Allen Leavell: The Little Sparkplug, 1981

[Allen Leavell played 10 seasons in the NBA (1979-1989), all with the Houston Rockets. For an undersized guard who averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 assists per game for his career, that’s awfully unusual. But if you ever watched Leavell on the court, he was just a hard-nosed, team-first player who settled into his role and usually got the job done. He was, as stated in the headline,  “the little sparkplug” who kept the team moving.

Leavell also had a pretty unique personal story, which the Houston Chronicle’s George White captures here. White’s article, published in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest, reads well but ends abruptly. Back then, stories were measured in inches, not necessarily words, and jaded editors tended to trim (and sometimes slash) excess inches from the bottom of stories to fit them into their allotted space. That may have been the case here, but the rest of the story reads well. Enjoy!]


There is a story that George Gervin will probably find difficult to believe. So will most of the other guards in the National Basketball Association who had to contend with the cobra-like moves of Allen Leavell in his rookie season in the NBA.

Leavell was raised in Muncie, Ind., in a family of four sons and two daughters. Normally, a four-year-old kid is still occupied with teddy bears and dirt piles. Or if he’s one of six children, he thinks a lot about getting to the dinner table early enough to gaff his fair share of the meat and potatoes.

Allen Leavell

But if you’re raised in Muncie, you are already thinking about basketball by the time you are four. That’s the age that little Allen first began developing an interest in the sport which would eventually earn him a pro career in Houston and playoff money in his first year in the NBA.

“I remember first playing when I was four years old,” Leavell said.

The “court” on which Leavell, his brothers and sisters, and assorted other neighborhood youngsters played was the living room of his house. “We would get a clothes hanger and bend it into a circle,” remembers Leavell. “We would tie strings on it to make it look like a basket.

“We would hang the hanger on top of a door, then wad up socks to make a ball. We really had some serious games, me and my brothers and my neighbors. But my dad was always tearing into us for wrecking the doors.”

Today, 19 years later, Leavell’s courts are the multicolored, million-dollar NBA arenas. He was named to the All-Rookie team by BASKETBAL DIGEST, and just about every NBA observer agreed that he ranked with Los Angeles’ Magic Johnson and Indiana’s Dudley Bradley as the best first-year guards in the pros last year.

“He’s one of the few non-starters that we discuss at length in our pregame strategy talks,” former Washington and current Dallas coach Dick Motta says of Leavell. “That’s the greatest compliment I could give him. We spent a lot of time on how our whole team, not just our guards, must react when he comes into the game.”

The reason, quite simply, is that Leavell may be the quickest player in basketball. “I still don’t believe a human can move that fast down the lane dribbling a basketball,” marveled Indiana’s Billy Knight. “It’s like, whoosh, he’s blown past you.”

One would think that, with such credentials, that throughout his life Allen Leavell has been the kingpin player at every age level. Probably a four-year starter in high school, must have been an All-American for a couple of years in college, and just had to be a first-round draft choice.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. He missed his entire sophomore year of high school are suffering from a disease which caused his right elbow to lock into an “L” position. He played well enough his last year at Muncie Central to get a scholarship offer from Louisville, but only if his teammate Sammy Drummer would also go to Louisville. Drummer decided to go to Georgia Tech, and Leavell had to go to a high school tryout camp in Louisville before he finally was noticed by the coaches from Oklahoma City University.

At OCU, he played only sparingly his first two years before blossoming into a full-fledged scoring threat as a junior and senior. Still, he wasn’t widely pursued by the pros. He wound up with the Rockets only because former Rocket scout E.C. Coleman saw him at a game at Houston Baptist two years ago when the Huskies were having an E.C. Coleman Night. 

Coleman pestered general manager Ray Patterson and coach Del Harris through four rounds of the draft to pick Leavell. And finally on the fifth round, they acceded. It may turn out to be the best deal the Rockets were ever pushed into.

Leavell working with kids on a visit to Muncie.

He might still be in Muncie today, however, had not his body rejected the effects of a form of osteochondrosis that threatened to leave him partially crippled for life. “My arm just locked,” he said, bending his elbow with forearm across his chest to demonstrate his plight. “It stayed that way for about four months. I cried and cried.

“I wore a jacket all the time and kept my arm covered so no one would see it. It was really awkward at school trying to write. Really, I was terrified. The doctors told me I would never be able to play again. A specialist from California looked at it, and he said the same thing.

“But that summer, the arm started coming down a bit. It kept lowering more and more, until finally by the time school started for my junior year, I could play. But I still can’t straighten out that arm.”

Leavell only played in three games that junior year at Muncie. “My coach was really down on me,” he said. “One day in preseason practice, I stole the ball three straight times from the starting point guard, and it made [coach] mad. He said, ‘Leavell, let him bring the ball upcourt. Don’t steal it anymore.’ We [the reserves] would beat the starters, and we’d have to run laps because of it.”

That coach was gone by the time Leavell was a senior, and Leavell’s team won the state championship. Then came the college career at OCU, where he was the scoring guard throughout. It was a big adjustment coming to the NBA and having to learn the subtleties of being a playmaking guard, assuming the responsibilities of making the correct pass and controlling the tempo of the game.

The first big obstacle, of course, was just making the Rocket squad. The odds were heavily loaded against him. The Rockets already had five guards under contract—Calvin Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Tom Henderson, Slick Watts, and Mike Newlin. Only four guards would be kept, and to think that Leavell could root out two of those five was preposterous. In addition, the Rockets also had veteran Rudy White in camp.

“The only thing I was worried about was if I would get a real chance or not,” he said. “I knew if they gave me a chance, I would make it. I worked too hard last summer in Oklahoma City to just drop out without making it. I played every day, I ran, I came to Houston in great shape. I always felt I would be here in April.”

Sure enough, the Rockets traded Newlin and cut loose Watts and White. When Dunleavy was hurt early in the season, Leavell was activated, and he played so superbly that he was a starter most of the season. Only when the games stretched into “money time” in February and March, did he relinquish his starting role to the veteran Henderson, who played superbly in helping the Rockets make the playoffs.

“I think everyone realized that we weren’t going to win without Tom playing a lot of time,” Leavell said realistically. “I understood it. We weren’t going to win without Henderson. They just had to get him back in the groove. And you saw how well he played. It was the right thing to do.”

Was it a tough adjustment learning to play off the bench again?

“It really was, because before a game, I’m really hyper, and I feed off that energy for the first few minutes of a game,” he said. “I’m on edge, and that tension really fuels me early.

“But that energy wastes away when I start the game on the bench. When I come in, I have to get that adrenaline from someplace else. It wasn’t easy at first, but I settled back into that role pretty well.”

During the regular season, Leavell averaged 9.1 points per game and led the Rockets with 417 assists. But in the playoffs, Leavell hit on only 10 of 38 shots and averaged just 5.6 points in the seven postseason games. After beating San Antonio, 2-1, the Rockets were blown away by Boston in four straight games.

In one of the playoff games, he and Henderson held George Gervin to only six baskets in 19 shots. “But all that is misunderstood,” he says. “Tom and I don’t hold down George Gervin. We’re getting the credit, but it takes five guys to hold down a great scorer like that.

“We do our jobs the best we can, but that’s only half of it. The other half has got to come from our teammates. And when they help us like they did, it would be tough for anybody in the league to score on us.”

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