‘We gave Bird away:’ Nancy Leonard, wife of former Pacers owner, reveals why Indiana didn’t draft Larry Bird in 1978

‘We gave Bird away:’ Nancy Leonard, wife of former Pacers owner, reveals why Indiana didn’t draft Larry Bird in 1978

INDIANAPOLIS — Nancy Leonard is cautious. She declined to name those who served on the Indiana Pacers board in 1978, many of whom she said had “never held a basketball in their hands in their lives.”

They were successful local businessmen, some of whom 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 is now known, the Pacers did not use the third pick to take down Larry Bird, but Rick Robey of Kentucky. Bird went to the Celtics with the sixth pick.

“It was a disaster,” Nancy, 90, said Tuesday from her Carmel home. “I’ll never forget a second of that concept and this is something I haven’t really talked about in public.”

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 assistant general manager of the team at the time

Nancy Leonard is featured in a video program celebrating the life of her husband, Indiana Pacers legend Bobby

Nancy Leonard is featured in a video program celebrating the life of her husband, Indiana Pacers legend Bobby “Slick” Leonard on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Leading up to that June draft, the Slick, Nancy, Pacers coaches and scouts had gone to Terre Haute five or six times to watch Bird during 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 that Bird would be in the draft, and even knowing they wouldn’t get him for a year because he was going back to play his final season of college, Slick and Nancy knew they were going to miss him. always had to take.

Bird would be the next Indiana Pacer. There was zero demand, Nancy said. Until she went to the board.

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‘It’s a miracle I didn’t start crying’

Nancy was sent to the Pacers board meeting to tell the men who wanted to draft Slick.

“I thought they would all understand,” she said.

Nancy told the board that extensive research and scouting had been done.

“We really checked everyone in the United States,” she told the board. “Bob knew what Bird would mean to the team. We would have someone who would really take the team to the next level. We want Larry Bird.”

Nancy will never forget the answer she got.

“They said, ‘Well, we can’t do that,'” Nancy recalls. “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 money would pour in from season ticket sales if the Pacers hired him. And even if in the end the Pacers couldn’t raise the money they needed to sign Bird, they could trade him for two really good players.

“I couldn’t show them how valuable he was,” she said. “We could have had a beautiful gold coin in the palm of our hands.” The board was not tilted. Instead, Nancy said, “They were panicking.”

Rick Robey with Pacers coach Slick Leonard in 1978 after the team won Robey with his third overall pick in the NBA draft.

Rick Robey with Pacers coach Slick Leonard in 1978 after the team won Robey with his third overall pick in the NBA draft.

Then a board member gave Nancy what she calls an incredible reason why he wanted to hire the Pacers.

“A man said, ‘Well, my daughter is going to Kentucky and she said there’s a player there who’s as good as Larry Bird. It’s Rick Robey,'” said Nancy. “It’s a miracle 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 was having a party then. They started yelling and yelling and clapping,” Nancy said. “I thought, ‘We just ruined the franchise.'”

But for Bird, she admits, he went on to make a perfect team.

“Larry couldn’t have been in a better situation for his career,” said Nancy. “He got on a veteran team that once had Bill Russell. That was a ready-made team waiting for a special find and it was Larry. It made his career.”

As for Robey, “he didn’t come close to 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 gave it away completely.”

Bird quiet and not so quiet made sure the Pacers never forgot that.

Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, right, passes after driving from the baseline on Indiana Pacers forward Mike Bantom, left, during the first stint of their NBA game in Indianapolis, March 6, 1981. (AP Photo/AB)

Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, right, passes after driving from the baseline on Indiana Pacers forward Mike Bantom, left, during the first stint of their NBA game in Indianapolis, March 6, 1981. (AP Photo/AB)

When Bird retired from the NBA in 1992 after an illustrious, storied career with the Celtics, he seemed to take a jab at the man the Pacers had chosen instead of him.

“It didn’t take me 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 point was Rick Robey was guarding me, so I probably thought I was going to get a little better than I actually was.”

Throughout Bird’s NBA career, he took the rejection to court. He and his Boston team beat the Pacers almost every time they met them — 32-5 against the Pacers in a six-year span in the 1980s.

Bird became close friends with Pacers coach and team president, Slick. But when he played 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 knew he wouldn’t… lose to us,” Pacers General said. manager Donnie Walsh when Bird retired. “You couldn’t do anything. 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 about Bird’s “resentment” against the Pacers in the Indianapolis News when he retired.

“Bird went on to have a storied career with the Celtics, winning more playoff games in a year than the Pacers in their NBA history,” he wrote. “Despite the disparity between the franchises, Bird seemed to take great pleasure in beating the home state team that let him escape.”

‘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 took him over in 1978.

The design took place before Bird’s senior season in the state of Indiana. He had played college for four years, which qualified him 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 to see if it would have enough money to sign Bird a year later.

“At that time, Bird’s share as a pro-prospect was not universally accepted as blue-chip,” wrote the Indianapolis News. “So the Pacers went with Robey. Red Auerbach and the Celtics gave Bird the sixth pick. Professional basketball was never the same.”

Former Indiana State basketball star Larry Bird displays his new Celtics uniform wearing the number 33, assisted by Celtics president Red Auerbach, left, at a press conference in Boston on Friday, June 8, 1979. The six-foot-tall Bird became the richest rookie in sports history when he signed a Celtics liaison asking for $3.25 million over five years.

Former Indiana State basketball star Larry Bird displays his new Celtics uniform wearing the number 33, assisted by Celtics president Red Auerbach, left, at a press conference in Boston on Friday, June 8, 1979. The six-foot-tall Bird became the richest rookie in sports history when he signed a Celtics liaison asking for $3.25 million over five years.

In the newspapers of the time, Slick was politically correct and never went off his plate as the reason the Pacers passed on Bird.

“Since day 1, we’ve been working on a shoestring budget,” he told reporters. “It came down to finances.”

When Bird retired in 1992, Brunner asked Walsh what would have happened, what would have happened if the Pacers had taken Bird.

“Where would we be?” said Waltz. “You can only guess. In retrospect, those things always seem obvious. At that moment it is never so obvious.’

“If there’s one thing you have to do, it’s 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 if they’ve left him.

“Bird was with the draft, oh my god, he was there for us to take,” she said. “And I have to live with that.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Larry Bird: In 1978 NBA draft Pacers handed Bird over to Rick Robey

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