- Boom, Baby: My Basketball Life in Indiana by Bobby Leonard “Slick” and Lew Freedman
I first encountered Bobby Leonard in 1961 when he was the captain of the newly-formed Chicago Packers and I was one of their few fans, attending about ten games at the International Amphitheatre, a miserable place to play or watch basketball. Still, I was thrilled to see live National Basketball Association (NBA) games and, occasionally, a Packer victory. Leonard averaged just over sixteen points and five assists per game for a team that won just eighteen games, but he was an aggressive and talented player, whom I greatly admired. The Packers became the Zephyrs the next season and his average dropped to seven in just thirty-two games because of shoulder problems that forced him into early retirement as a player, but initiated his coaching career. That career included another year with the franchise after it moved to Baltimore, then, twelve years as coach of the Indiana Pacers, during which time the team won three American Basketball Association championships. He also served as general manager of the team at the end of his tenure, with his wife Nancy as assistant general manager. The Pacers, under new owners after their entry into the NBA, fired both Leonard and his wife. Four years later, under another set of new owners, Leonard became the color man on the television broadcast team, in 1985, then, switched to radio as the color man for announcer Mark Boyle in 1987. Leonard continues, on a reduced basis, to do color on the radio, at age eighty-one, where his trademark call of “Boom Baby,” signals a Pacer three-point shot and is the basis for this book’s title.
This book covers Leonard’s basketball life of about sixty-five years, wherein some of the most dramatic changes to the game occurred, and he was involved in some manner in many of those. He provides real insider views, stated thoughtfully and insightfully, of basketball in the 1950s and up through the 2013 season. Leonard is opinionated but deliberate in his assessments, not overly aggrandizing his play or his teams, except where those teams have been forgotten or neglected, historically.
Leonard grew up in Terre Haute and his friends/acquaintances included Clyde Lovellette and Tommy John, and his first basketball court was a bucket hung on a nearby barn. He worked hard at his game and also grew into it, literally, going from 5’4” as a high school freshman to 6’ 3” in college. He also demonstrated his natural athletic ability and perseverance by teaching himself to play tennis after a neighbor gave him an old tennis racket as part of the payment for him cutting her lawn. Two years later he became Indiana state tennis champion.
Leonard’s team never got beyond sectionals in the old, one-class system (which he still laments the loss), but he excelled enough to be offered numerous scholarships and chose to accept at Indiana University because of Coach Branch McCracken and because it was closer to home. Led by Leonard and freshman Don Schlundt (a 6’10” freshman in the one year that first-year players were eligible until the 1980s), Indiana won the Big Ten and NCAA championship in 1953. In Leonard’s senior year, they repeated as Big Ten champs [End Page 134] but were upset in the regionals in 1954 by Notre Dame, a loss that continues to irk Leonard still.
Following graduation, Leonard was drafted by the NBA champion, Minneapolis Lakers, but he did not join the team until 1956, after his military service, and after the retirement of George Mikan. The Lakers never finished over .500 after Leonard joined them, although they were in the playoffs in four of his five years with the team. He played with Elgin Baylor for three years, Jerry West for one and moved with the Lakers to Los Angles in 1960, before being selected by the new Chicago franchise...