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.

Expansion All-Stars: Jerry Sloan

(Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images)

Pre- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1966): 5.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, .415 FG%, .705% FT, 16.1 MPG

“Expansion All-Star” Season (1967): 17.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .432 FG%, .796 FT%, 36.8 MPG

Post- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1968 – 1976): 14.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, .426 FG%, .711 FT%, 35.5 MPG

Last week’s Expansion All-Star was Bob “Slick” Leonard of the Chicago Packers. Well, in an unsurprising development, the next Expansion All-Star also suits up for an expansion teams based in Chicago. The Windy City was a graveyard for major league professional basketball. The Chicago Gears of the NBL, the Chicago Stags of the BAA and the Chicago Packers of the NBA had all failed to survive in the city over the previous twenty years when the Chicago Bulls became the next best hope for pro basketball. Given the history, the Bulls surprisingly succeeded and it’s in no small part thanks to Jerry Sloan.

Sloan’s NBA career began, ironically, with the Baltimore Bullets. This is ironic because the Chicago Packers had packed up their bags and left Chicago in 1964 to become the Baltimore Bullets. The Maryland franchise acquired Sloan in the 1965 NBA Draft with the fourth overall pick ahead of such luminaries as the Van Arsdale twins, Billy Cunningham, Flynn Robinson and future Bulls teammates Bob Weiss and Bob Love.

That Sloan spent only one season as a Bullet and was available in the expansion draft the very next year was revealing of the terrible management involved with Baltimore at the time. Yes, Sloan had not put up amazing stats in his rookie year, but the promise of greatness was certainly there:

“…the Baltimore Bullets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 119-113, in other Wednesday night action…

Rookie Jerry Sloan’s 15-foot jump shot with 15 seconds left was the big play for the Bullets, who trailed by a point with 48 seconds to go. Gus Johnson’s 28 points led the Bullets and Jerry West’s 33 paced the Lakers.”

Nonetheless, the 4th overall pick was put on the expansion draft chopping block and the Chicago Bulls snapped up Sloan. The key to this was that one of Sloan’s Baltimore teammates had retired and taken over as coach of the Bulls. Johnny “Red” Kerr, a venerable presence in the NBA for over a decade, was the man at the helm of the Bulls and Sloan years later acknowledged Kerr’s help in giving him a chance to shine:

“Red was really the reason for me being in Chicago because of the expansion draft. Johnny helped me get an opportunity to play.”

Sloan’s playing time rose from a scant 16 minutes to 37 minutes a game that expansion season and his other stats predictably rose: the scoring reaching 17.5 points a game and the boards topping off at a career-high 9 a game. The averages were nice but so were individual moments throughout that season. In early March of 1967, Sloan and center Erwin Mueller spearheaded the defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers:

“Mueller scored 20 points and held Wilt Chamberlain to 20 as the Bulls pulled away to a 95-84 third-period margin and never were threatened thereafter. Jerry Sloan had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the Bulls.”

Any victory is nice but the expansion Bulls had just handed the 76ers one of their only 13 losses that season. Just a couple of weeks later, Sloan struck again to keep alive Chicago’s playoff hopes against the Detroit Pistons, the very team they were competing with for the final playoff spot:

“The Bulls whipped the Detroit Pistons on the road Wednesday night 98-91 and moved into fourth place in the Western Division a half-game ahead of the now last-place Pistons. The Bulls have two games left to play in the regular season ending Sunday, the Pistons three.

Jerry Sloan threw in 32 points to lead a second half Chicago rally that erased a 69-62 Detroit lead.”

The Bulls would indeed sew up that final playoff spot thanks to the young Sloan and veterans Bob Boozer and Guy Rodgers. The always superb St. Louis Hawks, however, would thrash Chicago in the postseason in a three-game opening round sweep. Not the sweetest of endings, but for an expansion team, that was quite successful to be bounced in the playoffs no matter what the fashion.

For Sloan this would just be the beginning of a long and lengthy career as “Mr. Bull”. In his 1st year as a Bull, Sloan was selected as an All-Star and would garner one more selection to that event in 1969. Even more importantly, though, Sloan’s reputation as a hellish defender would become well justified and cemented over the ensuing years. Making 6 All-Defensive teams, Sloan was the nightmare of any wing player who came his way, especially when he teamed with the demonic Norm Van Lier in the 1970s. Sloan’s 6’5″ strongly wiry and lanky frame made him perfect to harass the perimeter. Sadly, words are the only thing to really do Sloan’s defense justice since steals weren’t logged until 1974, at which point a 31-year old Sloan still captured 2.1 per game.

But the words, nonetheless, do Sloan’s defense adequate justice. Just search the Google news archives for “Jerry Sloan defense” and you’ll get a treasure trove of articles glowingly speaking of Sloan’s inspired, cagey and tireless defense. Although that defense never brought Chicago a title, it did lead the Bulls to a Golden Era of success in the early and mid 1970s with Van Lier, Bob Love, Bob Weiss, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls would secure four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

As for Sloan, he’d retire in the mid-1970s ranking 3rd in assists and 2nd in points for the Bulls franchise. Meanwhile he led the Bulls in categories typical for him: games played, minutes played, and, of course, personal fouls. Since then, only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have passed Sloan in those categories. On top of all this, he was the 1st Bull to have his number retired. All of the success, all of the defense, all of the tirades began with Sloan’s expansion outburst in 1966.

You really did need to hold Sloan back, the man was a loose cannon.

(as always, statistical information retrieved from basketball-reference.com)

The Lowdown: Rudy LaRusso

Years Active: 1960 – 1969
Regular Season Stats: 736 games, 33.3 MPG
15.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 43.1% FG, 76.7% FT
Postseason Stats: 93 games, 34.3 MPG
14.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 40.5% FG, 75.1% FT
Accolades: All-Defensive 2nd Team (1969), 4x All-Star (1963, ’66, ’68-’69)

NBA Photo Library/Getty Images
NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

At first glance, Rudy LaRusso hardly seems the athlete best equipped to intellectualize on any sport, including his own, basketball. There is something about his prognathous jaw and the occasional scowl on his big, shaggy face that tells you not to annoy him. Players claim that meeting him head to head on a basketball court is a little like playing a game of tag on the freeway during rush hour.

- Via Brave Words From A Hawk And A Warrior

Rudy LaRusso was certainly an intellectual having graduated from Ivy League Dartmouth College in 1959. But he was also certainly worthy of that freeway description. LaRusso was one of the roughest, toughest players of the 1960s NBA. It was a  turbulent decade that practically framed his career. His first professional game was October 18, 1959 as a member of the Minneapolis Lakers and his last game was April 5, 1969 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In between these two games, LaRusso staked his claim as an instrumental piece in the story of the NBA during that decade. However, his instrumental role was always a supporting one. Needless to say, support staff aren’t always recognized for the pivotal roles they play. LaRusso is no exception to that. Appreciated by the few, overlooked and unknown to the masses, this is the wild ride of the rowdy career Rudy LaRusso.

Continue reading

The Lowdown: Robert Pack

Years Active: 1992 – 2004
Regular Season Stats: 552 games, 20.8 mpg
8.9 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, 42.5% FG, 78.7% FT
Postseason Stats: 33 games, 13.2 mpg
5.2 ppg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 rpg, 0.7 spg, 38.3% FG, 73% FT

Hoopedia

Robert Pack is the quintessential “you had to have been there” player.

He played 13 seasons, but only appeared in half of the possible games due to injury or not being actively rostered by an NBA franchise. From 1995 to 1997, the point guard put up 14.5 points, 7.7 assists, and 1.7 steals a game, but a bevvy of injuries limited him to 127 games throughout those 3 seasons, the supposed peak of his career.

He appeared in the playoffs in 4 different seasons but was basically a non-factor in three of them for the Mavericks, Blazers, and Hornets. The rest of the squads he appered on were moribund: the late-90s Mavericks, the mid-90s Bullets and Nets. If you haven’t noticed yet, Pack never stuck with one team too long either.

So what’s the fuss? You had to have been there!

Robert Pack was absolutely sensational as the point guard for the Denver Nuggets from the 1992-93 season through the 1994-95 season. This guy was listed at 6’2″ but they must have counted his dazzling high-top fade in the measurement. His on-court speed though was not to be denied. Pack could move up and down the court in a flash. It’s the reason why Denver was so insistent on prying him from the Portland Trail Blzaers in the summer of 1992:

Pack yesterday got his first practice with the team, and with it his first look at the team’s Reader’s Digest playbook. What Issel wants to see from Pack isn’t how he runs plays, though. It is how he runs. Pack’s strength is getting the ball upcourt quickly, an ideal trait for Issel’s passing-game offense.

“It’s important, in the passing game, that you get down and get into it before the defenses get a chance to set,” [Denver coach Dan] Issel said. “If you have a point guard who just sort of hammers the ball and brings it down slow, and you let a good defense like Chicago get set, it’s going to be hard to score against it. That’s why we shot 38 percent against the Bulls.”

- Mike Monroe, Denver Post, October 26, 1992

Coach Issel certainly didn’t have to worry about Pack holding up the pace. In fact, the Nuggets were 3rd in the league in pace during the 1992-93 season as Pack and Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf burned the hardwood rubber. Pack in particular was prone not only to set up teammates for baskets but to also do what you had to have been there to see… to do that thing that made him so special…

Pack could jump out the gym and throw down! Sure he really only had one dunk, but when it was consistently being thrown down on men a foot taller than him, it was truly spectacular. The Nuggets though only had a 36-46 record and thus missed the playoffs. The next season, though, Robert Pack and the Nuggets would give not only spectacular final scores, but a stupendous playoff run.

The Nuggets went 42-40 in the 1994 season and snuck into the 8th seed against the Seattle SuperSonics.Falling behind 2-0, the Nuggets came back to force a 5th and deciding game in Seattle. Pack, having played putrid in the previous four games, delivered a stellar performance of 23 points (8-15 FG, 3-5 3PT, 4-4 FT) off the bench. Brian Williams also had a great game off the bench with 17 points and 19 rebounds. The Nuggets behind this bench duo and Dikembe Mutombo upset the #1 seed Sonics. The Nuggets nearly repeated this comeback feet in the 2nd round as they fell behind 3-0 against Utah and forced a Game 7. But the bid fell short.

The 1994-95 season was unfortunately Pack’s apex. He finally gained a starting spot in the Denver lineup but in February of that season hurt his knee ultimately requiring surgery. Traded to Washington the following offseason, Pack never again enjoyed a healthy season as a litany of leg injuries hampered his career.

But believe me, watching this man play in the Mile High City was a thrill a moment that my words can’t do justice to. Even YouTube clips can sort of, but not completely, get the point across.

To fully get the joy of watching Robert Pack’s mid-1990s play, well, YOU HAD TO HAVE BEEN THERE!

And I’m glad I was.

Forgotten Warriors: Joe Graboski

Years Active: 1949 – 1962
Regular Season Stats: 845 games, 30.5 mpg
11.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 35.2% FG, 70% FT
Playoff Stats: 40 games, 25.8 mpg
9.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 32.8% FG, 73.5% FT
Accolades: NBA Champion (1956)

Joe Graboski (fanbase.com)

Back in 1995, Kevin Garnett kicked off the modern-day craze for high school hoopsters which culminated in the drafting of Dwight Howard. Thereafter, the age restriction was instituted and the heyday of 18-year old NBA players was over. Of course, astute observers back in 1995 were quick to note that Garnett was kicking off a modern-day craze. Two decades earlier, Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone had provided a brief breach in the NBA’s college firewall.

But if you want to go back, I mean waaaaay back, into time you’ll see that in the NBA’s very beginning it was using straight-from-high-school players. Tony Kappen and Connie Simmons may have been first, but most prominent was Joe Graboski from Chicago, Illinois. Unlike most players who’ve subsequently done the HS to NBA jump, Graboski had no spectacular talent that rendered college useless. Instead, Graboski had dropped out of Tuley High School and did some time playing in the industrial leagues common in urban areas at the time.

The 17-year old Graboski eventually got a job as a the ball boy for the BAA’s Chicago Stags. At 6’7″, Graboski was a bit hard to miss and after watching him take some shots, John Sbarbaro, president of the Stags, inquired over whether Graboski might consider joining a local university and after some polishing he might join the Stags. Graboski informed Sbarbaro of his academic situation and the Stags president immediately signed him to a deal.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading