INDIANAPOLIS – Nancy Leonard is careful. He does not want to name those who were on the board of the Indiana Pacers in 1978, many of whom said he had “never kept a basketball alive.”
They were successful local businessmen, some were tennis players, but none of those eight board members knew basketball like his missing wife, Bobby “Slick” Leonard, says Nancy.
Slick was the team’s coach and head manager in 1978, when the Pacers traded their 1st choice for Portland to Johnny Davis, the guard, and the 3rd choice for the NBA draft. As is well known, the Pacers did not use the third option to take Larry Bird, but Kentucky’s Rick Robey. Bird went to Celtics with a sixth choice.
“It was a disaster,” Nancy, 90, said of her Carmel home on Tuesday. “I’ll never forget a second of this draft, and it’s something I haven’t talked about publicly.”
He has not spoken publicly about what some call Pacers one of the biggest mistakes in NBA draft history and how it happened. Nancy was an assistant to the team’s general at the time.
Prior to the June draft, Slick, Nancy, and Pacers coaches and scouts had visited Bird five or six times in Terre Haute during his junior season in Indiana.
“Even when I saw it, I couldn’t believe her talent,” Nancy said. “She was just perfect.”
When the team discovered that Bird was involved in the drift and even knew they wouldn’t get him for a year as he returned to play his senior season at university, Slick and Nancy knew they would still have to accept him.
Bird would be the next Indiana Pacer. Nancy said the question was not zero. Until he went to the board.
“Miracle I didn’t start crying”
Nancy was sent to a Pacers board meeting to let the men know who Slick wanted to draft.
“I thought they all understood,” he said.
Nancy told the board that a thorough investigation and spying has been conducted.
“We’ve really checked everything in the US,” he told the board. “Bob knew what Bird meant for the team. We’d have someone to really lift the team up. We want Larry Bird.”
Nancy never forgets the answer.
“They said, ‘Well, we can’t do that,’ Nancy recalls.” I said, “Why?”
“We will never get the money and we will lose it,” the board told him. At that time, the Pacers were in financial trouble. A year earlier, the Leonards had a phone call in Indianapolis to save the team from giving up.
More Pacers history:How Slick Leonard saved Pacers with a 1977 teletone
Nancy tried to convince the board that Bird was good enough to risk cash in on season ticket sales when Pacers made his draft. And even if Pacers didn’t get the money they needed to sign Bird in the end, they could exchange it for two really good players.
“I couldn’t make them see how valuable she was,” she said. “We could have a wonderful gold coin in the palm of our hand.” The table did not shake. Instead, Nancy said, “They were panicking.”
Then a board member told Nancy he said there was an incredible reason why he wanted Pacers to take it.
“One man said,‘ Well, my daughter is going to Kentucky and she said there’s as good a player there as Larry Bird. It’s Rick Robey, “Nancy said.” It’s a miracle I didn’t cry. I knew how great it was to lose Larry. It was so huge. ”
“We gave up the birds”
On that druff night in 1978, when Robey was declared the Pacers’ choice, the Celtics were shocked and then erupted.
“There was a party in Boston just then. They started screaming and shouting and clapping,” Nancy said. “I thought we just broke the franchise.”
But he admits he was the perfect team for Bird.
“Larry wouldn’t have been in a better position for his career,” Nancy said. “He joined a team of veterans where Bill Russell once was. It was a ready-made team waiting for one special find, and that was Larry. It made his career.”
As for Robey, “he wasn’t close to Larry Bird’s talent,” Nancy said. Pacers switched Robey to Boston with former Pacer Billy Knight during the new season.
“We gave Bird away,” he said. “We gave him up completely.”
Bird quietly and not so quietly made sure Pacers would never forget.
When Bird retired from the NBA in 1992 after a glorious legendary career at Celtics, he appeared to be rushing to the man Pacers had chosen to replace him.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I was going to be a great player in this league,” Bird said in an August 1992 article in the Indianapolis Star. “The thing is, Rick Robey was watching me, so I probably thought I was a little better than I actually was.”
Throughout Bird’s NBA career, he took the pitch with his finger. He and his Boston team hit Pacers almost e
very time they met – in the 1980s, they achieved 32: 5 against Pacers in six years.
Bird became a great friend to Slick, the Pacers coach and team president. But playing against them, he was ruthless.
“When I first came here (as an assistant coach in 1984) when we were trying to build a team, I watched Larry play and knew he wasn’t going to … lose us,” General Pacers said at the time. said manager Donnie Walsh when Bird retired. “Nothing could be done. Physically, he was able to take over, and mentally he was always one step ahead of us. It was the most helpless feeling.”
Steve Brunner wrote in Indianapolis News about Bird’s “anger” against Pacers when he retired.
“Bird continued his high career at Celtics, winning more play-offs during the year than Pacers did during the NBA’s existence,” he wrote. “Despite the differences between the franchises, Bird seemed particularly pleased to be defeated by the home state team, which allowed him to escape.”
“It came down to finance”
Honestly, the Pacers board hadn’t seen the birds of the 1979 season, the birds that played in the NCAA title game against Michigan State team Magic Johnson when he was passed away in 1978.
The draft took place before Bird’s senior season in Indiana. He had played for four years in college, allowing him to participate as a junior in a draft, but he wanted to play in Indiana for the last season.
Pacers in difficulty quickly needed a player and the team couldn’t wait to see if he had enough money to sign Bird a year later.
“At the time, the Bird stock was not generally considered a potential share,” Indianapolis News reported. “So Pacers went with Robey. Red Auerbach and Celtics spent sixth in Bird. Professional basketball was never the same again.”
In the newspapers of the time, Slick was politically correct, as he passed on Pacers Bird, never leaving his board.
“Since day 1, we’ve been operating on a shoestring budget,” he told reporters. “It came down to finance.”
When Bird retired in 1992, Brunner asked Walsh what could have happened if Pacers had taken Bird.
“Where would we be?” said Walsh. “You can only guess. In hindsight, these things always seem obvious. At that time, it’s never so obvious.”
“If anything you need to do is Red Auerbach’s recognition that he had the foresight to make a choice a year earlier.”
Nancy says give the Pacers a black mark for missing her.
“Bird was drafted, sir, he was there so we could take it,” she said. “And I have to live with it.”
Follow IndyStar Sports Reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Contact him by email: [email protected]
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