by Ben Shine
When I die, I'd like for members of the Indiana Pacers to serve as pallbearers at my funeral. That way, they can let me down one last time.
That's not an original joke -- I think I first heard it from a Cleveland Browns fan -- but it's a true one for me and the Pacers.
Pacers fandom has been a long, hard, beloved road for me. I've been a fan for a long time. I climbed Market Square Arena's stairs up and down, over and over as a little kid while stars Herb Williams and Clark Kellogg played below. I watched all the lows and highs of the Reggie Miller playoff teams. I suffered under the tyranny of Michael Jordan's skills. Larry Johnson's four-point play broke my heart. We got almost to the top of the mountain in 2000 at the finals, only to be beaten by an unstoppable force from the West. And, yes, the brawl happened, and I saw it live on TV, and I knew at that very moment that our hopes and dreams would be stalled, once again and for a long time. But I kept watching. I held my nose and watched over 200 games featuring the player combination known as Murph-Leavy. It hasn't always been easy, but this last season gave me hope again, hope that was dashed, again, but hope. Maybe it's my history, but I never imagined that 2014 would be our year, though I didn't think it would end quite how it did.
Why have I stuck around? There are a few reasons -- loyalty, an appreciation for a team that seldom features a mega-star, and underdogs are easy for me to cheer for. But there's another factor that keeps me coming back -- the Indiana Pacers is a homegrown team at heart. Our players may come from distant places, but the culture that surrounds the Pacers feels incredibly local. And the most consistent piece of that culture has been Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who is the subject of a new documentary film.
Slick made the game-winning shots for one of IU's five championship games. He played with the Lakers for seven years alongside the likes of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. He coached the Pacers for a dozen years, leading his team to three ABA championships and through the ABA-to-NBA transition. In 1977 as other mid-market teams were folding, a telethon that sold season tickets and took pledges helped save the Pacers.
"Something like this can only happen in a place like Indiana," said Leonard in an interview with the Star-News, "You have to be a little hickish to make something like this take place." Slick's drawl might make him sound "a little hickish," too, especially to people who only know him as an announcer, but his career in many ways made it possible for Indianapolis to have an NBA team.
I'm not sure that people always appreciate his skills as an announcer. Slick is a lot more than his "Boom Baby" cheer and folksy word choices. Listening to him call a game, fans get to hear the only championship-winning Pacers coach analyze the plays and matchups. He talks about the players like he's coaching them, with nicknames, mutters of disappointment and little words of encouragement. "Come on, Rosie" was one of my favorites from the Jalen Rose years. Most of the time I'd rather sit in my driveway and listen to Slick and Mark Boyle call a game on my car's radio than hear guys with hands full of rings offering passable commentary on a game on TNT.
I'm not the only person who appreciates Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Aug. 8 of this year. Documentary filmmaker Ted Green has used his research, interview and storytelling expertise for Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier.
I haven't seen the documentary film yet, but it will air on WFYI on Aug. 7 and has a special screening tomorrow, Tuesday, July 29 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Richard Lugar, Mel Daniels and other Indianapolis and sports luminaries share their memories and insights on Leonard in the film. If that weren't reason enough to watch it (it is for me), Ted Green's previous work on the stellar Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story should compel any documentary, basketball or local history fan to watch it.
Slick's a gem. I'm glad he's getting a bit of his due. And I'm glad that he's still around to bring a silver lining every time my Pacers fandom gets cloudy.