A Personal Tribute to The Late, Great, Randy Smith

John HowellAnalyst IJune 5, 2009

Randy Smith died yesterday (see my article).

As a kid growing up in Buffalo, my first exposure to Randy Smith was at a Buffalo State soccer match in the Fall of 1970. My high school team went on a field trip on a sunswept, Saturday afternoon to watch the Bengals play. I don't recall who their opponents were. It really doesn't matter.

Randy Smith has been named by many as the greatest single athlete ever to play at Buff State (as the locals call the small college in the SUNY System). He was an All-American in soccer (division I), track (high jump), and basketball (his tertiary sport). 

Soccer was an even more marginal sport than it is today in the United States, but Smith filled the stands in Bengal Stadium because he was so talented and so much fun to watch. He was, "Up and down the field like a streak,"  one former classmate recounted.

I know for me, seeing only my second soccer game that I hadn't played in, it was a memorable experience to see Randy play.

Had the MLS existed in 1971, Smith would have likely never played in the NBA.

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Had the NBA not expanded to Buffalo in 1970 he most likely would never have gotten a look.

I remember being thrilled that my beloved Buffalo Braves had given him a shot.

I was seventeen years old. I worshiped the Braves. I listened to every Braves game that wasn't televised on WBEN radio. I remember sitting on the floor in the dining room next to the large, wooden cabinet/console stereo my family owned, listening to Van Miller call the play-by-play. I could literally name the starters and key substitutes for every NBA team. Hearing their names repeated ad infinitum for 48 minutes, multiple times each year, made such trivial pursuit automatic.

Somehow I had a feeling. When I heard Smith had been drafted, albeit as a gesture of community goodwill, I just knew he would exceed expectations. Everyone's but his own. I have no doubt Smith himself wasn't surprised at his success.

(For a more detailed and in-depth description of Smith's passion, his dedication to constantly improve his game, and the role that his coach played in his emergence as the legend that he was, see a related article in B/R http://bleacherreport.com/articles/193388-the-evolution-and-legacy-of-randy-smith-buffalos-brave) 

A year later, his second year as a Brave, this 6-3" high jumper was playing small forward as a starter for the Braves, under Hall of Fame Coach Dr. Jack Ramsay.

I was a freshman in college in Oklahoma. My best friend from high school, Chris Proctor, was at Geneseo State, a comfortable commute from Buffalo. He got a job I would have killed for, had I still lived there.

He was a stats runner for the Braves. When I was home for Christmas break, he got me a press pass. I sat in the Jack Nicholson seats. It was great to be that close to legends like Bob McAdoo and Ernie D, but Smith was always my favorite.

He was a god, and I was in his presence. My soles on the same hardwood as his, in Buffalo's old Memorial "Aud."

I remember standing by the tunnel after the game one night, waiting for my friend to finish his duties so we could leave. Smith came out, dressed in a baby blue three-piece suit, ready to celebrate a dramatic win over another local hero, "Buffalo Bob" Lanier and the Pistons

For at least three minutes, Smith stood three feet from me. I was prostrate. I couldn't move and I couldn't speak, like Moses at the burning bush.

I wish to this day I'd asked for his autograph, but he was a god. I was a bug at his feet. It was enough to be able to smell his after-shave.

But it wasn't just me. Smith was a favorite of many Buffalo fans. This comment from Wayne Salen captures what I would consider a consensus of fan sentiment.

"Randy truly was the heart and mind of the Braves. I remember his collegiate days well. Watched him play many times in the Aud. Was always impressed on how well he did, and how immersed he was in the flow and outcome of every game....but not a showboat. He simply did what had to be done to win. We sometimes forget how great a defender he was..."

Unfortunately Randy Smith must be the least well-known of the NBA greats. He certainly never became a household name, despite being the 1978 NBA All-Star MVP. When you realize that he earned that honor coming off the bench to lead the East to a 135-133 come from behind victory, it is even more impressive.

And that wasn't the end of the story. He played in 900 plus consecutive games over a ten year period. That was a record that stood for fifteen years, until A.C. Green came along.

Despite all of this, Randy Smith faded into obscurity after retirement.  

I found a blog posting that claimed Smith was still following the former Braves (Clippers) with interest during their last playoff run (2004). As much as I'm sure he was cheering for his former team, I'm just as sure that he, like me, took some satisfaction in the fact that the Clippers haven't come close to equaling the success of Randy's Braves when they came so close to unseating the other two behemoths of the Eastern Conference in his day: New York and Boston.

As sad as it was to learn of Smith's untimely death, there was comfort in the news that it happened when he was at home on the treadmill. He was taking care of himself. He was making the most of life.

I don't know much about his life after the NBA other than what I've written here, except that I noted in one of the articles of his death, that an old college friend heard the news from Randy's wife, Angela.

That says something huge about my hero. He was the kind of guy who was still in touch with his oldest friends. He was still married, and his wife knew his friends.

As a former psychotherapist I can interpolate those tidbits of information to conclude that he remained a loyal, decent person.

Bitter, self-absorbed, former major league stars don't stay in touch with their old friends, aren't able to stay married, and if they are married (probably for the fourth or fifth time) their wives don't know their friends.

So, he was the kind of man that I perceived him to be on the basketball court, and on the soccer field before that. Committed to excellence and good health, loyal to his team, faithful to his friends, and a loving husband.

Rest in peace, Mr. Smith.