat shit.”
“I’m in trouble now, I said to myself.”
Still, the following season, Mount averaged 14.3 points and 2.9 assists in 27.3 minutes, playing a vital role in the team’s title.
Mount was traded to Storen’s Kentucky in year three (14.9 ppg).
“People say, ‘let it go.’ Mount told me during our 2-hour lunch in 2017, an hour from Indianapolis where the ABA was conducting its 50threunion. He had not! Rick refused to attend, knowing Slick would be there.
David Benner worked eight years as a Pacers’ beat writer. The last 27 he has been the team’s publicity director.
“As a kid, my father would take me to a Pacers’ game every once and awhile, and I’d say to myself, ‘Man, I wouldn’t want to play for that guy.”
That guy being Slick, a ranting, raving tyrant.
“Once he was done with coaching, and joined the broadcast side, Slick became the sweetest human being ever. ‘Hey, Benny, how you doing?’ And he’d give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was that way with everyone.”
“Slick never met my mother or father,” Benner said. “But he took the time to come to both their funerals. Obviously, we were friends. Friends do that. Still, it says something about this guy, who is a legend in this state, and, obviously, without him, we don’t have the team we have today. It says everything you have to know about Slick.
“My family wasn’t the only one he cared enough about to come and pay his respects. When he passed, when we got the news, for me, and a lot of other people were in tears. Thinking about stuff. Thinking about his philosophies on life. How we continued our education being around him. The sincerity of it all.
He was quite a character.
McGinnis, Neto and Darnell Hillman, were invited by Nancy Leonard to speak at Wednesday’s small family ceremony.
Afterthought: If we’re gonna write about Slick Leonard, we gotta talk to someone who actually saw him play. That would be Del Harris, born in Plainfield, IN, five years later than Slick in Terre Haute.
“I definitely saw him play in college, during Indiana’s championship year. He had a step back (I copied as a kid) that transitioned into a set shot. He had great footwork. He’d jab step with a bounce in, then create space by faking right foot, right hand, step backward and shoot two-hander. The defender had to give a little or else he’d go all the way. He also had kind of a jump shot, where he’d fold his legs, a ‘50s and ‘60s thing, not like the straight legged shooters of today.”
Just thought I’d throw a little basketball in there since this is supposed to be a basketball column.
Gail Goodrich turns 78 April 23. Today marks five years since the passing of Brooklyn's own Dwayne Alonzo "Pearl" Washington. Pearl would've been 57.