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May 7, 2013

Remembering Lee

Longtime coach, teacher Leonard stood tall

GREENVILLE —   He grew up in New Mexico but Lee Leonard became one tall Texan.

Leonard, whose services are set for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Coker-Mathews Funeral Home chapel in Greenville, stood tall on a basketball court, golf course, baseball diamond and softball field, plus in a classroom and in the great outdoors.

  He was raised in Eunice, N.M., just 20 miles or so down the road from Hobbs, which is nationally recognized for its high-scoring high school basketball teams. Some of the Hobbs teams averaged more than 100 points per game. That uptempo style of play rubbed off on Leonard, who was a standout basketball player at Eunice High School, where he graduated in 1965.

  “He was a heck of a basketball player,” said Don Johnson, who coached and taught with Leonard for 29 years in Greenville.

  The 6-foot-5 Leonard became a solid shooter and rebounder, good enough to land a basketball scholarship at New Mexico State. While at New Mexico State, Leonard played and lettered on the Aggies’ 1967-68 and 1968-69 teams that went 23-6 and 24-5.

  Those two Aggie teams reached the NCAA Far West Regional, losing by scores of 58-49 and 53-38 to eventual national champion UCLA, which was led at the time by 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, later to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, considered one of America’s top basketball players of all time.

  One of Leonard’s teammates at New Mexico State, Sam Lacey, played 15 seasons in the NBA, averaging 10.3 points and 6.9 rebounds.

  Leonard took his basketball knowledge with him to Greenville High School, where he started out as an assistant basketball coach under Dennis Brown before serving as head basketball coach for five seasons.

  His Greenville Lion basketball teams pushed the tempo and scored some big victories, beating Lake Highlands in district play and reaching the finals of the Plano tournament against state-ranked Dallas Roosevelt.

  “It was a lot of fun, obviously getting up and down the floor,” said Leonard coach Jeff Smith, who played point guard on two of Lee Leonard’s teams in Greenville. “We had a lot of fun playing for him. I still use a lot of his philosophy on the basketball court today.”

  Smith said he was saddened to learn of Leonard’s death on Saturday, following a long illness.

  “Obviously, he was a big influence in my life,” said Smith. “He gave me a chance to play and an opportunity to just gain some confidence that I needed. Confidence in basketball and in life. I’m going to miss him a lot.”

  Leonard also taught mathematics and coached golf for more than 30 years at Greenville High School, plus later in Commerce and Caddo Mills. Golfers that he coached at Greenville later went on to play college golf at the University of Houston, Rice and other universities.

  Leonard’s math skills were such that he didn’t need a calculator to add up his Lion players’ scores at tournaments and was a big help to coaches marking down team scores on the big board.

  He was also a talented but savvy golfer. Golfer Tip McNatt remembers Leonard’s introduction to the tight layout at Oak Creek Country Club in Greenville.

  “I will never forget the first time coach Leonard played Oak Creek,” wrote McNatt in Facebook. “He played nine holes, went to his car and put ALL of his woods in the trunk!”

  Leonard knew game management, something he shared with his players. Knew when to pull out an iron instead of banging a driver. Not that he couldn’t hit his woods.

  “He could hit the ball a ton,” said Johnson. “His arms and shoulders weren’t huge. He had such a strong lower body.”

  Leonard could also hit a softball a long way and played on some of the top softball teams in Greenville recreation leagues. Opposing outfielders knew to back up close to the fence when Leonard strode to the plate.

  Leonard also had a strong arm, dating back to his baseball days in Eunice.

  “He was also a good pitcher,” said Johnson. “His dad (Leland Leonard Sr.) played semi-pro ball.”

  Leonard was also a true outdoorsman, hunting and fishing in and around Texas, New Mexico and in the midwest. Leonard was deadly accurate with a bow and taught Johnson the fine art of fly fishing.

  “Basically he was my brother,” said Johnson, who has succeeded his friend as golf coach of the Greenville Lions. “He loved the outdoors and he loved his family.”

  Leonard was much loved in Hunt County as evidenced by the many phone calls Johnson has been receiving about his friend, now and during Leonard’s illness.

  “He had a lot of kids play for him,” said Johnson. “A lot of kids were in his classroom.”

  Lee Leonard will long be remembered in these parts as one who stood tall. Very tall, indeed.

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