John Krull

John Krull

For Hoosier males of a certain age, at one time few sights were prettier than that of a red-white-and-blue basketball dropping through the bottom of a net.

When I was a boy growing up in a small Indiana town in the 1970s, the Indiana Pacers ruled the upstart American Basketball Association.

We loved that league. We all had ABA basketballs, which made it easier to see if you had good rotation on your shots. We gloried in the three-point shot, which opened the game up and gave a little guy with a good eye a fighting chance.

Most of all, we loved the Pacers, who won three championships and owned that league. In our pickup games and shoot-arounds — it was a rare home that didn’t have a hoop in the driveway or back yard in those days — we would ape individual Pacers’ styles, creating caricatures of fine play as we sweated and jostled on concrete and hard-packed dirt.

Those early Pacers were easy to idolize.

George McGinnis was LeBron James before there was a LeBron James — a physical miracle who combined unreal strength, speed and coordination in one sculpted frame. Roger Brown moved with a silky finesse. Mel Daniels had a post presence like few others. Freddie Lewis and Billy Keller seemed to embody scrappiness.

Whenever the Pacers won another championship, we would seize on all fantasies and rumors of rumors that they were going to meet whoever the NBA champ might be in a kind of Super Bowl of professional basketball.

It never happened, but it was pretty to think, if you were a boy growing up in an often-forgotten part of America, that our team might have a chance to step onto a big stage and show what it could do.

And who we were.

Bobby “Slick” Leonard was the coach and ringleader for that rambunctious crew.

God, we loved Slick.

We loved the sound of his voice with that Indiana accent that mingled drawl, twang and bray into one joyous package. We loved his open-faced countenance that used Hoosier, country-boy friendliness to cloak canniness and cleverness.

He looked and sounded like the people we knew and saw all around us.

He was one of us.

The fact that he had built a team of winners meant that we could be winners, too.

But the thing we loved most about him was what he loved.

The game.

Indiana’s game.

Basketball.

Slick gloried in the game, rhapsodized over it.

To this day, Hoosiers remain devoted to basketball. The fire, though, doesn’t burn quite as hot as it once did, when many Indiana high schools built gyms with seating capacities three, four, five and six teams the size of their student bodies because there was little to do for entertainment in a Hoosier small town on a Friday or Saturday night other than go to the game.

The same went for my buddies and me. In those times before cable television, the internet and cell phones existed, we had fewer diversions.

When we got out of school, we raced to get to a court to play until the sun went down. We played spring, summer, fall and winter — in sun and rain and snow.

It sounds crazy now, but it was fun.

It was the kind of fun — the kind of craziness — that Slick Leonard would have understood.

In my newspaper days, I met Leonard once, just briefly. I listened to him tell a story or two — he was, not surprisingly, a superb raconteur — and I shook his hand.

I regret now that I didn’t tell him what he and those early Pacers meant to Hoosier boys like us.

Like me.

I suspect, though, that he knew that already. He was Slick Leonard — and Slick Leonard always understood a lot more than he let on.

Bobby Leonard died the other day. He was 88.

I find myself wondering whatever happened to my red-white-and-blue basketball.

May he rest in peace.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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