There are many kinds of sports documentaries: the “expose”, the “tale of heroism” — ESPN’s 30 for 30
series has covered them all. WFYI-TV dips its toe back into these waters
with Ted Green’s Bobby “Slick” Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier
. That film falls, fittingly enough, into the same category as Dan Klores’ Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks.
It’s a “talking heads love letter.”
In a “talking heads love letter,” dozens of people are interviewed about a single subject, usually an individual, who’s gained respect, even reverence, from sports fans. The reason Green’s film works is precisely the same reason that Klores’ doc does: the primary subject — and his supporting cast — are as interesting and entertaining as hell.
Klores' could’ve simply pointed his cameras at Reggie and Cheryl Miller and Spike Lee. Their takes alone would’ve been compelling. Similarly, Green could’ve just allowed Slick — the man who coached the ABA Pacers
to three championships — to go ahead and talk for 90 minutes and the result would’ve been touching and hilarious. But both Klores and Green had more to say, though, and both films round out our understanding of their subjects nicely.
Green’s bio of Slick traces the man from his beyond-dirt-poor beginnings as a hellraiser in Terre Haute to his current role as color man for the Pacers’ radio network. Bobby was apparently such a wanderer that his folks tied him to an outdoor clothesline at age four so they could attend to the home birth of his kid sister. (Slick got caught in a thunderstorm that day to boot.)
Leonard seemed to spend the formative years of his life ensuring he’d never be tied to anything again — with the exception of basketball. Friends and neighbors recall Slick spending hours shooting hoops, probably to avoid the family home’s abject poverty and a dad who seemed at best disinterested in his offspring.
Leonard went on to sink the game-winning free-throw for IU in the 1953 NCAA final
, but the film balances the heroics with Slick’s sometimes testy relationship with Coach Branch McCracken
. (McCracken forbade his players from smoking, drinking or gambling — three of Slick’s favorite diversions.) After a stint in the pros that ended with a career-changing injury, Slick eventually found himself being lured back to Indy to coach the newly-formed Pacers.
It’s this third act of Green’s film that’s the most entertaining. Slick was pro hoops’ answer to hockey’s Don Cherry
(look him up, you won’t regret it): a flamboyantly dressed madman who wasn’t afraid to throw a punch if it got his point across. The stories are as colorful as Leonard’s ‘70s era leisure suits: here’s Slick punting a ball into the stands, feuding with Red Auerbach, threatening a timekeeper, insisting Star reporter Bill Benner transcribe a profanity-laden response to a rival for print.
Beyond all the cussin’ and the fightin’ (and the drinkin’ and the drinkin’ and the drinkin’), it’s obvious that anybody who’s had anything to do with Slick loves this guy, and Green’s found them all. Everyone from Elgin Baylor
to Tommy John
(yep, THAT Tommy John) weigh in with stories about the old man, and all speak with genuine affection. Fans of the old-school red-white-and-blue-ballers that played at the Coliseum will love the trip down memory lane, and it’s startling to see how much Slick’s wife was involved in the organization. It’s also galling to see how the NBA exploited the ABA clubs that were pulled into their league during the merger — and how close Indy came to losing the team. (Remember Slick hosting the “save the Pacers” telethon?)
Green does a nice job balancing the historical footage with the interviews, and the pacing’s strong through the first three-quarters of the documentary. True, the last twenty minutes of the film lean a bit too heavily on the repetition of “I’d do anything for Slick” refrain from Green’s interview subjects and the musical picks for the soundtrack get a mite clichéd (do we always need a ragtime banjo in the mix whenever the narrative leaves the state capitol?), but the overall effect is spot on. Slick gave the city more than we realize, and Green makes sure his talking heads stress that without Leonard, Indy might not have become a major-league town.