The Passing of Another Indiana Legend

I have been traveling lately and unable to devote any time to this blog, but I recently learned of the passing of a great man, a great coach, and an Indiana Legend.

Coach George Leonakis was among the two best coaches (Jim Powers is the other) I ever played for, and in my opinion, he was was one of the four or five best coaches in Indiana High School Basketball history. He passed away last September at the age of 71. I wish I had been given the opportunity to speak to him before he passed away.

I didn’t get to play for Coach Leonakis in high school, but I played for him and Coach Jim Powers at Southwestern Michigan Junior College in the late 1980’s. Both men had been extremely successful high school coaches in the South Bend-Elkhart area before coming to SMC.

Jim Powers had starred for South Bend Central under the great John Wooden, then later played for Coach Wooden again in college at Indiana State where he was an NAIA runner up and then National Champion the following year. He was later Coach Wooden’s assistant before returning to South Bend Central first as an assistant and then the head coach leading them to the 1963 runner up finish to Muncie Central (Mike Warren of Hill Street Blue’s fame was on that SB Central team).

Coach Leonakis had starred for SB Washington-Clay High School before heading to Western Michigan and then to the Marines, and he coached basketball like a marine. I have never in all my years of playing basketball combined heard my name yelled out as many times as I heard from Coach Leonakis in my first practices under him. He said he yelled at me not out of anger, but to get my attention and to ensure that I would not forget the words that followed! Other than my father, he and Coach Powers taught me far more about basketball in one day than all the other coaches I was ever around.

After he left the marines, he returned to Western Michigan to get his Master’s and if I am not mistaken, in addition to being a coach and teacher, he was also a CPA. In any case, after WMU he became the head coach at South Bend Lasalle, where he posted stellar numbers going 51-15 in three seasons, then 16-9 in one season at South Bend Central before moving to Elhart Central where he lead his team to the 1978 Final Four before losing to the second best 5’9 guard I ever saw (Jay Mauck was the best) - Jack Moore and Muncie Central.

Coach Leonakis was very hard on me, but somehow he connected to me like no other coach ever had, and I tried my very best to take everything he taught me and put it into practice. Some things I remember him teaching me are things that I have passed on to guys I have coached over the years. One thing I remember is how he made me play center for two straight days (I am only 6’ tall!). I had to guard guys that were 6’8 and built like superman. He told me he wanted me to learn two things. One, how hard those guys have to work to defend in the post, and two, how ticked off they get when they do all that work and they never touch the ball! After two days in his practices, I learned both.

Another one of the things that stands out to me now was how he took me out of a preseason game (against a team he would ironically later coach), and he lectured me on not using my left hand. I was having one of the best games of my life and he took me out to tell me that I had “worked so hard my whole life to be able to score with either hand and when I had the opportunity to make a nice play with my left hand, I had not been confident enough and had made a simple play more difficult and shot it with my right hand”  (even though I made the shot and ended up having one of my highest scoring, steals, and assists games ever). I listened and I was grateful and it stuck with me because it was the first time that a coach had ever explained to me why they had taken me out and explained what they wanted me to do.

As I said, I had a monster game that night and I played my heart out for that guy every day in practice. Ironically, it cost me a great deal. The following week in practice, I shattered the right radial head (elbow) in a collision with another player and the wall I had a compound fracture of my shooting arm and my season was done. The accident happened at the end of practice, and I was in shock and didn’t tell anyone what had happened because I didn’t really know. I just went and sat down in the stands and one of the girl volleyball players noticed the blood trickling out of my elbow and ran to Coach Leonakis. He drove me to the hospital and stayed with me through the night until I was stitched up and casted.

I came back after the injury but I couldn’t play that season and thought I wouldn’t play any more. I changed my mind, but too late to return to SMC as they had given my scholarship away and I transferred to another school and didn’t get to play for Coach Leonakis anymore. I think it was the biggest mistake of many mistakes I have made in my life because I am certain that if I had stuck with SMC and Coach Leonakis, he would have made me into a much better player. I progressed under him more in a couple of months than I had in years of playing basketball.

Coach Leonakis is not in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, though Coach Powers is both as a player and as a coach. It is an injustice, because there are several coaches in the hall of fame that got there only because they had one great player that pushed their records up, whereas coaches like Leonakis took average players like me and turned them into winners. Even his best teams didn’t have any All-Staters.

This is my tribute to Coach Leonakis. I was too young and immature to appreciate how blessed I was to know you then, but I fully appreciate it now.

Thank you, Coach.

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