Story of Pacers’ 1977 telethon being told on ESPN

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It seemed like an odd idea—even in 1977.

But without the telethon organized by then-coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard and his wife, Nancy, there likely would be no Indiana Pacers—or Bankers Life Fieldhouse for that matter—today.

The Pacers are the only professional sports team that owes its survival to a telethon, and that strange story is being told between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday as part of ESPN’s "30 for 30" shorts series.

“Slick, Nancy and the Telethon” was produced by Indianapolis-based Good Vibes Media, which is headed by Michael Husain.

Husain, who previously headed Pathway Productions, has produced a number of videos for cable channels ESPN, The Discovery Channel, A&E and VH-1, as well as the NCAA, Butler University and Eli Lilly and Co.

Husain originally wanted to do a full-length (60 minutes or more) "30 for 30" documentary on the 1977 Pacers’ telethon, but scrapped that idea when he found out how little footage of the event exists today.

“When the ‘shorts’ came around, I remembered it and pitched it,” Husain said. “It didn't take too long once they understood the idea to say yes. It’s such a quirky little story.”

ESPN gives producers of its "30 for 30" videos a set amount of money (less for a short), and it's up to producers like Husain to create their work on or under that budget. Husain, who took about eight months to make the documentary, declined to say how much ESPN paid him for "Slick, Nancy and the Telethon."

ESPN gave Husain a tremendous amount of freedom in producing the documentary, he said.

"It's journalistic, but it also has a touch of memoir," Husain explained. "This is Slick and Nancy's memory. The '30 for 30' series is not formulaic at all. So they give you a lot of flexibility in your production, which is a pleasure and a rarity for filmmakers."

The key to getting the documentary done, as well as the telethon's success, was Nancy Leonard's support, Husain said.

"The telethon was a huge accomplishment, and Nancy was really the central figure in it," Husain said. "It's easy to look at it today and say, 'Sure they were going to get this done.' But back in 1977, the team was broke, and it was anything but a sure thing."

The documentary includes telethon footage and interviews with the Leonards, former WISH-TV Channel 8 sports anchor Chet Coppock, who was in the telethon broadcast, and former Indianapolis Star sportswriter Bill Benner, who reported on it.

When the goal of 8,000 tickets sold was reached in the telethon’s closing minutes, Nancy Leonard burst into tears, Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut applauded, and a band roared “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

To see the video before it airs on ESPN, click here.

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