Sunday, June 7, 2009
When it came time to pay tribute to NBA great randy Smith, no writer could've possibly paid respects from the fans, media and league office better than former Newsday NBA reporter Jerry Sullivan, now a great columnist for the Buffalo News. Here's to randy via my buddy, Jerry:
"People regarded Smith with a mixture of affection and awe. He was, at once, the most remarkable athlete they ever saw and the most humble, genuine guy they ever knew."
Randy Smith: The essential Brave
APPRECIATION: Athletic guard combined style with humility, drawing the love of his teammates and Buffalo fans
By Jerry Sullivan
Durie Burns has done a lot of crying the past few days, a lot of laughing, too. It's the same for Bob McAdoo, and John Hummer, and anyone else who was lucky enough to know Randy Smith well. The emotions run deep. The memories are vivid and eternally young, like Randy. That's why it's so difficult to fathom that the former Buffalo Braves star is really gone, dead of a heart attack at 60.
Oh, and the stories. Burns will be telling them all this week, when he gets to North Carolina for his best friend's funeral. Actually, Smith was more like a brother to Burns, who starred with him on those great Buffalo State basketball teams of the early '70s.
"Randy was the most unselfish person I ever met in my life," Burns said Saturday from his home in Florida. "When I came back from the military, he was the star at Buffalo State. For the first six or seven games, all the write-ups were about Randy Smith, Randy Smith. Before the next game, he came to me and said, "You're playing great and no one knows it. We need to get you some publicity.'"
So Smith shaved his buddy's head. He told Burns to look mean on the court. The next game, Burns was the leading scorer. The headlines in the next day's paper read: "Burns shaves head to play mean and beef up Buff State."
"The point is, it wasn't about Randy," Burns said. "It was about his love for basketball. He was not seeking fame. He told me he would play for free."
People regarded Smith with a mixture of affection and awe. He was, at once, the most remarkable athlete they ever saw and the most humble, genuine guy they ever knew. At Buffalo State, Smith was an All-American in basketball, soccer and track. The 6-foot-3 guard was a tireless worker who developed from a raw seventh-round NBA draft pick to an All-Star who averaged more than 20 points a game four years in a row in his prime.
Hummer, an original Brave, played two seasons with Smith and recalled him as a fun-loving free spirit who earned the nickname "Two Till" because he'd often show up two minutes before the start of practice.
"He was the best athlete I ever played with at any level," Hummer said. "But more importantly, he had the sweetest soul. He didn't have a mean-spirited bone in his body. I can't believe he's gone. I always thought of him as indestructible."
At a certain age, you grow accustomed to losing old friends. But Smith was a physical marvel. Former Braves coach Jack Ramsay said he never coached a better athlete. Smith held the NBA record for consecutive games played with 906 until A.C. Green broke it in 1997. Smith had a warrior's heart. How could it give out this way?
"He was the Iron Man," McAdoo said from Florida, where his 12-year-old daughter was competing in a tennis tournament. "He never missed practice, never missed games. He was happy all the time. I never saw Randy with a frown on his face. It didn't seem like he had a lot of stress in his life."
Ernie DiGregorio shared a backcourt with Smith. By a twist of fate, he and Smith became celebrity hosts at Connecticut casinos — Ernie D. at Foxwoods, Smith at the Mohegan Sun, which is where he collapsed and died Thursday. They saw each other frequently, played golf and shared fond memories of the Braves, the Aud, and the adoring Buffalo fans.
"When we played, there was probably a little rivalry," DiGregorio said from his home in Providence, R.I. "You know how it goes. He thought I took too many shots. I thought he took too many. But we were really good friends the last 14 years.
"He was in great shape, that's why it's so shocking. At 60, he could run up and down the court and play a game. How many 60-year-olds can do that?"
DiGregorio said the Braves had to run a mile in under six minutes at the start of training camp. He used to practice in the summer. One year, he was leading the pack when this blur came flying by. It was Smith. Hummer remembers a mile run when Smith lapped the field. It was a four-lap race.
"And as I recall," Hummer said, "he wasn't even breathing hard."
McAdoo said Smith was "the absolute fastest runner" he ever saw on a basketball court. This from a man who played with the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s.
Burns, who was one of Smith's college roommates (Smith invited him to move in when Burns came back from the military), recalled a time when three roommates challenged each other to find out who was fastest.
"It was midnight," Burns said, laughing. "On Eastwood Place. Randy took two steps and was gone. Oh man, I've never seen anyone faster. Two steps and he was at full speed."
Smith blew by the best of them: Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Julius Erving. There's a YouTube video of his performance in the 1978 All-Star Game, when he won MVP. Smith was at the peak of his powers. It was the year he averaged 24.6 points a game.
"Here's a little-known story," Burns said. "I called Randy from Detroit the Friday before that game. He said, "Man, my jumper is smoking. I think I can win MVP.' I said, "That's why I called you, because I think so, too.'"
That was also the final year of the Braves in Buffalo. Smith's All-Star Game show was the last great moment in the team's history, a day when Smith elevated to a higher level, in the company of legends.
It's eerie how things work out. The Aud is coming down. Last month, Lockport native Tim Wendel published a coffee table history of the Braves. Wendel said Smith was his most reliable resource among the former players, the one with the strongest ties to the community. Now he's gone.
"Randy called himself "The Last of the Mohicans,'" Wendel said. "He was there to the end. He was the last Brave, the soul of that team. We didn't put him on the cover of that book because it was a nice photo."
McAdoo was "The Man," but Smith was the essential Brave, the "Buffalo guy." Oh, he was a star, a man about town. He dressed the part. But he kept a genuine human quality, an ability to connect with common people. Buffalo fans love an athlete for that. Smith embraced them in kind. It's a common misperception that Smith was from Buffalo. He was a native North Carolinian who grew up in Bellport, Long Island.
Reggie Witherspoon, the UB coach, was among a legion of kids who came of age during the Braves' run in the '70s. Witherspoon got to know Smith later in life, when he helped run the Randy Smith Summer League. He traveled to three All-Star weekends with Smith and was struck by the affection for him among the NBA crowd.
"Everybody loved him," Witherspoon said. "From Jordan to Julius to everyone in between.
"He loved Buffalo," Witherspoon said. "He wasn't born here, so he took nothing for granted. I asked him how he wound up at Buff State. He said, "Michigan State, Buffalo State, what's the difference?' He said he just wanted to go someplace where he could compete.
"Randy had an incredible balance of flamboyance and humility. You saw pictures of him with the platform shoes and big hair, sitting on a Rolls. But he wasn't really that way. That's why everyone connected to him."
Burns said Smith came to town to play golf one day. Smith drove down the street in a Rolls Royce and a bunch of kids came running up for autographs. He began signing, but time grew short. He told the kids he'd be back in five or six hours.
"We got back home and there was a knock at the door," Burns said. "The kids were there. He signed every one. That's the kind of guy he was. He took it as a privilege to be a pro, not something he was entitled to."
Smith never forgot how lucky he was to be an athlete in this town. Teams might leave town, but those kind of players stay in the hearts of Buffalo fans forever.
"Randy didn't have any artifice to him," Hummer said. "There was nothing that wasn't real about him, not one thing. Let's face it, people like that are very rare."