Nearly 30 years ago, the Indiana Pacers were on the verge of going under. Because of a lack of revenue, the team couldn't pay its players and was in jeopardy of being shut down or sold. That's when Nancy Leonard, the team's assistant general manager, came up with a radical idea. She suggested the team hold a telethon to sell the necessary season tickets to save Indianapolis' beloved team.
That telethon is the subject of a new 30 for 30 Short, "Slick, Nancy and The Telethon," by filmmaker Michael Husain. The documentary tells the story of how Leonard and her husband, former Pacers coach and general manager Bob "Slick" Leonard, helped keep the team afloat.
Spoiler alert: The telethon worked. To this day, Leonard credits her staff for the telethon's success.
"I am one of a part because I had the best staff in the whole NBA. I know the support system I had. It was not me altogether," she said recently in a phone call from her home in Carmel, Indiana.
Leonard also shared her experience as an executive in the NBA and why keeping the Pacers in Indiana was so important to her.
espnW: At the time you worked for the Pacers, you were technically the assistant general manager and Bob was the GM. What was the distinction between the two roles?
Nancy Leonard: It was not unusual in those days for a coach to be a general manager. They decided that Bob would keep the title of coach-general manager and then I would say I was going to be assistant general manager. But everybody knew that I would be responsible for the administrative part and Bob was responsible for the rest.
espnW: You were with the Pacers at a time when they made a big transition, from the ABA to the NBA. What was the challenge in making that leap for the Pacers?
NL: The Pacers had borrowed so much money to start in the ABA and then to get into the NBA -- even their top [investors], the banks, wouldn't loan them any money.
espnW: Tell me about the moment you realized something drastic had to be done to keep the Pacers in Indianapolis.
NL: It was the second year of the merger and at the end of season, there was always a tournament in Hawaii where they brought all the college All-Americans in and then all the coaches would go watch them, so you could make some good choices for the draft.
So we're sitting over there and I get this telephone call, "You've got to come back here," and I said, "Why?" They said because we're not selling season tickets fast enough and there's a payroll due in two weeks. If we don't pay the players, they have a right to become free agents and go where they want to go.
We jump on a plane and come home. Season-ticket sales were coming in, but they were just lagging in. I said we have to let the season holders know that we have a cash crunch. We just need to get these ticket sales in time to make these payrolls because we cannot afford to lose these players.
I said, "What about a telethon?"
espnW: And it ended up being a success. You sold the 8,000 season tickets.
NL: It was a miracle. The whole town just got in on it.
espnW: Why did it matter so much to save this team?
NL: They had been extremely successful in the ABA, and the community felt as if they owned the team. It was a very close relationship with everybody, and they loved basketball. In point, at the very end of the whole telethon, which went on for 24 hours, all of the sudden here start coming all these kids who had been going in the neighborhoods with tin cans collecting coins and they came walking in with those coins. That's how much it meant to everybody.
espnW: What does it mean to you now to watch a Pacers game and know that you had a role in keeping that franchise in Indiana?
NL: I don't really think about that. I just know how much I enjoy the games and how lucky I am to be able to go watch every one of those home games.
espnW: Do you have a sense of pride that the Pacers are still around? Because it's hard to imagine Indiana without an NBA team.
NL: More than anything, I've realized now that even though I was just a "housewife," I was somewhat of a visionary. Once I saw the first television contract [in the NBA] and I saw the exposure, it was like wanting to get on a freight train and you could see it coming down the track, but you didn't want the train to pass you by. You wanted to get on the train with everybody. I could see what was happening. It was really fun. It was really working at something together and having the satisfaction of seeing what [the NBA has] become.