KRAVITZ: Slick Leonard is on the shelf for now, but soon enough, you’ll be hearing it again: `Boom, Baby’

Bob Kravitz

CARMEL (WTHR) - Nancy Leonard turned and looked at her husband, Slick, all wrapped up in a red blanket pulled up to his chest, the Pacers’ legend reclining comfortably in a leather chair in his living room. A portable oxygen machine sat next to his chair. A hospital bed sat in the middle of the room.

She shook her head and then smiled. “He’s used up seven lives,’’ he said. “Honest to goodness.’’

Slick, who is recovering from a horrible fall on the ice that left him with a shattered left hip, quickly agreed.

“Bobby, you’re looking at a Goddamned dilapidated old man,’’ he said, laughing.

Slick Leonard’s legendary basketball life has had some health hiccups like this latest one – he’s had heart issues and nearly died in 2011 when he collapsed outside Madison Square Garden. But at 85 years of age, and having used up seven of those nine lives, the Pacers’ Hall of Fame coach and current radio analyst isn’t ready to stop intoning “Boom Baby’’ every time a Pacers’ player knocks down a three-point shot. The way he sees it, he will be back behind the microphone in late March – maybe earlier – and come April, he has every intention of teeing it up at his favorite course, Plum Creek, and letting it rip.

Slick is down right now, making his way around the house with a walker, sleeping in the living room, convalescing as best he can…but he’s not down for the count. He will be back. Count on it.

“My theory is, if you retire, you die,’’ he said. “That’s the way I look at it. So why the hell would I not keep going?’’

And that’s as it should be. Slick Leonard is a state treasure, a sweet, profane, hysterical man who remains the greatest coach the Indiana Pacers have ever known. Put Slick and transcendent play-by-play man Mark Boyle together, as they’ve been together all these years, and it’s magic.

“Mark is the best radio man in the NBA,’’ Leonard said. “The way I talk and he has a vocabulary and I don’t, but it all fits together. I don’t try to say too much because I don’t want people to know how stupid I am.’’

Slick wants back in the booth, at least for home games, because he loves the game, loves the organization, and, well, you can’t play golf 12 months a year in Central Indiana. And this team, he enjoys watching them overachieve the way we’ve all come to appreciate what they’ve accomplished, standing in fifth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

These days, though, he’s relegated to watching the games on TV, although he tends to mute the TV sound and listen to Boyle’s call on the radio. At least most of the time.

“Oh yeah, sometimes I’ll listen to Quinny (Quinn Buckner),’’ Slick said, laughing. “Now he’ll talk your ass off. He didn’t start that way; now he talks like a wild man.’’

Nancy, who Slick calls “Nurse Gestapo,’’ watches the games on TV with her husband of 64 years, and she says it isn’t the easiest thing in the world. “OK, mother,’’ she said in a child’s voice, “I promise I’ll keep my language clean.’’

But where else would she be but right by Slick’s side, just as she has been for all these remarkable years? Slick still talks about the first time he saw her at a class their freshman year at IU in 1950 – “the prettiest girl in the class,’’ he said. One time, he made a point of sitting behind her during a test, which served two purposes: One, it got him near Nancy and two, Nancy knew the class material; Slick, not so much. So he surreptitiously leaned over and copied Nancy’s answers.

Theirs were the only two perfect tests in the entire class. Guess who?

Nancy has been carrying Slick all these years, and nobody knows that better than Slick. “Sixty four years of marriage come June 15,’’ he said. “Isn’t that something? That’s a miracle.’’

Slick’s life has been filled with miracles big and small, the greatest coming when this kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Terre Haute made himself into one of IU’s greatest players, became an NBA player and then one of the greatest pro coaches of all time.

It hasn’t been without hardship, especially in recent years.

Like in 2011, when Slick and the other announcers boarded the bus outside Madison Square Garden after a Pacers-Knicks game.

“I still remember the date – March 13,’’ Slick said. “Me and Quinn always went to the back of the media bus, and I told Quinn they were playing the Doral Open, so I asked him to check his phone to see how they finished. He’s doing that, he looks at me, and he said I went forward and went back, just like that, on the bus.’’

He was having a massive heart attack.

“So then (Pacers team trainers) Carl (Eaton) and Josh (Corbeil), they got on the bus, thank God, and Carl really saved my life, God bless him. He broke all my ribs (from chest compressions) but he had to. He got me breathing and kept me alive just long enough for the EMT guys to get there.’’

Said Nancy: “The EMTS got there and they used the defibrillator, did it three times and couldn’t get him (back), they turned to Carl and said, `Sorry, we’ve lost him.’ Carl said, `You try again He’s a tough guy. Try again.’ So they did and they got him back.’’

The Pacers flew Nancy out to New York to join Slick, and when she arrived, she found her husband in the hospital bed and Buckner sitting on the floor. Buckner then handed Nancy a huge wad of cash – “I don’t want to be responsible for this,’’ he said.

Poker winnings. Thousands of dollars. It had been a good road trip for ol’ Slick, except, you know, for that massive heart attack.

From his bed, Slick had something to say to Nancy: “I know every dollar in there.’’

Now, fast forward to this past January, just two months ago, and Slick and Nancy were at home in Carmel when Slick decided to bring some boxes down to a nearby church on 126th and Rangeline.

“So I get to the church, I open the back door, I pull a box out and all of a sudden I look and the car is rolling; I forgot to put the damned thing in park,’’ Slick said. “So I made a move for the car and boom – hit that ice and down I went. So I’m laying on the ground and the pain is just unbelievable. Luckily the car hit a snowbank and stopped and I’m laying there, it’s like 5 below, and I’m in excruciating pain. After about five minutes, I said, `I’m either going to have to try and get up and make it, or I’m going to freeze to death.’ It was the toughest get-up I’ve ever had. But I made it to the car, drove it home, saw Nancy there and said, `I’m in trouble.’ Now you tell ‘em what happened then…’’

Nancy: “When he was gone, it’s usually five minutes to the church, but it was like 20 minutes and he wasn’t back, I’m thinking, `If he’s gone to Kroger and hasn’t told me, I’m going to kill him.’ I was really getting antsy. Then he got home and he was completely hunched over, I though, `Oh my God, he got dizzy again.’ Then he told me he was in trouble and I said, `What have you done now?’ `I fell on the ice, I can’t put any weight on my leg and I don’t have any feeling in it.’ ‘’

Luckily, a group of Washington Township EMTs were doing some side work and helping the Leonards with home improvement, and the moment they returnd from Menards, they went to work on Slick. Soon, an ambulance and a police car came screaming down the block.

Turned out that Slick, who has two artificial hips, shattered his left hip. There was no surgery the doctors could do, so he was told he would have to spend a week in the hospital – his hospital room was No. 529, the same number of victories he had as the Pacers’ winningest coach -- and then another few months recuperating, eventually doing soft rehabilitation followed, soon he hopes, by more intensive physical rehab.

“The good thing is, he’s very coachable,’’ Nancy said. “He’s been training his whole life. Tell him to do something, he’ll do it.’’

For now, he’s getting around with the aid of a walker. Or Nancy drives him.

“You know that movie, `Driving Miss Daisy’?’’ he said. “Around here, it’s `Driving Ol’ Slick.’ ‘’

All throughout the house, there are letters and cards, well wishes from fans who desperately miss Slick’s presence and his “Boom Baby’s.’’ And yes, he told me, he does blurt out an occasional “Boom Baby’’ when he’s watching the games on TV. Boyle, in particular, has been over the house at least once a week since the injury. Members or the organization and players have reached out. “We had some (players) come by when I was in the hospital, but I was on so much morphine, I can’t remember who exactly,’’ Slick said.

He misses the game, misses his family away from his family, but not as much as we all miss Slick and the great stories he loves to tell. Like about the day he was having lunch with Reggie Miller in a coffee shop, and Slick noted that Miller made around $100,000 per game.

“Slick, what’s the most you made during your career?’’ Miller asked.

“The best I ever did was $13,500,’’ he said.

“That was pretty good money back in the day, right? Thirteen-five per game?’’

“No, Reggie,’’ Slick told him. “Thirteen-five for the whole season.’’

Miller was shocked. “OK,’’ he said, “I’ll buy lunch.’’

Keep an ear out for him in late March, when he hopes/believes he will be back behind a microphone. And if you’re in the vicinity of Plum Creek Golf Club in mid-April, Slick is going to tee it up and let it loose, and Lord only knows where that golf ball is going to end up. But when you’ve been through the things Slick has been through, when you’ve used up seven on those nine lives, you don’t much care if it ends up in the fairway or the heather. It’s just a blessing to still be out there, celebrating the heck out of every minute of this blessed life.

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