Leonard, Auerbach fuel dying ABA-NBA verbal fire (column written in January 1976)

(SALT LAKE CITY) If the ABA and NBA were to consolidate today there would be a natural rivalry between Indiana's Bobby (Slick) Leonard and Boston's General Manager Red Auerbach.

The spat is a result of Auerbach's quote in Sports Illustrated that Leonard was a "bad coach when he was with Baltimore in the NBA and he must be a dog now too." That makes for bad blood brewing in Naptown.

"I had an expansion team in Baltimore and Auerbach was sitting in Boston with a monster," Slick pointed out. "I've been at odds with him for a long time. I never put him on a pedestal like others. I took a team of rookie players and battled his championship club to four or five point games.

"Ask Kevin Loughery (New York Nets coach) and Rod Thorn (Spirits of St. Louis coach), they were my backcourt. Check Auerbach's record before the Bill Russell era. He never won a championship. The one thing about him is what one guy said to me quite a while ago: 'He's got the biggest mouth and the strongest hands in the NBA. He held onto Russell's jersey for 13 years.'

"He can say all he wants but he was no tactician. He ran a low post with Russell -- that wasn't hard to figure out -- a fast break and with those guys (Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, and Sam Jones) put a little pressure on the ball. There was nothing tactical from him. His comments are so ridiculous.

"The point I'm trying to make is if you can coach, fine. It still takes talent to win. There are no geniuses in this business. There are some better than others. I always considered Red Holzman (New York Knicks coach) a great coach, but he's under a different situation without Willis Reed or Dave DeBusschere. The same with Larry Costello at Milwaukee without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson."

Leonard has been in the ABA championship playoffs in five of the last seven years and won three titles with the Pacers. His best coaching performance to date was last spring. He completely revamped the Pacers the previous fall, sending Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis and Roger Brown to other clubs.

His club, with George McGinnis in control, surprised both San Antonio and Denver in the Western Conference playoffs, not having a home court advantage in either series, and stormed into the finals against Kentucky. Artis Gilmore dominated that series as the Colonels won the ABA title.

And this season, Leonard has his Pacers hanging in there (19-12 without the services of McGinnis who jumped to the NBA Philadelphia 76ers). Slick's fortunes might have taken a turn for the worse though when he lost his top scorer Billy Knight for five weeks with a fractured hand.

Leonard always thought it was a big laugher for people to think that McGinnis, who is averaging 24.5 points for the 76ers, couldn't play in the NBA.

"Last season, there was word out of the NBA that George never extended himself and our league wasn't tough enough," Leonard said. "That's a laugh. They ought to ask players like Jimmy Jones (Washington Bullets), Rick Barry (Golden State Warriors), Allen Bristow (San Antonio Spurs) and others who have played in both leagues how tough it is!

"Don Freeman (played for Leonard and is now with the Lakers) was complimentary toward our league. He knows how tough it is. The fighting and bickering back and forth between the two leagues is ridiculous. Obviously there is good talent in our league. We're drafting as they are over there and we're signing our share.

"That Auerbach thing bugs me, though," he added, getting back to the Celtics G.M. "He was quoted as saying that 'Julius Erving is a nice kid but not a great player.' That's ridiculous too. If they think George is doing a helluva job over there, wait until they see the Doctor. He'll be sensational. I can't understand the propaganda the NBA is putting out.

"Things haven't changed any from when I was in the NBA. Auerbach was the biggest mouth in the league then and he still is.

"What about the talent he's drafting? He selected Steve Downing (a center out of Indiana) and tried to make him a forward. He drafted Bill Green out of Colorado State 15 years ago and he didn't open the season. And also he drafted Clarence Glover of Western Kentucky. They were all number one choices and they all fizzled.

"People tend to forget about them when you come up with a John Havlicek.

"Listen, I'm not looking for anyone to think I'm a great coach. It's like I said before, when I'm through all I want people to say is that I was a winner."

Note: DAN PATTISON was an ABA columnist for Basketball Weekly, The Sporting News, and The Deseret News. Dan was also the vice-president of the ABA Sports Writer's Association for two years.

Dan passed away in June 2001 after a brave battle with bone marrow cancer. He will always be remembered for his longtime support of his "magnificent obsession": the ABA.

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