Former players praise Bob 'Slick' Leonard as he heads into Hall of Fame

Although he won three ABA titles with the Indiana Pacers, coach led Bullets in early 1960s

(Baltimore Sun file photo )
August 06, 2014|By Mike Klingaman | The Baltimore Sun

On Friday he is to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a greying icon of a long-gone professional league that introduced the tri-colored ball and the 3-point shot. That's where Bob "Slick" Leonard won acclaim.

Three times in the early 1970s, Leonard coached the Indiana Pacers to championships in the American Basketball Association before it merged with the NBA in 1976. But while his induction is expected to embrace his Hoosier roots and ABA genius, Leonard really honed his skills as the Bullets' coach in 1963-64.

Here, during the first year of Baltimore's return to the NBA after a nine-year absence, Leonard reared a team flush with rookies and regulars with little practical savvy. The Bullets' final record (31-49) showed it.

"We called them the 'Kiddie Korps,' " Leonard said of the starting five — center Walt Bellamy, forwards Terry Dischinger and Gus Johnson and guards Rod Thorn and Kevin Loughery — who had four years' NBA experience between them. Only 31 himself, Leonard was the league's youngest coach in his first full year at the helm: He'd taken over the club the year before, at midseason, when it was the Chicago Zephyrs.

Then the franchise moved east, and the Bullets took to Leonard right off. Though volatile on the court — he was ejected from at least four games that year — Leonard was patronly off it.

"He understood players and had a feel for them," said Thorn, the team's No. 1 draft pick who's now head of basketball operations for the NBA. "Slick let you know that he cared about you. If he saw you were down, he'd catch you after practice or in your room on the road. He'd talk to you in a fatherly way, if you needed a pick-up. We'd play golf, have dinner or a beer. He understood what buttons to push to get the most out of you."

It was a stance Leonard preached through his 14-year coaching career, mostly in the ABA where he is the winningest coach of all time. He retired in 1980 with a 573-534 record.

He follows two of his Bullets' players into the Hall of Fame: Bellamy, the enigmatic pivot man who entered in 1993, and the high-flying Johnson (2010). Both are deceased. Leonard, 82, has vivid memories of each.

"Walter was a good guy, but I had to really push him on nights when he didn't feel like playing," Leonard said. "Twice [in back-to-back games] I fined him $200 for not hustling. I took him into this little room and got all over him — but not physically because he was 6-feet-11."

The next game, Bellamy exploded for 37 points and 27 rebounds in a victory over the St. Louis Hawks.

"As coach, you've got to be able to kick butt and then give them a big hug," Leonard said.

Johnson, renowned for his windmill dunks, earned Leonard's respect real quick. He shattered a backboard during a road game in Oakland.

"I could see Gussie developing into one of the great defensive forwards of all time," Leonard said. Prior to a game against the Cincinnati Royals, Johnson asked his coach a favor.

"Slick, let me have [Jerry] Lucas," Johnson said, wanting to guard the Royals' star forward.

Though it ran counter to his game plan, Leonard acquiesced.

"Gus was from Akron, [Ohio], and Lucas, an All-American, had played at Ohio State. Gus wanted to prove himself, and I think Jerry was afraid of him, so I let him do it."

Such flexibility made Leonard a good coach, players said.

"Slick would adapt his style to fit your strengths," Dischinger said. "A lot of coaches try to put square pegs in round holes, but he put the players he had in the best position to be successful."

Leonard scored points with him early on, said Dischinger, who'd played for the coach in Chicago in 1962-63.

"There, I'd been voted NBA Rookie of the Year, beating out [Boston's] John Havlicek," Dischinger said. "Toward the end of the season, we played the Celtics and they put a goon on me, [Jungle] Jim Loscutoff, who tried to get me to fight him. I didn't fight, but I made 16 free throws.

"Anyway, after the game, Leonard went over to the Boston bench and tried to fight [coach] Red Auerbach. The Celtics had to keep Slick from stuffing Auerbach's cigar down his throat. Does that show that he cared about his players? I'll cherish that moment for the rest of my life."

Like Dischinger, Leonard grew up in Terre Haute, Ind. An All-American guard at Indiana, he led the Hoosiers to the 1953 NCAA championship and scored the game-winning free throw against Kansas. The NBA second-round draft pick of an earlier Bullets team, Leonard was drummed into the Army before signing. When he got out in 1956, the Baltimore franchise had folded.

He played seven years in the pros, turned to coaching and proved himself a keen judge of talent. Six games into the Bullets' first season, Leonard traded for Loughery, a little-used guard for the Detroit Pistons.

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