The Lowdown: Slick Leonard

Slick Leonard

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.

The Lowdown: Buck Williams

Years Active: 1982 – 1998
Regular Season Stats: 1307 games, 32.5 mpg
12.8 ppg, 10 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.8 spg, 54.9% FG, 66.4% FT
Postseason Stats: 108 games, 34.4 mpg
11.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.6 bpg, 0.8 spg, 52% FG, 67.2% FT
Accolades: Rookie of the Year (1982), All-Rookie 1st Team (1982), All-NBA 2nd Team (1982), 2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1990-91), 2x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1988, ’92), 3x All-Star (1982-83, ’86)

“Desire is the key to rebounding; you have to want that ball,” says Williams. “Good anticipation – knowing where the ball will go- also is important.” Williams relishes the hard-nosed aspect of the pro game. “The physical play in the pros gives you a chance to play without the nitpicking fouls you see in college.,” he says. “It lets you see who’s a man out there.”

– via “Buck Williams: Nets’ rising star”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At 6-feet-8-inches tall and 215 pounds, Charles Linwood Williams was certainly not the most imposing figure on a basketball court at first glance. However, don’t let the slender frame fool you. When “Buck” stepped on the court, suddenly his agility would present itself. His determination and rough style would throw you off. And he may have been just 215 lbs at the power forward spot, but fight with him for position in the post or for a rebound and you’d quickly determine that all of that weight was composed of muscle.

For 17 years Williams played in the NBA and for 14 of them (1982 to 1995) he was as solid and dependable a PF you could ask for. He appeared in all but 26 games in this span. For the 1st half of this reign of dependable front court terror, he was the star anchor of the New Jersey Nets. The sometimes woeful, the sometimes surprisingly good New Jersey Nets. For the last half of it, he was the final piece of the Trail Blazer puzzle that propelled Portland from team-of-the-future to legitimate championship contender.
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The Lowdown: Bailey Howell

Years Active: 1960 – 1971
Regular Season Stats: 951 games, 32.2 mpg
18.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 48% FG, 76.2% FT
Postseason Stats: 86 games, 31.7 mpg
16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 46.5% FG, 73.2% FT
Accolades: Hall of Fame (1997), 2x NBA Champ  (1968, ’69), 2nd Team All-NBA (1963), 6x All-Star (1961-’64, 1966-’67)

We knew Howell was a good player. He had an average of better than 20 points for seven seasons in the NBA. And he played in most of the All-Star games since he’s been in the league. Yet, sometimes you don’t realize a player’s true value until he’s on your side for a while… He’s got the good offensive drive. He’s a real holler-guy on the bench, too. Bailey likes team basketball. Joining the Celtics made him a happy player. He doesn’t care how much he scores. He just wants to win.

– Bill Russell on Bailey Howell, via Dynasty’s End (an excellent book that you should buy now!)

For 7 seasons, Bailey Howell plied his way as one of the NBA’s best forwards. He was a man possessed on the boards, particularly the offensive glass. He had an incessant, fearless zeal to attack the basket and rack up points. Five times he was selected an all-star as reward for his routine output of 20 points and 11 rebounds. Along with this individual success usually came team disappointment or outright failure.

Howell’s first 7 years were spent with the Detroit Pistons (5 seasons) and Baltimore Bullets (2). None of these teams ever finished with a record above .500. The best years for Howell’s clubs in this era were in 1962 and 1965. In ’62 the Detroit Pistons (winners of just 37 regular season games), fell into the playoffs and dislodged Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals in the semi-finals in a 3-1 series win. The Lakers of Baylor and West thereafter bounced Detroit in 6 games in the divisional finals. The ’65 “success” story with the Baltimore Bullets largely repeated this sequence of events: 37-win regular season, dislodge semi-final opponent 3-games-to-1, then lose to the Lakers in 6 games in the divisional finals.

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The Lowdown: Lee Shaffer

Years Active: 1962 – 1964
Regular Season Stats: 196 games, 28.1 mpg
16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 42% FG, 77.6% FT
Postseason Stats: 13 games, 29.8 mpg
19.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 41.6% FG, 77.8% FT
Accolades: All-Star (1963)

Few things are as peculiar as someone with an immense talent or acumen voluntarily, willingly setting aside that skill for other endeavors. It’s what made Michael Jordan’s first retirement such a shocking development. Now, Lee Shaffer should not be considered on the same basketball plane as titans like Michael Jordan, but he definitely was an incredibly skilled player who after a mere three years decided to forego the NBA. Even Michael Jordan at least put in 9 seasons of work before quitting… but even he returned… and retired again… and returned again. When Shaffer quit, he was gone for good.

Lee Shaffer was a bit of a basketball prodigy and early bloomer. As a 15-year old high school senior Shaffer, led his Pittsburgh-area team in scoring with 25 points per game. Shaffer thereafter attended the University of North Carolina. His time as a Tar Heel was met with much acclaim. Typical for Shaffer were performances like this one in 1959 where he knocked down 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Notre Dame. Just two weeks later the forward emphatically dismissed rival North Carolina State:

Nerveless Lee Shaffer dunked in a layup in the last 22 seconds of an overtime to give third-rated North Carolina a 72-68 victory over top-ranked North Carolina State in an [ACC] showdown here Wednesday night.

Shaffer, a 6-7 blond from Pittsburgh, took a perfect pass under the boards from sophomore [and future ABA all-star and NBA Coach of the Year] Doug Moe and laid in the winning basket.

The small forward played his way onto the All-America 2nd Team and was named ACC Player of the Year in 1960.

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The Lowdown: Alvan Adams

Years Active: 1976 – 1988
Regular Season Stats: 988 games, 27.5 mpg
14.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 0.8 bpg, 1.3 spg, 49.8% FG, 78.8% FT
Postseason Stats: 78 games, 29.3 mpg
13.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 0.9 bpg, 1.1 spg, 47.3% FG, 76.6% FT
Accolades: Rookie of the Year (1976), All-Rookie 1st Team (1976), All-Star (1976)

Alvan Adams

“I remember looking around at the old guys in the locker room—guys like Pat Riley—and feeling sorry for them because they only had a year or two left. I thought I’d have lots of chances to win the championship, but in 12 years with Phoenix I never got back to the Finals.”

– Via Alvan Adams, Phoenix Suns Center

As it turned out, Adams would not only never return to the Finals, but he’d never match the dramatic output of his rookie season, which was the one of the better and surprising ones in league history. Despite winning the Big 8 Player of the Year award three times at the University of Oklahoma, pro scouts had their doubts about Adams’ ability to play in the NBA. Most concerning was his body: 6’9″, 210 lbs. That’s not the size of your prototypical NBA center and there was fear he was too slow to convert to forward.

One man who had no doubts about Adams was John MacLeod. MacLeod was the man who recruited Adams to Oklahoma, but the coach left the Sooners after one year of Adams’ college career to coach the Phoenix Suns. MacLeod now jumped at the chance to draft his former college recruit and utilized Adams as one of the main cogs in his free-flowing Suns offense. Alvan indeed was too frail to play in the lowpost all the time, but his best skill was passing not scoring. This led MacLeod to station Adams in the highpost where he proved to be a devastating force.

That rookie year (1976) he averaged 5.6 assists per game. Before him only centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell passed that mark. Since then, only Sam Lacey has.

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The Lowdown: Mike Mitchell

Years Active: 1979 – 1988
Regular Season Stats: 759 games, 32.3 mpg
19.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.5 bpg, 49.3% FG, 77.9% FT
Postseason Stats: 35 games, 33.2 mpg
18.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.8 bpg, 50.2% FG, 76.2 % FT
Accolades: All-Star (1981)

NBA Images
NBA Images

“Someday I think I’m going to be right up there with Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and the Doctor,” Mike Mitchell was saying the other day. “I feel like I’m destined to be one of the greats of the NBA. Only right now nobody knows who I am.”

– via Mike Makes His Pitch

When the great scorers of the 1980s are mentioned, quick to roll off the tongue are Larry Bird or Alex English. Perhaps Mark Aguirre or Adrian Dantley spring to mind, too. Big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone also sneak their way after a moment’s thought.

But quietly sitting among the list of the 1980’s greatest scorers is Mike Mitchell. The small forward finished with the 10th most points scored for that decade behind only the aforementioned players, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Theus and his Spurs teammate George Gervin. Condensing matters to just his heyday of 1980 through 1986 and you’ll see he was the 7th leading scorer in the NBA behind only 6 Hall of Famers.

His scoring during this point was effortless and methodical. He averaged 22.3 ppg during this stretch while shooting 49.6% from the field and 77.7% from the line. His bread and butter was a ridiculously effective mid-range jumper that he could release with impunity over other small forwards given his 6’7″ frame which was brazenly powerful and fast. And in the age old fashion, he was also quick enough to take a larger defender off the dribble. But that magnificent jump shot was where it was at.

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Waiting for the Train with Bob Cousy and Chuck Cooper

nolifebeforecoffee (flickr)
nolifebeforecoffee (flickr)

Over at Grantland there is the depressing story of Greg Oden’s heart-wrenching personal journey through emotional and basketball rehab. It’s well worth reading and is a reminder that NBA players are persons. Like all of us, they have particular struggles to battle in their lives. Some struggles we foolishly put on ourselves, others we put upon other people. But unlike them, we have the anonymity to privately deal with the issues. Having a close friend die and then being booed by thousands of people a day later is an experience few of us will ever have to face.

As it so happens, I’m reading Rise of a Dynasty: the ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America. Within this book is a powerful story recalling an exhibition game the Boston Celtics played in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1950. Like Oden’s story, it’s a reminder of our frail and withering, strong and resilient humanity.

Exhibition games in the early NBA were played far more often than today since the league used it as a means to raise both revenue and interest in their sport. Well, being North Carolina in the 1950s, the supposedly public accommodations of Charlotte were not available for use by “colored” persons, including the Celtics’ lone black player, Charles Cooper. The forward was not allowed to eat with his teammates, watch a movie with them at the theater, or even spend the night with them after the game in a hotel. All because of segregation.

Thanks to these dehumanizing conditions, Cooper (the first black player drafted by the NBA) was scheduled to take a train back the night of the game instead of waiting until the morning and flying back with the team to Boston. Symbolic of the lonely, solitary existence early black players faced.

This plan was initially unknown to Cooper’s road roommate, the tender-hearted Bob Cousy. After learning about it from coach Red Auerbach, Cousy insisted on riding all the way back to Boston via Syracuse on the train with Cooper. The train back to Boston wouldn’t arrive until the wee hours of the morning, so Cooper and Cousy just walked the streets, passing the time. Eventually, nature’s call arrived and the two men searched for a restroom at the station. Finally finding one, Cousy was embarrassed to see the clean toilets marked “WHITE” and the decrepit one “COLORED”.

Tears filled his eyes as he felt not only ashamed for this moment he and Cooper had to endure, but perhaps also for the teasing he absorbed as a child in New York.

Cousy was the son of immigrants from Alsace and spoke with a French accent. Called “Flenchy” for his accented rolling of r’s by peers, his existence was made even more wretched by the indifference his parents showed to their only child. It was a loveless home he hastily abandoned after turning 18. The stoic guard would always be guarded and yet sympathetic with his teammates. Particularly showing this passion when he broke down crying in an interview years later talking about what more he could have done to aid Bill Russell against virulent racism in the late 1950s.

But on this night, waiting together at the station, Cooper and Cousy ignored discussing the solemn moment they came upon the separate but unequal stalls. Finally, Cousy broached the topic by relating to Cooper all the horrors done to Jews in Europe just a few years earlier in World War II and the recent terrorist bombings of Catholic Churches in Louisiana. Cooper absorbed Cousy’s sincere attempt to tackle the issue of prejudice, but his slow retort revealed the enormous burdon borne by the lone black Celtic who couldn’t escape or evade the prejudice if he tried…

“That’s all right, but you can’t tell a Jew or a Catholic by looking at him.”

Cousy, again embarrassed, dropped the topic. And the two men continued their wait…

A painful reminder that we all deal with demons, whether personal or social, self-made or imposed by others. All we can do is gird ourselves and aid others in that battle like Cousy did (however timidly and flailingly) with Cooper. It ain’t easy, but considering the other self-destructive and callous options, it’s the best one available.