Bobby "Slick" Leonard is an Indiana legend. He hit the winning free throws for the Hoosiers in the 1953 NCAA championship game against Kansas. After playing seven years in the NBA, he led the Indiana Pacers to three ABA championships as coach. He was the winningest coach in the ABA's nine-year history. Leonard joined the Pacers as a broadcaster in 1985. His "Boom, baby!" call on three-pointers became a personal trademark. In this excerpt of Boom, Baby! My Basketball Life in Indiana, Leonard writes about how his call became so popular.
After a couple of years the Pacers gave me a choice between doing TV or radio. I chose radio because you don’t have to look a certain way and you don’t have to go through all of the stuff TV puts you through. But they had to get it approved by Mark Boyle because he worked alone. Mark said, "Yeah, let's take a shot at it." The rest is history. It worked out great.
Mark and I were compatible right away. We got along great. He’s a real pro. He’s one of the best play-by-play announcers I’ve ever heard. He’s right on top of it all the time, and I just fit in. I’ll make a comment once in a while, but I’m not going to interrupt what he’s doing with the play-by-play. He got me going, and we’ve traveled together all of these years and have become good friends.
I think I talk mostly from a coaching perspective because that’s what I was. And I have an entirely different voice than he has. I’ve got a little southern twang in mine. We get a lot of comments from people, and they seem to be pretty satisfied with the combination.
People come up to me all the time. Sometimes they tell me something they remember me saying on the air, but they also tell me they remember things that happened when I was coaching the Pacers.
Probably the best comments that I get say, “You really identify with the common man." That’s important to me because most people can't. I don’t set myself up on a pedestal or anything in the broadcast booth. I could say hello and talk to anybody, and I'm sincere about it. That’s the way I coached, and that’s the way I broadcast. My players knew that. I always said you can fool somebody for a week, a month, or six months, but sooner or later they’re going to find you out if you haven’t done it the right way. Then it's over.
When I walk around the concourse before a game and see the fans, they yell to me, “How many 'Boom, Baby!’ calls are you going to do tonight?” I say, “I hope a bunch." "Boom, Baby!” really became popular with Reggie Miller. When Reggie got rolling and we were in the playoffs against the New York Knicks that time, that’s when it really hit. Reggie had that spectacular stretch at the end of the game when he scored eight points in like 11 seconds, and two of them were three-pointers. "Boom, Baby!” And "Boom, Baby!” again. That’s my favorite call in my broadcasting career, Reggie's explosion.
I remember in the 1990s during a playoff series when Nancy and I were driving to a Sunday afternoon playoff game. On the windows in a bank and other tall buildings in downtown Indianapolis, they had signs reading, “Boom, Baby!” It became very popular with everyone. I was a little bit surprised with how it took off. I know what it did for me when I was broadcasting. I’d get excited.
At first I didn't really know how it had caught on with other people, but then I went out and passed a yard here or a street there and the little kids were out shooting at the basket yelling, "Boom, Baby!" It's still alive. Reggie got into it. We'd be on the road getting on a bus after a game and he'd say, "How many 'Boom, babies!' did you give me tonight?"
I'd say to him that I thought I gave him a bunch. Reggie had an unbelievable number of game winners and when I knew the shot was a game winner and I knew it was going to be a three, I'd be ready and give him a “Boom! Boom! Boom!” It would be, "Boom, Baby! Boom! Boom! Boom!” And he knew about that. His friends must have told him because he wasn’t listening on the radio -- he was busy playing. So once in a while he would say, “Did you give me the 'Boom! Boom! Boom!?'"
It took off. There's no question about it. It’s still one of the best ones going today among announcers because I’ve heard some of the other ones and they can't touch "Boom, Baby!” There’s no question that one of the most exciting times of all was that day Reggie scored all of those points against the Knicks. I still call it the Miracle at Madison Square Garden.
That was such a spectacular run. He shocked them. One of those three-pointers, he had the ball inside the three-point line and he backed up beyond the line. It was right in front of Spike Lee who was trash talking. Reggie shocked New York, but he could do that. It seemed like he came up with the craziest games in New York.
One thing about being a full-time broadcaster with a professional sports team, especially the way the schedule is set up in the NBA, is that there is a lot of travel. Going back through my entire basketball career it was buses and trains and now it's chartered planes. It's so different than the way it was. Your luggage is all handled for you. It’s such a soft way to travel. You're staying at the top hotels, the Ritz Carltons. It got better over a 20-year period.
It was still good from the beginning. When I started broadcasting, traveling was a lot better than it was when I was a player. You also develop relationships when you’re traveling a lot, with the players, the TV people, the coaches. We always had a poker game, and I always played with the players. The players got to know me, but they never heard what I said because they never heard the radio broadcasts of their games. People would tell them sometimes, but it all worked out fine. I never had a problem with players for what I said on the air. They always knew I said it like it is. They never came back to me with any complaints. They knew what I would have said if they had come to me. I would have said, “I’m just telling what really happened, so don’t try to hide from me."
I have always tried to stay as positive as possible. There's no question that I was a Pacers announcer. I was for the Pacers, period. For the most part Mark stays neutral. He's a Pacers guy, too, but we will both applaud somebody else on the other team if he does something really great. But we don't want to lose the ball game.
I remember Johnny Most with the Celtics from way back. Johnny wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was a Celtic through and through. I got to know him and he was okay. But he was more extreme, off the charts, with his support on the air. He used to yell that the Celtics were always getting beat up. But he was a guy who hit at the right time with the Celtics having Bill Russell and winning all of those championships. That makes you. It made him. He was loyal, loyal till the day he died.
In broadcasting, to some degree, you get into a routine because you’re in the same home arena or the same road arenas that you’ve seen before all around the league. As time goes along, you’re eating in the same places. Everybody finds his niche, and it just becomes a way of life. It’s also a long season. With all of that travel, the further along I got in my career, the more the travel started bothering me.
One thing that became interesting to me was watching players develop over a few years, seeing the rookies come in and see how they progressed from their rookie year into their second and third years. While you’re broadcasting, you get to see great play after great play. I saw Michael Jordan his whole career.
I saw John Stockton and Karl Malone. I saw Patrick Ewing. Right down the line from the time I was playing. I was right there playing against Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. When you watch the players game after game when you are a broadcaster you get to the point where you know every move they’re going to make, just like you did when you were coaching. Some guys are going to the right every time. Some guys can go right and left. You learn where they shoot from. You know their range. So that makes it easy when you’re broadcasting a game. When you understand their tendencies, you rarely go, "I'll be darned."
There are still great players coming out of college every year so I get to see new guys. I enjoy seeing those kids play. And our team, the Pacers, has gotten better. I’ve been blessed. For that matter, Nancy and I have both been blessed to be able to stay around the game so long. She loves it, too. Nancy has always kept box scores, and she had scorebooks piled up for years worth of games. She never misses a home game. Nancy drives me to the arena. She’s afraid of my driving.
When I’m broadcasting at Bankers Life Arena, we get there early and I go upstairs to the booth -- we used to be at courtside, but they moved us. Nancy has a ticket on the floor, and she goes to the Locker Room restaurant and eats with her friends.
Nancy came with us when the Pacers went to China a couple of years ago. We got to visit the Great Wall. We went to Taipei and Beijing. That's when we met the Chinese fans. Mark grabbed me and goes, "Slick, come out here. You're not going to believe this." There were people of different sizes and ages, and they were holding up signs that said “Boom, Baby!" One of those young guys, Lee Holick, comes to Indianapolis and goes to games and brings us a gift every time. One time he gave me a beautiful letter opener, and he gave Nancy a keychain. Isn’t that amazing, having Pacers fans in China? Small world.
For home games Mark and I meet at 5:30 pm and do our pregame. I like to get in the place early. I watch the guys doing their warm-ups. If somebody’s been hurt, I watch to see how he is shooting the ball. Of course, a guy could miss every shot in warm-ups and then connect and hit eight in a row in the game.
Sometimes I go down along the sideline while they’re shooting and sit out there on the chairs watching them in the front row, and we chitchat. I might congratulate them on how they’re playing. It’s pretty much a routine. Sometimes I see the other broadcasters. For a while, Tommy Heinsohn was with the Celtics, Johnny Kerr was with the Bulls, and Hot Rod Hundley was with the Jazz. Hot Rod Hundley retired, and Johnny’s dead. Tommy doesn’t go to all of the road games anymore. There’s nobody doing it who is older than us.
Rod Hundley and I go way back. We were roommates with the Lakers. Rod was a real party guy who stayed out late, and sometimes he got into trouble. He used to tell stories a lot, and in those stories it would always be me starting fights and big drinking bouts and stuff like that -- but it was Rod who was doing it all and he always brought my name into it. I don’t think I ever did half of the things I have a reputation for doing because of what Rod told people.
After a while I get itchy sitting there before the games. I go out to the mezzanine. Right out behind me is the only place in the fieldhouse where they actually pop the popcorn fresh, and I get some. The game is probably still more than an hour away. I'm always waiting for them to play. It always bugs me. I’m thinking, Let's go. Let’s play.
Once in a while I’ll look around from the radio booth at the crowd and I’ll see a sign here and there with “Boom, Baby!” It happens on the road, too, sometimes. They know about “Boom, Baby!” There is always a fan out there. "Boom, Baby!” was very popular. All of the broadcasters know who started it and where it came from. It was just one of those things. Other announcers have their thing. They even use "baby," but they don't use the "boom."
It's great for the fans who are listening on the radio because they can tell where the shot's coming from. Mark will say, "There’s a shot for three." And I go, "Boom, Baby!" so they know it went in. You have to hit that "boom." The boom is what gets their attention. And then baby. You've got to let them know where it was shot -- top of the key. So I always let the fan know where the shot was taken from.
For a while there were "Boom, baby!" sweatshirts for sale. They were around for quite a while. I probably could have done a lot more with it. At the time Nancy had it trademarked, since it was my trademark.
How's this one? I had this idea. You've got a woman who's having a baby, and you stop at the hospital gift shop and they sell pink balloons for a girl and blue balloons for a boy with "Boom, baby!” on it. That would work. Or you have little stuffed animals, other things for the little kids being born, in blue or pink depending if it’s a boy or a girl, and they all say, “Boom, Baby!"
-- Excerpted by permission from Boom, Baby! My Basketball Life in Indiana by Bobby "Slick" Leonard And Lew Freedman. Copyright (c) 2013 by Bobby Leonard And Lew Freedman. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.