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.

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Walt Bellamy

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I’ve written before about the absurdity that Walt Bellamy’s career faced. Unfairly maligned for having his scoring average drop over the first seven seasons of his career, the circumstances of Bellamy’s career should be taken into account.

As a rookie in 1962 Bellamy was absolutely fantastic, averaging 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds, and 51.6% shooting from the field. That field goal percentage was the highest yet in NBA history. Those averages are all the more remarkable when you consider just how awful the Chicago Packers were that season. As the NBA’s first expansion team in a decade, they were the whipping post of teams around the league who all had at least two all-star caliber players.

Over the next three seasons, Bellamy continued with the Packers franchise, which moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets in 1963. The club would improve slightly, but would for the most part be in chaotic shambles for years. To illustrate the point, Bellamy played for five different coaches in his 4+ seasons with the franchise. Mercifully for Bellamy, he was traded to the New York Knicks just a few games into the 1965-66 season.

Teaming with Willis Reed to form a devastating one-two punch in the frontcourt, in 1967 Bellamy was able to help pull the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 1959. The next year, New York achieved its first winning record since that 1959 season, too.

The team was clearly benefiting from Bellamy’s stern defense and rebounding. His offense had simmered down to the 19-point range, but on a team becoming stacked with players like Reed, Dick Van Arsdale, Dick Barnett, and Cazzie Russell, not one single super scorer was needed. What the Knicks were lacking most of these years was a true point guard, and a resolution to the Bellamy-Reed problem.

The point guard solution would come via Walt Frazier‘s arrival in the 1967-68 season, but that didn’t fix up the fact that Bellamy was playing center and Willis Reed was stuck at power forward. The two men got along, but Knicks management decided that a true power forward was needed and that the older center in Bellamy would be the center sacrificed.

Midway through the 1968-69 season, Bells was sent to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere. The trade turned the Knicks from a good team to a title contender. Bellamy languished in Detroit for one unfortunate season before being shipped to Atlanta, where he finally seemed to find some basketball peace.

For the last four years of his career, he left the scoring duties to Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson, and focused on what the team sorely needed: defense and rebounding. Those Hawks clubs would make the postseason three times under this stellar trio before Bellamy retired in 1974.

By that point, the boundless athleticism of his early days was gone. He once was able to perform some of the most rim-shaking dunks the NBA had yet seen, including one where he glided baseline and put in a reverse slam. He was always tremendously strong and imposing, standing a shade under 7’0″. None of that made him the greatest center of his era, but he’s certainly more than just a big man who put up big numbers. He is one of just of several players throughout NBA history to languish in unfortunate circumstances, like a Mitch Richmond, despite personal greatness.

In the end, Walt Bellamy’s career is one that reminds us that basketball is a team sport. No one player or person, even a Hall of Famer, can dictate a franchise’s ultimate course.

Seasons Played: 1962 – 1974

Accolades

NBA -
Rookie of the Year (1962)
4x All-Star (1962-’65)

Statistics

NBA - 1043 Games
20.1 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 51.6% FG, 63.2% FT
FG% Leader (1962)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1962 – 1974)
4th Points,  20th PPG,
3rd FTs Made
5th FGs Made, 3rd FG%
2nd Rebounds, 10th RPG
19th Assists
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

The Misunderstood Journey of Walt Bellamy

 

Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy had one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NBA history. His 31.6 points per game remain the 2nd-highest ever for a rookie behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 in 1960. His rookie rebounding average of 19.0 is behind only Wilt’s 27.0 in 1960 and Bill Russell’s 19.6 in 1957. His field goal percentage of .519 was the highest a player had ever shot from the field up to that point in the NBA. He was big, strong, agile, durable and ran a pick-and-roll perhaps better than any center of his era.

He could go toe-to-toe with the Big Dipper:

Wilt Chamebrlain won a personal scoring duel with Chicago rookie Walt Bellamy in the opener [of a double header] as the Philadelphia Warriors topped the Chicago Packers, 122-108.

Chamberlain scored 55 points. Bellamy dropped in 47.

He could throttle the Russell-led Celtics defense:

Walt Bellamy scored 35 points and grabbed 30 rebounds Wednesday night to lead the Packers to a 103-90 triumph over the Boston Celtics to break a seven game losing streak.

But what he couldn’t do was escape the shadow cast by his spectacular debut season.

Bellamy was the 1st pick of the NBA draft in 1961 taken by the expansion Chicago Packers. As is typical of an expansion franchise, the team stunk. They finished with 18 wins and it’s a miracle they got that many. Bellamy was the only above average player on the team. This explains why he shot a gaudy 24 field goals a game. Given the that defenses didn’t have to worry about his teammates it’s amazing Bellamy connected on a then-record 51.9% of his shots.

This “opportunity” to score at-will and necessarily dominate the glass to the tune of almost 20 boards a night would come to haunt Bellamy. As he slowly found better teammates in his career, his averages predictably fell as he needed to handle less of the burden. His scoring average fell through the years as he teamed with better teammates and the Bullets as a team improved.

Just compare these rosters. I’ve given you Bellamy’s top 5 teammates, who played at least 1000 minutes, based on player efficiency rating (PER) for each season he was with the Chicago/Baltimore franchise.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – Andy Johnson (13.6), Slick Leonard (12.2), Charlie Tyra (10.8), Horace Walker (10.3), Ralph Davis (9.9)

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – Terry Dischinger (20.8), Charlie Hardnett (16.2), Don Nelson (13.9), Si Green (11.4), Mel Nowell (10.5)

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – Terry Dischinger (19.6), Gus Johnson (16.3), Rod Thorn (12.9), Don Kojis (12.6), Si Green (11.6)

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – Bailey Howell (18.9), Gus Johnson (16.6), Don Ohl (13.5), Kevin Loughery (11.6), Si Green (11.6)

Now let’s check back with Walter’s PER, scoring, rebounding and shooting average for these seasons.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – 26.3 PER, 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 51.9% FG

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – 24.9 PER, 27.9 ppg, 16.4 rpg, 52.7% FG

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – 23.3 PER, 27.0 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 51.3% FG

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – 21.7 PER, 24.8 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 50.9% FG

So as the teammates improved, Walter’s numbers appropriately declined. It’s some perverse culture of hero ball that leads people to think Bellamy should have stymied the following players their chance to shine:

Gus Johnson – 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, Hall of Famer

Don Ohl – 5x All-Star

Terry Dischinger – 3x All-Star, 1963 Rookie of the Year

Bailey Howell – 6x All-Star, 1x All-NBA, Hall of Famer

Bellamy looking around and giving in to some “alpha male” bullocks would have been nonsense. It would actually be antithetical to his nature. He was a thoughtful, introverted individual interested in politics and spent his free time registering African-Americans to vote in the 1960s. And really, a player averaging at least 24.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in all these seasons getting a bad rap is absurd. His quiet nature was misunderstood as apathy but couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon his retirement he scored over 20,000 points and grabbed over 14,000 rebounds but it was the 38,940 minutes played and only 12 games missed in a 13-year career that gave him the most pride (and notice his deferential tone):

“I look back on the number of coaches I had who permitted me to log the sixth most minutes [as of his retirement in 1975] of all time. The statistic I treasure the most is my playing time.”

By 1965, the Bullets made the playoffs, upset the St. Louis Hawks in the 1st round and then gave the Los Angeles Lakers a tussle in the Western Division Finals ultimately losing 4 games to 2. Then Bellamy was traded to the New York Knicks where he tagged-team at center with a young Willis Reed. But the Knicks were a mediocre-at-best team. They had finished in last place 9 of the previous 10 seasons in the Eastern Division. However, Reed and Bellamy got the team to the playoffs twice in their 3 seasons together (1966-68), including the 1st winning season for New York since 1959.

But eventually one center had to go and it was the older Bellamy, shipped to Detroit for power forward Dave DeBusschere . The Knicks went on to win 2 titles and Bellamy continued to accrue a “can’t win” label, which overlooks the emergence of youngsters Walt Frazier, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley for those Knicks teams concurrently with the DeBusschere trade.

The “can’t win” label became nearly branded on Bells after Detroit parted with him after just a season and sent him to Atlanta. But with the Hawks, Bellamy would find some redemption in the twilight of his career as the defensive and rebounding anchor for a team that made four straight postseasons and featured flashy Pete Maravich and smooth Lou Hudson.

But that rookie season in 1962, Bellamy never could shake it. There’s just something off-putting seeing a player who had 13 seasons rack up his career high in PPG and RPG in his rookie year. And not just career highs, but staggering career highs. You look at his player card or a table of his career stats and it just looks like a long-steady decline. But this is why you move beyond the snapshot and take in the full view.

Athletes in the 1960s did not determine their lot in pro sports, they merely made the best of it

Maybe if he had fell into a better situation, on a team more loaded early in his career, he would have had a more “natural” career arc. The rookie who delivers the slight edge to veteran team to make noise in the playoffs. Then as the vets slough off, he emerges as the team’s best player and either a) keeps the good times rolling or b) suffers a martyr’s death trying to save the franchise.

Chamberlain parachuted into Philadelphia in 1960, a team just 4 years removed from a title and still with Hall of Famers and all-stars abounding. Russell arrived in Boston in 1957. No title yet for the Celtics, but they had Cousy and Sharman and Heinsohn. Nate Thurmond arrived with the Warriors in 1964, lost in the Finals that year, kind of stunk when Chamberlain left and then got Rick Barry and another Finals appearance.

Walt Bellamy was the great center of his era with the bad fortune of being taken by the 1st expansion team in a decade and had 5 different coaches in his first 5 years in the league.

That’s a particularly bad lot, but Bells certainly made the best of it.

Especially in that magnificent rookie season.