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Damien Henderson, USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS — Nancy Leonard is cautious. She doesn’t want to name names of those on the Indiana Pacers board back in 1978, many she said “had never held a basketball in their hands in their lives.”
They were successful local businessmen, some were tennis players, but none of those eight board members knew basketball like her late husband Bobby “Slick” Leonard, Nancy says.
Slick was the team’s coach and general manager in 1978 when the Pacers traded their No. 1 pick to Portland for guard Johnny Davis and the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. As it’s well known now, the Pacers didn’t use the third pick to take Larry Bird, but Kentucky’s Rick Robey. Bird went to the Celtics with the sixth pick.
“It was a disaster,” Nancy, 90, said from her Carmel home Tuesday. “I will never forget one second of that draft and this is something I haven’t really talked publicly about.”
She hasn’t talked publicly about what some call 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
Leading up to that June draft, Slick, Nancy, Pacers coaches and scouts had gone to Terre Haute five or six times to watch Bird in his junior season at Indiana State.
“Even for me to see it, I couldn’t believe his talent,” Nancy said. “He was just perfect.”
When the team found out Bird was going to be in the draft, and even knowing they wouldn’t get him for a year as he was going back to play his senior season of college, Slick and Nancy knew they still had to take him.
Bird would be the next Indiana Pacer. There was zero question, Nancy said. Until she went to the board.
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‘It’s a wonder I didn’t start crying’
Nancy was sent to the Pacers board meeting to tell the men who Slick wanted to draft.
“I thought they would all understand,” she said.
Nancy told the board that there had been exhaustive research and scouting done.
“We’ve really checked out everybody in the United States,” she told the board. “Bob knew what Bird would mean for the team. We would have a person who would really lift the team up. We want Larry Bird.”
Nancy will never forget the response she got.
“They said, ‘Well, we can’t do that,'” Nancy recalls. I said, ‘Why?’
“We’ll never be able to get the money and we’ll lose him,” the board told her. At the time, the Pacers were in financial straits. 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 money would pour in from season ticket sales if the Pacers drafted him. And even if the Pacers ultimately couldn’t get the money together they needed to sign Bird, they would be able to trade him for two really good players.
“I couldn’t make them see how valuable he was,” she said. “We could have had a wonderful gold coin in the palm of our hands.” The board wasn’t swayed. Instead, Nancy said, “They were panicked.”
Then one board member gave Nancy what she calls an unbelievable reason for who he wanted the Pacers to take.
“One guy said, ‘Well my daughter is going to Kentucky and she said there’s a player there every bit as good as Larry Bird. It is Rick Robey,'” Nancy said. “It’s a wonder I didn’t start crying. I knew what a huge thing this was to lose Larry. This was so huge.”
‘We gave Bird away’
On that draft night in 1978, when Robey was announced as the Pacers’ pick, the Celtics were shocked and then erupted.
“Boston had a celebration right then. They started screaming and yelling and clapping,” Nancy said. “I thought, ‘We just ruined the franchise.'”
But for Bird, she admits, he was going to a perfect team.
“Larry could not have gotten any better situation for his career,” Nancy said. “He stepped into a veteran team that once had Bill Russell. That was a ready-made team waiting for one special find and it was Larry. It made his career.”
As for Robey, “he wasn’t anywhere near Larry Bird’s talent,” Nancy said. The Pacers traded Robey to Boston during his rookie season for former Pacer Billy Knight.
“We gave Bird away,” she said. “We totally gave him away.”
Bird quietly and not so quietly made sure the Pacers never forgot that.
When Bird retired from the NBA in 1992 after an illustrious, legendary career with the Celtics, he seemed to take a jab at the guy the Pacers had picked instead of him.
“It didn’t take me very long to realize 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 about it, I had Rick Robey guarding me, so I probably thought I was going to be a little bit better than I really was.”
Throughout Bird’s NBA career, he took the snub to the court. He and his Boston team pummeled the Pacers almost every time they met them — going 32-5 against the Pacers in a six-year span in the 1980s.
Bird went on to become great friends with Slick, coach of the Pacers and president of the team But when he was playing against them, he was ruthless.
“When I first came here (as an assistant coach in 1984) when we were trying to build a team, I would watch Larry play and I’d know he wasn’t going to … lose to us,” then Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh said when Bird retired. “There was nothing you could do. Physically he could take over and, mentally, he was always one step ahead of us on the bench. It was the most helpless feeling.”
Steve Brunner wrote of Bird’s “grudge” against the Pacers in the Indianapolis News when he retired.
“Bird went on to a storied career with the Celtics, winning more playoff games in a year than the Pacers have in their NBA existence,” he wrote. “Despite the disparity between the franchises, Bird seemed to take special delight in beating the home state team that let him get away.”
‘It came down to finances’
To be fair, the Pacers’ board hadn’t seen the Bird of the 1979 season, the Bird who played in the NCAA title game against Michigan State’s Magic Johnson, when they passed on 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 draft as a junior, but he wanted to play his final season at Indiana State.
The struggling Pacers needed a player quickly and the team couldn’t wait around to see if it would have enough money to get Bird under contract a year later.
“At that time, Bird’s stock as a pro prospect was not universally accepted as blue-chip,” the Indianapolis News wrote. “So the Pacers went with Robey. Red Auerbach and the Celtics spent the sixth pick on Bird. Professional basketball was never again the same.”
In newspapers at the time, Slick was politically correct, never outing his board as the reason the Pacers passed on Bird.
“Since day 1, we’ve been operating on a shoestring budget,” he told reporters. “It came down to finances.”
When Bird retired in 1992, Brunner asked Walsh what would have been, what might have happened had the Pacers taken Bird.
“Where would we be?” Walsh said. “You can only guess. In hindsight, those things always seem obvious. At the time, it’s never that obvious.”
“If anything what you have to do is give Red Auerbach credit for having the foresight to make that pick one year ahead of time.”
And, Nancy says, give the Pacers a black mark for passing him up.
“Bird was at the draft, oh my gosh, he was right there for us to take,” she said. “And I have to live with that.”