INDIANAPOLIS – Nancy Leonard is cautious. She doesn’t want to mention the names of those on the Indiana Pacers board in 1978, many said “they had never held a basketball in their hands in their life”.
They were successful local businessmen, some were tennis players, but none of those eight board members knew about basketball like her late husband Bobby “Slick” Leonard, says Nancy.
Slick was the team’s coach and general manager in 1978, when the Pacers exchanged their No. 1 with Portland for guard Johnny Davis and the No. 3 in the NBA draft. As is now known, the Pacers did not use third pick to take Larry Bird, but Rick Robey of Kentucky. Bird went to the Celtics with the sixth pick.
“It was a disaster,” Nancy, 90, said from her Carmel home on Tuesday. “I’ll never forget a second of that draft and that’s something I haven’t talked about publicly.”
He hasn’t spoken publicly about what some are calling one of the biggest Pacers mistakes in NBA draft history and how it happened. Nancy was the team’s assistant general manager at the time
Prior to the June draft, Slick, Nancy, Pacers coaches and scouts had traveled to Terre Haute five or six times to see Bird in his junior season at Indiana State.
“Even for me, I couldn’t believe his talent,” Nancy said. “It was just perfect.”
When the team found out that Bird was going to be in the draft, and even knowing they wouldn’t catch him for a year as he returned to play his senior season in college, Slick and Nancy knew they still had to catch him.
Bird would be the next Indiana Pacer. There were no questions, Nancy said. Until she went to the council.
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“It’s a miracle that he didn’t start crying”
Nancy was sent to the Pacers board meeting to tell the men Slick wanted to enlist.
“I thought everyone would understand,” he said.
Nancy told the board that extensive research and scouting had been conducted.
“We’ve really checked everyone in the United States,” he told the board. “Bob knew what Bird would mean to the team. We would have someone who would really lift the team. We want Larry Bird.”
Nancy will never forget the answer she received.
“They said, ‘Well, we can’t do that,'” recalls Nancy. “I said, ‘Why?’
“We will never be able to get the money and we will lose it,” the board told her. At the time, the Pacers were in financial trouble. The year before, the Leonards had held a telethon to save the team from folding in Indianapolis.
Nancy tried to convince the board that Bird was good enough to take the risk, that the money would be poured out of the subscription sales if the Pacers enlisted him. And even if the Pacers ultimately failed to put together the money they needed to sign Bird, they would be able to trade him for two really good players.
“I couldn’t show them how precious it was,” he said. “We could have had a wonderful gold coin in the palm of our hands.” The board was not influenced. Instead, Nancy said, “They were panicking.”
Then a council member gave Nancy what she calls an incredible reason why she wanted the Pacers to take.
“One guy said, ‘Well, my daughter is going to Kentucky and said there’s a player there as good as Larry Bird. It’s Rick Robey,'” Nancy said. “It’s a miracle that he didn’t start crying. I knew how huge it was to lose Larry. It was so great.”
“We gave Bird”
On that 1978 draft night, when Robey was heralded as the Pacers’ pick, the Celtics were shocked and then broke out.
“Boston celebrated just then. They started screaming, screaming and clapping,” Nancy said. “I thought, ‘We just ruined the franchise.'”
But for Bird, he admits, he was going on a perfect team.
“Larry couldn’t have gotten a better situation for his career,” Nancy said. “He joined a veteran team that Bill Russell once had. That was a team ready waiting for a special discovery and it was Larry. He made his career out of him.”
As for Robey, “he was nowhere near Larry Bird’s talent,” Nancy said. The Pacers traded Robey for Boston during his rookie season for former Pacer Billy Knight.
“We gave Bird away,” he said. “We have completely betrayed him.”
Bird quietly and not so quietly made sure the Pacers never forget him.
When Bird retired from the NBA in 1992 after an illustrious and legendary career with the Celtics, he appeared to be punching the guy the Pacers had chosen in his place.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to be a great player in this league,” Bird said in an Indianapolis Star article in August 1992 when he retired. “The thing is, I had Rick Robey protecting me, so I probably thought I’d be a little better than I really was.”
During Bird’s career in the NBA, he took the insult on the pitch. He and his Boston team punched the Pacers almost every time they met them, going 32-5 against the Pacers over a span of six years in the 1980s.
Bird became a great friend of Slick, the Pacers coach and team president, but when he played against them he was ruthless.
“When I first came here (as an assistant manager in 1984) when we were trying to build a team, I watched Larry play and I knew he wasn’t going to … lose to us,” then General Pacers said manager Donnie Walsh when Bird retired. “There was nothing you could do. He Physically he could take the lead and, mentally, on the bench he was always one step ahead of us. It was the most helpless feeling.”
Steve Brunner wrote about Bird’s “grudge” against the Pacers on Indianapolis News when he retired.
“Bird has embarked on a legendary career with the Celtics, winning more playoff games in a year than the Pacers in their NBA existence,” he wrote. “Despite the disparity between the franchises, Bird seemed to take special pleasure in beating the home state team that allowed him to escape.”
“It was about finances”
To be fair, the Pacers board hadn’t seen the 1979 Season Bird, the Bird that played in the NCAA title match against Michigan State’s Magic Johnson, when they stabbed him in 1978.
The draft took place before Bird’s senior season at Indiana State. He had played four years of college, which made him eligible for the junior draft, but he wanted to play his last season at Indiana State.
The struggling Pacers needed a player fast, and the team couldn’t wait to see if they would have enough money to get Bird under contract a year later.
“At the time, Bird’s stock as a prospect pro was not universally accepted as blue-chip,” the Indianapolis News wrote. “So the Pacers went with Robey. Red Auerbach and the Celtics spent sixth pick on Bird. Professional basketball has never been the same again.”
In the newspapers of the time, Slick was politically correct, never revealing his advice as the reason why the Pacers took out Bird.
“From day one, we have been operating on a tight budget,” he told reporters. “It was about finances.”
When Bird retired in 1992, Brunner asked Walsh what it would be, what could have happened if the Pacers had taken Bird.
“Where would we be?” Walsh said. “You can only guess. In hindsight, those things always seem obvious. At the moment, it’s never that obvious.”
“If anything, what you have to do is give Red Auerbach credit for having the foresight to make that choice a year in advance.”
And, Nancy says, give the Pacers a black mark for ignoring it.
“Bird was in the draft, oh my God, he was right there for us to catch,” he said. “And I have to live with it.”
This article originally appeared in Indianapolis Star: Larry Bird: In the 1978 NBA draft, Pacers gave up Bird for Rick Robey.