Indianapolis – Nancy Leonard is careful. She doesn’t want to name those on the Indiana Pacers board in 1978, many of whom she said “never held a basketball in their hands in their lives.”
Nancy says they were successful local businessmen, some of whom were tennis players, but none of the eight board members knew basketball as well as her late husband, Bobby “Slick” Leonard.
Slick was the team’s coach and general manager in 1978 when the Pacers replaced their first-choice Portlanders for goalkeeper Jonny Davis and the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. As it is now known, the Pacers did not use the third option to take Larry Bird, but Rick Ruby in Kentucky. Bird went to the Celtics with the sixth pick.
“It was a disaster,” Nancy, 90, said from her home in Carmel on Tuesday. “I’ll never forget a second of that draft and that’s something I haven’t really talked about publicly.”
She hasn’t spoken publicly about what some are calling one of the Pacers’ biggest mistakes in NBA draft history and how it came to be. Nancy was the team’s assistant general manager at the time
In the lead-up to this June draft, Slick’s coaches and scouts, Nancy, and the Pacers went to Terre Haute five or six times to see Bird in his junior season in Indiana.
“Even to me, I couldn’t believe his talent,” Nancy said. “It was perfect.”
When the team found out that Bird would be in the draft, and even knowing they wouldn’t have him for a year as he was going back to play his first season in college, Slick and Nancy knew they still had to take him.
Altaïr will be the next Indiana Pacer. Nancy said there was no question. So I went to the blackboard.
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“It’s surprising I didn’t start crying”
Nancy was sent to the Pacers board meeting to tell the men Slick wanted to draft.
“I thought they would all understand,” she said.
Nancy told the board that there had been extensive research and exploration that had been done.
“We’ve really screened everyone in the United States,” she told the board. “Bob knew what Bird would mean to the team. We’d have someone who would really lift the team. We want Larry Bird.”
Nancy will never forget the response she got.
“They said, OK, we can’t do that,” Nancy recalls. ‘I said why?’
The council told her, “We will not be able to get the money and we will not lose it.” At the time, the Pacers were in financial difficulty. The year before, Leonards had held a telethon to save the team from folding in Indianapolis.
Nancy tried to convince the board that Byrd was good enough to take the risk, and that money would flow from season ticket sales if the Pacers drafted him. And even if the Pacers eventually can’t raise the money they needed to sign Bird, they’ll be able to trade him in for two really good players.
“I couldn’t make them see how valuable it was,” she said. “We could have had a great gold coin in the palm of our hands.” The board did not sway. Instead, Nancy said, “They panicked.”
Then one of the board members gave Nancy what she described as an unreasonable reason for wanting to be taken on by the Pacers.
“Someone said, ‘Well, my daughter is going to Kentucky and she said there’s a good player like Larry Bird,'” Nancy said. It’s Rick Ruby.” “It’s a wonder I didn’t start crying. I knew what a huge thing it was to lose Larry. This was so huge.”
“Give Us Bird”
On that 1978 draft night, when Robbie was announced as the Pacers’ pick, the Celtics were shocked and then erupted.
“Boston was partying at the time,” Nancy said. “They started screaming and screaming and clapping.” I thought, ‘We screwed up the franchise. “
But for Bird, she admits, he was going to make a perfect team.
“Larry could not have improved in his career,” Nancy said. “He joined a veteran team that once had Bill Russell. This was a ready squad waiting for one special discovery and it was Larry. He made his career.”
As for Robbie, “he was nowhere near as talented as Larry Bird,” Nancy said. The Pacers traded Robbie for Boston during the junior season with former Pacer Billy Knight.
“We gave up on Baird,” she said. “We abandoned him completely.”
Quietly and calmly, Byrd made sure the Pacers would never forget it.
When Bird retired from the NBA in 1992 after a illustrious, legendary career with the Celtics, he seemed to be throwing a blow at the man the Pacers picked in his stead.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I was going to be a great player in this league,” Bird said in the Indianapolis Star article in August 1992 when he retired. “The thing about it, I had Rick Ruby guarding me, so I probably thought I’d be a little better than I already was.”
Throughout Bird’s NBA career, he took disdain to court. He and his Boston team hit the Pacers almost every time they met—they went 32-5 against the Pacers in a six-year span in the ’80s.
Bird became great friends with Slick, the Pacers’ coach and head coach, but when he was playing against them, he was tough.
“When I first came here (as assistant coach in 1984) when we were trying to build a team, I was watching Larry play and I knew he wasn’t going to lose to us,” then General Pacers manager Donnie Walsh said when Bird retired. “There was nothing you could do. Physically he could take over, mentally, he was always one step ahead of us off the bench. It was a feeling of powerlessness.”
Steve Bronner wrote about Baird’s “grum” against the Pacers in the Indianapolis News when he retired.
“Byrd continued his career with the Celtics, winning more playoffs in a year than the Pacers had in their NBA presence,” he wrote. “Despite the discrepancy between the franchises, Bird seemed to be particularly pleased with the victory over the state team that allowed him to get away.”
‘It’s about financial resources’
To be fair, the Pacers’ board didn’t see the 1979 season Flyer, the jumper who played in the NCAA title match against Michigan State’s Magic Johnson, when he passed away in 1978.
The draft took place before Baird’s season in Indiana. He had played four years in college, which would qualify him to join the draft as a rookie, but he wanted to play his final season at Indiana State.
The struggling Pacers needed a player quickly and the team couldn’t wait to see if they had enough money to get Bird on contract a year later.
“At the time, Bird’s stock as a potential professional was not universally accepted as stellar,” the Indianapolis News wrote. “So the Pacers went with Robbie. Reed Auerbach and the Celtics spent the sixth pick on Bird. Pro basketball has never been the same again.”
In the newspapers of the time, Slick was politically correct, never getting off his board as the reason for Pacers Bird’s death.
“Since day one, we have been working on a tight budget,” he told reporters. “It’s about financial resources.”
When Baird retired in 1992, Brunner asked Walsh what it would have been, and what would have happened if Pacers had taken Baird.
“Where could we be?” Walsh said. “You can only guess. In hindsight, these things always seem obvious. At the time, it was never so obvious.”
“If what you have to do is give Red Auerbach credit for having the foresight to make that choice one year in advance.”
They gave the Pacers a black mark to miss them, Nancy says.
“Bird was in the draft, oh my goodness, he was there for us to take,” she said. “I have to live with that.”