In a ridiculous turn of events, Robert Sarver apologized to Suns fans last night for the San Antonio Spurs resting two old ass players – Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili – and letting three other players with mild injuries rest up during a PRESEASON GAME.
“Hey, everybody, I want to thank you for coming out tonight,” Sarver said. “This is not the game you paid your hard-earned money to watch. I apologize for it. And I want you to send me your tickets if you came tonight with a return envelope and I’ve got a gift for you on behalf of the Suns for showing up tonight. Thank you.”
First of all, I’m of the opinion those fans wasted their money by buying preseason tickets.
Second of all, if Sarver wants to apologize to Phoenix fans for wasting their hard-earned money on the Suns, he oughta give a mea culpa for his apparent and silly mandate from 2004 to 2007 to discard any and all potentially useful draft picks.
After viewing the list of travesties, you’ll conclude, like I have that Sarver was a modern-day Ted Stepien… the infamous Cleveland owner from the early 1980s who gave away draft picks for next-to-nothing.
The Suns drafted Luol Deng with the 7th overall pick and hastily traded him to the Chicago Bulls for a Jackson Vroman and a 2005 1st Round Pick. As I’m sure y’all know, Deng has gone on to a fine career while Jackson Vroman has… what has he done? I’ve honestly never heard of him before this. According to Basketball-Reference, Vroman played a total of 57 minutes for the Suns before being traded away.
Well, at least the Suns used that 2005 1st Rounder from Chicago to select Nate Robinson…
Well, that didn’t last long. After the Suns drafted li’l Nate they packaged him with Quentin Richardson for the New York Knicks. In return the Suns got wild-eyed Kurt Thomas and Dijon Thompson. Dijon however was no good and wasn’t in high demand like Grey Poupon. Thompson would play a grand total of 43 minutes for the Suns.
In a separate deal, the Suns gave away 2nd Round draft pick Marcin Gortat to the Orlando Magic for the mythical “future considerations.” Seems like an even deal.
With an all-world point guard like Steve Nash, the Suns still needed to have some backup help and they coulda had it in spades this year by drafting Sergio Rodriguez and Rajon Rondo.
Instead, they wound up trading both men. Rodriguez was sold for cash to the Portland Trail Blazers. Meanwhile Rondo was shipped to Boston for a future 1st Round Pick. Don’t worry they’ll be trading that pick soon enough.
Instead of having Rodriguez or Rondo to back up Nash, Phoenix went out and signed… Marcus Banks. Jesus.
That 1st Rounder Phoenix got for Rondo turned out to be Rudy Fernandez. Rudy got sold for cash to the Blazers.
Don’t worry, just a week later the Suns dumped Kurt Thomas, a 2008 1st Rounder, and a 2010 1st Rounder on Seattle for the privilege of a 2nd Round draft pick and a trade exception. The two first rounders Phoenix dumped turned out to be Serge Ibaka and Quincy Pondexter. One an All-Star caliber player, the other turning into a fine rotation swingman. The Suns took Emir Preldzic, who has yet to play in the NBA, with that 2nd Rounder they got in return.
So, let’s tally the score shall we. From 2004 to 2007, Phoenix traded away draftees and draft picks that became Rajon Rondo, Serge Ibaka, Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, Rudy Fernandez, Marcin Gortat, and Sergio Rodriguez for cash, Marcus Banks, Dijon Thompson, and “future considerations.”
Wasn’t like Phoenix was a title-contender all these years, coming perilously close to the Finals.
The laziest disservice and view of basketball history, or any history, is to do a straight-up transportation of one person to another era and issue blithe commentary.
For example: “Any NBA player in 2014 could mop the floor with a player from 1954.”
Another example in reverse: “The Founding Fathers who lived without knowledge of germ theory or combustion engines have all the answers to problems in 2014.”
Whoops, political opinion. Back to basketball…
The first problem with this unfortunate logic is to assume that “any NBA player in 2014″ could exist in 1954. Yes, J.R. Smith’s moves are ostensibly more impressive than Paul Seymour’s, but transporting J.R. Smith back to 1954 should strip away every advancement that was made to his benefit in the intervening 60 years.
Also, Paul Seymour hit a game-winning half-court shot in the 1954 NBA Finals and made the All-NBA 2nd Team twice. Dude could play.
Digressions aside, I can’t detail right now every single advancement in basketball’s long history. However it would be excellent for you – the reader – to ask yourself exactly what has changed in 123 years since basketball was first played.
After having done so myself, I’ve concluded there are three ways to view the changes in basketball: Social, Technological, and “Genetic”.
Imagine all basketball players the world over as the human species. We are 99.9% similar to each other the world over. The little differences in that 0.1% are what makes us appear so vastly different. Yeah, Isaac Newton and Martin Luther King were smart fellas, but they still had to eat, breath, and shit like the rest of us. We’re all operating pretty much the same, but that little percentage in difference creates a lot of variety.
In basketball, it is the same. Go to any court, any where and things are 99% the same but that 1% makes the players look vastly different. Yeah, LeBron James is going to be dunking with a ferocity you’ll never see on 99% of pickup courts, but on those pickup courts you see players dribbling, passing, shooting, driving, arguing, hi-fiving, etc. like NBA players. That 1% of LeBron dunking seems so different it makes us overlook that 99% of what’s similar.
But where does that 1% difference come from?
When basketball was created in 1891, its first players were all at least in their mid-20s. This was not a game people had grown up with and could apply their childhood imagination and instinct to. It was not intrinsic to them. They were constantly grafting their experiences with other sports onto basketball.
As the decades went by, we began having more and more people who never knew life without basketball. Their twists and turns and takes on the game can be considered the genetic mutations of the sport. These mutations often happened totally independent of one another, much like real genetic mutations do.
The jump shot is a great example of this.
Several players across the country in the 1930s and 1940s were doing jumpers with no knowledge of the others’ existence. They were just doing what felt natural to them. The jumper proved advantageous and slowly pushed aside older shots like the two-hand set shot, the one-hand set shot, and underhanded shots.
Other things we take for granted – bounce passes, dribbling, picks, etc. – all were “devised” the same way. Random people from random parts of the world just began doing the moves. What now seems essential and integral was once a mutation of basketball as it then stood.
Bob Cousy’s whimsical over-the-head passes in 1952? Basketball mutation.
Gus Johnson breaking a backboard cuz he dunked so hard in 1964? Basketball mutation.
J.R. Rider dunking between his legs in 1995? Basketball mutation.
Elgin Baylor gliding across the lane for scoop shots in 1958? Basketball mutation.
Kenny Sailors in the 1930s, at only 5’10”, in his backyard in Wyoming trying to shoot over his 6’5″ brother by jumping then shooting? Basketball mutation.
Like all “genetic” discussions, though, it’s futile – AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS – to say one mutation is inherently better than the other though. It all depends on circumstances. The two-hand set shot seems archaic and “obviously” a stupid move. But considering the basketball environment it flourished in, it makes sense it took decades for the jumper to overtake it.
TECHNOLOGY and SOCIETY
The technology of basketball – the environment we all play in – has an undervalued role in how successful players of any era are. The first “basketball” was actually a soccer ball. The first “basket” was actually a basket not an iron rim with a net. It took several years for shoes to be designed specifically for the sport.
These things are of no small consequence to how we play the game.
The first true basketballs were larger than the ones we use today, had huge protruding laces, and their leather material soaked up moisture becoming heavier as the game went on. The large, heavy, and unwieldy basketballs were better shot with a two-hand set shot and not the jumper. Indeed, re-introduce that old-time basketball today and players like Steph Curry wouldn’t be dribbling as easily as they do and then tossing up 25-foot bombs with ease.
Like players of yesteryear, they would put a higher premium on motion and screens without the ball. This lack of emphasis on dribbling didn’t mean players in the 1940s couldn’t dribble well, it meant they had to conduct themselves in an environment where A) an open set-shot required more off-ball movement and screens, B) the set-shot took longer to release due to the shot’s mechanics and the ball’s unfortunate physics and C) no shot clock meant you could weave and screen as long as it took to get someone open.
And don’t forget that the Currys of the world need a coach willing to let him shoot those bombs. When Kenny Sailors entered the pros his coach told him to lose the jumper and stick to the set-shot.
Likewise, the three-point shot has been around since 1961, but the social orthodoxy of the NBA didn’t adopt it until 1979 and it took a while longer before NBA offenses figured out what to do with the damn thing. A player like Louie Dampier, who flourished in the ABA thanks in large part to the three-pointer, would not have been nearly as successful in the NBA.
Would that have made Dampier any less of a great player, though? Or just a talented victim of circumstance and orthodoxy?
These social constraints dictate a large degree of player success. What we oughta struggle with is how much of a player’s success is their talent and how much is the circumstance? And note my emphasis on struggle. We can never know that answer, but we should seriously consider what the answer could be.
And that “could be” leads to the main, final, and most important point… Imagination.
Think, question, and imagine how players, equipment, and thought on basketball has changed over the last 123 years. The game we play and watch today is vastly different from what it was in 1891. When someone today has an innovation – mutation – it can now be quickly transferred and amplified thanks to the technology at our disposal. Imagine how quickly the jump shot might have spread with the communications and training network we have today? On the other hand, consider what groundbreaking moves are being scoffed at right now by the current basketball orthodoxy.
Every era has its innovators and naysayers, coat-tail riders and outside-the-box thinkers.
But above all, remember that with all these changes, all these restrictions, all these thoughts…the game is 99% the same as it was in 1891. Love, embrace, and sympathize with our basketball ancestors. In the end, we’re doing the same old thing they were: eating, breathing, shitting, and trying to put a ball in the basket.
The pro career of Kenny Sailors was never as grand as it should have been. Institutions are always slow to accept change. And basketball, as an institution, was slow to adopt the pet move – seen above – that Sailors helped popularize.
The following exchange, noted in The Origins of the Jump Shot, during Sailors’ rookie season helps show the resistance to Sailors’ extraordinary brilliance:
Kenny was about to step into the shower after that first practice when [Cleveland coach] Dutch Dehnert approached him. “Say-lors,” Dutch pronounced Kenny’s name. “Where’d you get that leapin’ one-hander?”
“I been shootin’ it ever since I was a kid.”
Whether that satisfied Dutch or not, his face gave no hint.
“And that dribblin’ of yours,” he continued. “You don’t dribble in this league. You pass the ball.”
Kenny shrugged. “I have to dribble to shoot my jumper, Dutch.”
“I’m gonna give you some advice, Say-lors. If you’re gonna go in this league, you gotta forget that dribblin’.”
Kenny turned to enter the shower.
“And you gotta get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” Dutch shouted after him.
Needless to say, Say-lors never had much opportunity to win over the recalcitrant Dehnert. Nonetheless, the way Sailors played basketball has gone on to shape and influence nearly every player since.When was the last time you’ve seen a player let loose a two-hand set shoot?
So, although just 5’10” tall, Sailors’ greatest contribution to the game was elevating it to new heights.
He was one of the first prominent players to use the jump shot back in the 1940s. Sailors did not invent the jumper. It had been around since the 1920s, at least. What makes Sailors notable is just how reliant he was on the shot. His diminutive height made it necessity for him to jump while shooting, otherwise he’d constantly be blocked by earthbound, yet taller opponents.
With the jumper in hand, however, Sailors could more than equalize the situation turning it completely to his favor. Not only could he lift his release point higher by jumping, his opponents were unfamiliar with the shot, so they didn’t know how to defend it. Used to earthbound two-handers and set-shots, the defenders couldn’t adjust on the fly to Sailors.
Sailors attended college at the University of Wyoming and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1943 NCAA tournament en route to leading Wyoming to the championship that year. In 1942, 1943, and 1946, Sailors was named an All-American as well. The disruption in his college career came thanks to his service in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Naturally, the delay in finishing college meant his pro career was also delayed. At age 24, Sailors finally entered pro basketball with the Cleveland Rebels in 1946. Unfortunately for Sailors, his pro career was racked with chaos, misfortune and the skepticism of coaches like Dehnert. Sailors’s website does an excellent job summing up the dysfunction caused by the unstable financial situation of many ball clubs in the BAA and early NBA.
July 27, 1947 – Drafted by the Chicago Stags from the Cleveland Rebels in the dispersal draft when Cleveland folded
November 1947 – Sold by Chicago to the Philadelphia Warriors
December 1, 1947 – Sold by Philadelphia to the Providence Steamrollers
July 16, 1949 – Signed by the Denver Nuggets as Providence folded when the BAA merged into the new NBA
June 22, 1950 – Sold by Denver to the Boston Celtics as Denver folded
December 1, 1950 – Traded by Boston to the Baltimore Bullets where Kenny retired after one season and finished his professional career
After failing to impress in Cleveland and cast aside by Philly and Chicago in short order, Sailors’s greatest success in the pros came with the Providence Steamrollers and the Denver Nuggets from 1947 to 1950. Sailors was freed to shoot his jumper. For the 1949 and 1950 seasons Sailors finished in the top 5 in scoring in the BAA/NBA while also finishing 7th and 6th, respectively, in assist per game.
For his stellar 1948-49 campaign with the Steamrollers, Kenny was named to the All-BAA 2nd Team. His 1950 season with the Nuggets was worthy of similar honors, despite his exclusion.
Unfortunately for Sailors, the free-wheeling offenses that let him loose in Providence and, especially, Denver weren’t to last. Providence folded in 1949 and Denver in 1950. Sailors was picked up by Boston prior to the 1950-51 season, but with Bob Cousy in hand they had no use for Kenny. Traded to Baltimore, Sailors was now 29 years old and longing to return to the West. So after that 1951 season with the Bullets, Sailors retired from pro ball and headed back to the other side of the Mississippi.
The pros never quite appreciated the revolution Sailors was instigating back in the 1940s. Even today, very few appreciate the role that Sailors commanded in what is one of the largest transformations in basketball’s history.
Thanks to his simple boldness to take a jumper, shooting was on the road to greater accuracy. The game was to become more exciting. The little man added another weapon to offset the domination of the leviathans in the paint.
So even though his own personal greatness never blossomed due to the inertia of tradition, Sailors has a hand in all the great players since who’ve jumped and taken a shot.
It took a while for Dale Ellis to get cooking in the NBA. Drafted ninth overall in 1983, Ellis would spend the first three years of his career buried on the bench of the Dallas Mavericks. In his limited time on court (16.4 minutes per game), Ellis provided the Mavs with instant offense averaging 8.2 points per game. Dallas had no real need for Ellis at the time, though. With Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre occupying the shooting guard and small forward spots, Ellis could never crack the starting lineup or gain significant playing time.
Fortunately for Dale Ellis, a trade in the summer of 1986 sent him from Dallas to Seattle and from the bench to NBA stardom. Ellis averaged 25 PPG that first year with the Super Sonics and had such luminous performances as 32 points on 13 shots in 28 minutes; and 40 points on 19 shots. More of the same flowed from Ellis through the 1989-90 season. During that four-year stretch in Seattle, Dale averaged 25.6 PPG. He peaked in 1988-89 with 27.5 PPG and his lone selections to both, the All-NBA 3rd Team and the All-Star squad.
Curiously, while Ellis was averaging career highs in minutes and points these seasons, he was also averaging career highs in field goal percentage. During this torrid peak in Seattle, he never shot below 49.7% from the field and in 1989 he shot a ridiculous 47.8% from downtown on over 4 attempts per game. No one in the history of the NBA (except JOE JOHNSON!) has taken as many three-pointers a game and shot as high a percentage as Ellis did that season.
Behind Ellis hot shooting, Xavier McDaniel’s hot-headed drives, and Tom Chambers’s dynamite dunks, the Super Sonics of the late 1980s proved highly entertaining and somewhat super successful. In their first season as a trio, Ellis, McDaniel, and Chambers caught fire (and some lucky breaks) in the playoffs and made the Western Conference Finals despite 39 regular wins.
And in the 1987 postseason Ellis received a huge measure of revenge in defeating his former team the Dallas Mavericks. In the four-game series, Ellis averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 56% FG, 50% 3PT% and 84% FT. Safe to say Dallas had no answer for the stone-faced Ellis.
The Sonics made the playoffs the two following seasons, but by 1991 that core was broken up and Ellis was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. For the rest of his career, including stops in San Antonio, Denver, Charlotte and return trips to Seattle and Milwaukee, Ellis would largely play the role of key reserve with 14.5 PPG for the rest of his career.
Ellis retired in 2000 with just a touch over 19,000 career points. At the time he was 34th on the all-time points leader board for NBA players. He scored those points in a variety of ways. He was quick and deceptive off the ball gathering easy mid-range jumpers and layups off cuts. He was also capable off the dribble and posting up leading to further easy buckets.
After all, no one scores 19,000 points on just three pointers.
But what made Ellis unique, special, and Hall of Fame worthy was indeed his way of shooting and nailing three-pointers. His expert use of the shot as integral part of his arsenal was truly revolutionary for the NBA.
Let’s just take his aggregates and accuracy step-by-step.
In 1986, Ellis ranked 19th all-time in 3-pointers made (117) despite barely getting off the Mavericks bench. Tellingly he was 3rd in 3PT% at that point with a 37.6% mark.
In 1991 the season he was traded from the Sonics, Ellis in spite of a huge rise in attempts still held firm at 6th in 3PT% (40.0%). And with that huge rise in attempts (and an increase in accuracy) he had vaulted into 2nd all-time in 3-pointers made (625).
By 1996, Ellis had become the first NBA player to make over 1000 threes and had sat atop the all-time 3-point standings for several seasons. In making his 1269 three-pointers to that point Ellis was still raising the bar on his accuracy with a 40.3% clip now.
By the time he retired in 2000, Ellis had been supplanted by Reggie Miller (1867 threes made) atop the leader board, but with his 1719 makes Dale was still in 2nd place and far ahead of the next closest player. And he retired with that 40.3% accuracy in tact.
As the three-point shot has achieved greater prominence, Ellis has fallen further down the board. He’s currently 10th in threes made, but it’s important to note two things:
1) None of the players above him shot the three-ball more accurately than his 40.3% and
2) You gotta go down to #66 on the list (Derek Harper) to find a player who started playing in the NBA mid-1980s like Ellis did.
He was a man of his time, who happened to also point the way to the NBA’s future. Indeed he helped blaze the way for the three-point shooter who could control a game. And if the Hall of Fame is made for anything, it’s certainly made for trail blazers.
Years Played: 1983 – 2000
Most Improved Player (1987)
All-NBA 3rd Team (1989)
At 6’1″ tall, Ed Wachter was the best center in basketball during his heyday and one of pro basketball’s first stars. Born in 1883, eight years before the sport was created, Wachter began playing pro basketball at age 17 in 1900. It was only two years since the first pro basketball league started – grandiosely, it was called the National Basketball League despite being in just Pennsylvania and New Jersey – and Wachter would play a pivotal role in evolving the style and play of the game.
Hailing from Troy, New York, Wachter learned basketball at his local YMCA. The YMCA was the typical spot in this era for the best pro and amateur talent to emerge. At age 17, Wachter began his pro career in Massachusetts with the Ware Wonders of the Western Massachusetts League in 1900. Over the next decade, Wachter bounced around playing a year or two with teams in Haverhill (MA), Schenectady (NY), Gloversville (NY), Pittsfield (MA), and McKeesport (PA).
By 1905, Ed Wachter along with his brother Lew, Jimmy Williamson, and Bill Hardman traveled from team to team together forming a bond and rapport. While in Gloversville they whipped the Buffalo Germans in a match in 1908. Nonetheless, the barnstorming Germans would go on to win 111 straight games over the next three years as the press celebrated them as basketball’s best team.
Perhaps sensing they themselves were worthy of the title, Wachter and company went back to Troy, New York, and formed the Trojans in 1909. Competing in the Hudson Valley League, the Trojans thrived on their exquisite teamwork and wound up winning four straight championships (1910-1913). The first two of these came in the Hudson league while the final two came in the New York State League. Although in two different leagues, the Trojans were the first professional basketball team to secure four straight titles.
Ed Wachter proved the focal point of pro basketball’s first dynasty. Not only the best player, he also served as the team’s coach. His skills, vision, and prodding made the Trojans one of the first teams, and certainly the first great team, to employ crisp bounce-passing and a fastbreaking style of basketball. Aggressive, Wacther and the Trojans also instituted a grilling man-to-man defensive style that fostered the fastbreak.
Ed, along with is brother Lew, were also strong proponents of a daring rule change in basketball: the man fouled while in the act of shooting had to shoot the resulting free throws. Prior to this, teams generally selected their best foul shooter to take all free throws after any shooting foul. Ed and Lew’s new rule was adopted by the Hudson River Valley League in 1910. The rule would slowly spread and catch on with most other pro leagues by 1917 and with college basketball by 1924.
Even though his playing days began over a century ago, the influence of Ed Wachter remains with basketball to this day. Things as simple as how free throws are taken, or how bounce passes are made, we owe to the thoughts and skills of Wachter and the Troy Trojans.
Sam Cassell enjoyed a lengthy career as an NBA point guard, but only after an arduous college basketball journey. At age 20, he began playing junior college ball with San Jacinto College outside Houston. Then, at age 22, he transferred to Florida State. After two successful seasons there, Cassell was finally drafted into the NBA at age 24.
And nearly everywhere he went in the NBA, Cassell catalyzed improvement for his teams.
Selected by the Houston Rockets, the geriatric rookie immediately made a huge impact for the Rockets. No one doubts Hakeem Olajuwon was the primary fuel for the Rockets that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, but Cassell’s role as backup point guard and big game performer helped pull Houston out of some tough fixes. In the 1994 Finals, Cassell hit a huge three-pointer in the final moments to win Game 3. He finished that game with 15 points on 4-6 shooting. Not bad for a rookie who averaged 7 points in the regular season. In the 1995 Finals, Cassell exploded for 31 points on 12 shots leading Houston to a 2-0 series lead over the Magic.
These huge playoff performances paid dividends for Cassell. By his third season, 1995-96, he was averaging 14.5 points and 5 assists per game off of Houston’s bench. Following that season, however, Cassell was traded to the Phoenix Suns and thus began his wandering days.
Over the next three seasons, Sam played for the Suns, Nets, and Mavericks before finally settling in Milwaukee. Not that he wasn’t productive. Cassell averaged 18 points and 6.5 assists in this span, but no club seemed to truly appreciate what he offered. The Nets were particularly foolish. They made their lone postseason between 1994 and 2002 while improving from 26 to 43 wins in their one full season with Cassell.
With the Bucks, though, Cassell found a home and exploited his talents to the max. His biggest assets, oddly for a point guard, were his abilities to post-up and generate lots of free throws. Milwaukee lacked a power forward or center capable of scoring, so Cassell’s production of 19 points and 7 assists per game while making 87% of his free throws was sorely needed. In 2001, teaming with Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, Cassell’s Bucks narrowly missed out on the NBA Finals losing to the 76ers in a tough 7-game series.
Ever the wanderer, though, Cassell’s time in Milwaukee finished in 2003. Still, Cassell had a couple of curtain calls left.
The Timberwolves in 2004 enjoyed their best season in franchise history after Cassell’s acquisition. Indeed, it was a career year for Cassell who finally made the All-Star Team and was named to the All-NBA 2nd Team at the tender age of 34. With Kevin Garnett as league MVP and Cassell riding shotgun Minnesota made the Western Conference Finals. An unfortunate back injury to Sam kept the Wolves from mounting a full challenge to the Lakers, though, and they lost the series in six games.
In 2006, after an injury-plagued 2005 season, Cassell helped lift the Los Angeles Clippers from their wretched depths. Yes, the Clippers, a franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1976 as the Buffalo Braves. Cassell’s savvy, leadership, and still potent skills mixed beautifully with another superb power forward (Elton Brand) as the Clippers won 47 games. In the playoffs, Sam’s Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Semi-Finals where they lost to the Suns in seven games. From that point on, Cassell was severely limited by injuries, but managed to snag a final NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
With his ebullient energy, pull-up jumpers, fearless forays to the rim, and confidence Cassell improved every team he appeared with. The Rockets, Nets, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Clippers were all demonstrably better with the services of Cassell. Even if those teams’ appreciation for Cassell usually proved very short-lived, that kind of track record is no accident, but proof of his prowess. In a career that was anything but short-lived, you can see that prowess almost from the get-go.
Years Played: 1993 – 2008
3x Champion (1993-’94, 2008)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2004)
William Robert Leonard is a man of a million aliases. Some call him “Robert”. Others “Bob”. But the coolest of us call him “Slick”. As a legendary ABA coach, Slick proved to be tough, if not slippery, for opponents to handle. He took the Pacers to three titles in the upstart, renegade league. However, his time as a professional basketball player isn’t all that memorable.
Except when he tagged along with the Chicago Packers in the 1961-62 season. The Chicago Packers in 1961 were the 1st NBA expansion team in a decade. And my goodness did they show it on the court. Aside from Slick Leonard and rookie Walt Bellamy this team was absolutely atrocious. Beyond them, 8 other players appeared in 41+ games with the Packers that season. All but 3 would be out of the league the very next season. And only two survived the following year.
So with those facts in mind, it’s little wonder Leonard enjoyed a career season with the expansion Packers. Up to this point, Leonard had been a serviceable guard with the Lakers franchise. His claim to fame there had been a surprisingly great 1957 postseason where he averaged 21 points, 7.5 assists and 6 rebounds in 5 games. His other stake to stardom had been a coach-like harping of his team’s shortcomings, in particular this rant to the Los Angeles Times:
“We’re so much better than that club (Cincinnati),” he said. “But we just don’t have the fire. We are a second place club, material wise, and we keep saying we’ll make up the games we’ve lost but there are only 31 games left.”
Not content with these salvos Leonard then bit into coach Fred Schaus for trying to make teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley, who he deemed a lackluster play maker, into a point guard:
“You can’t make a leader,” he said emphatically.
These quotes from January 1961 by an aging reserve may have played some role in Leonard’s subsequent availability in that summer’s expansion draft. Just a hunch on my part.
Now a member of the Chicago Packers, Leonard was free to not only shoot barbs but as many shots as he wanted on the court. Early in the season the Chicago Daily Tribune noted his playmaking ability and its impact, particularly on rookie sensation Walt Bellamy:
The Chicago Packers came up with a new star last night. His name is Bob Leonard, once an All-American playmaker at Indiana University.
The 29 year old backcourt man [cast aside in the player draft by the Los Angeles Lakers as being injury prone] dominated a second half rally that brought the Packers their second victory of the season. They have lost three.
Thanks to Leonard’s ball handling, Walt Bellamy… was able to score 35 points. Eleven of Bellamy’s field goals came in the second half and eight were the direct result of passes from Leonard.
Leonard himself had 27 points that game against the Knicks. Chicago stood at that point had 2 wins and 3 losses, a very respectable record for an expansion club. But the hard times hit hard and fast. Just three weeks later, Leonard again scored 27 points but Chicago lost to the Detroit Pistons. It was their seventh straight loss and put them at 2 wins and 11 losses.
In a mid-December contest that saw Bellamy (45 points) and Wilt Chamberlain (50 points) square off within the confines of the game, Leonard and Philadelphia Warriors point guard Guy Rodgers actually squared off following the (you guessed it) Packers loss:
[Leonard and Rodgers] traded punches in center court last night at the conclusion of Philadelphia’s 112 to 110 victory…
The Packers led, 110 to 108, with less than two minutes remaining, but baskets by Tom Gola and Rodgers gave Philadelphia the victory before 3,360.
The losing nights piled up in normal venues (Boston, New York, Philadelphia) and in neutral-site, zany locales like Louisville, Green Bay, East Chicago, Moline and Evansville. At least in February, Leonard secured some measure of revenge against his erstwhile club, the Lakers. Playing with an injured shoulder ol’ Slick scored 18 second half points, including five straight down the stretch, to give the Packers a rare win. However, it’d be important to note Los Angeles was without Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Even the redemption was somewhat in vain this season. In fact, everything was somewhat in vain for Leonard this season. He finally was able to demonstrate his full abilities at age 29 after 5 seasons in the NBA. He averaged a career-high 16 points, 5.5 assists and 37.5% FG while connecting on 75% of his free throws. But his demonstrations came on what is truly one of the worst teams in league history. These Packers went 18-62 and surely would have been worse had it not been for Leonard and, even more so, Walt Bellamy’s incredible campaign.
The next season Leonard would only suit up for 32 games of playing action. The Chicago Zephyrs (yes, they changed their name after one season) were just about as awful as they were the previous season finishing 25-55.
However, the silver lining of this season (and the next) would be that Leonard was given his first coaching opportunity. Although, these formative coaching years were unimpressive, they were still instructive. Dismissed by the Baltimore Bullets (yes, the Chicago Zephyrs/Packers had already relocated) after the 1964 season, Leonard’s next coaching job would be with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA and he’d truly make his mark on professional basketball. But for one season, his playing career was something remarkable.