Before every Bellport High School home basketball game, as each player is introduced, he runs to the corner of the court, bends down and respectfully touches the name painted on the floor. It is an enduring and vibrant tribute to the figure who is identified in large script lettering: “Randy Smith Class of 1967.”
The court was dedicated to Smith 10 years ago, weeks after his death, a reminder that his surprising journey toward becoming an NBA All-Star began right in Bellport.
Everyone who enters the gym sees a Randy Smith sign above the front door and, once inside, notices his retired No. 32 on a banner hanging from the ceiling above the midcourt line.
“He was great, a very gifted player. He had all the gifts it took to be a superstar,” said Carlton Bullock, who was a year behind Smith at Bellport and played with him on the 1966-67 varsity. “He was great at any sport.”
That is the thing about Smith. He left behind memories just as vivid on the soccer field (that arguably was his best sport) and the high jump pit (he set a state record by clearing 6 feet, 6 ¾ inches).
In a 1997 interview with Newsday, Smith said, “I liked baseball, too, but no girls were out there watching anybody play baseball.” Had he stuck with it, he might very well have made the major leagues.
Beyond all of that, though, was the Randy Smith that family, friends and acquaintances knew. To them, he was more than his 12-year NBA career, including a season with the Knicks. There was an inner strength beyond his then-record streak of 906 consecutive NBA games. There was a higher rung even than being the Most Valuable Player of the 1978 NBA All-Star Game, with 27 points in 29 minutes.
To those who knew him best, he was a humble, kind soul whose first post-playing job with the league was helping former players in need and who often returned to Bellport to raise spirits and hopes at his alma mater.
“You never saw Randy upset or angry or not smiling,” said basketball Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who played his first 4 1⁄2 years with Smith on the Buffalo Braves. “He was just happy all the time. He didn’t let bad calls bother him and he wasn’t bothered by things that were happening in his life.”
Plus, he sure could play. “First and foremost, he was an outstanding, fabulous athlete,” McAdoo said from Miami, where he is a scout for the Heat after 19 years as an assistant coach. “He was the fastest basketball player I’ve ever encountered. From baseline to baseline, foul line to foul line, I’ve never seen anything like it. He had world-class speed.”
“Run and jump out the gym, man. He used to give me fits. Randy Smith was [Russell] Westbrook before Westbrook,” Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier said. “He came in a little after me. He actually idolized me, ended up with the Rolls-Royce and all that. The guy used to give me hell. He was so fast. Might have been the best athlete in the league . . . I wish he was on my team. I would have slept better.”
Combine that with a world-class work ethic and you’ve got a success story, one of the best pro basketball players to come out of Long Island.
“While I was there,” McAdoo said of his Buffalo years, “his jumper got better, his ballhandling got better. Randy was a guy who just played all summer. For him, being a seventh-round draft pick and not expecting to make the team, he just put it all out there. He made that team easily, going away.”
Not that Smith or anyone else was thinking NBA when he was a teenager in Bellport. He was just a very solid high school player, one who was named to Newsday’s 1967 All-Long Island second team (among the players on the first team was Cold Spring Harbor’s Chip Morton, whose son, Charlie, saved Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for the Astros).
“He was a good teammate. He was unselfish, he would do whatever he could to make the guys around him better,” Bullock said. “He liked to kid around, do a little singing. You know, back in the day, guys would sit around on street corners and do a little doo-wop. He was into all that, the Motown sound.”
Was he as good a musician as he was an athlete? “Ah, he was OK,” Bullock said with a laugh.
What makes Smith’s rise so compelling was that he was not recruited by major college basketball programs. He drew Buffalo State’s interest with a record performance in the state track meet, which was held on campus. He eventually went out for soccer, which was a Division I sport there, and became an All-American.
He figured he might as well try basketball, too. He not only made the squad but led it to three conference championships. As a junior in 1969-70, he averaged 26.5 points and 14.5 rebounds as the team reached the NCAA College Division Final Four. The Braves, a second-year NBA expansion team possibly looking for some good local publicity, chose him in the seventh round of the 1971 draft.
Seventh-round picks rarely made it past the early days of training camp, but Smith hit the ground running and never stopped.
“He could dribble faster than other people could run,” said McAdoo, who joined the team in 1972. “He was the catalyst in making us the fastest team in the NBA. I remember when I got to the Lakers, they talked about Showtime, and when Phoenix had Steve Nash with Mike D’Antoni, they talked about getting downcourt in seven seconds or less. Well, if they looked, they would see that the Buffalo Braves did that long before Showtime or the Phoenix fast break existed. We were just so fast.
“What made me think about Randy’s speed was when I got traded to the New York Knicks. It took me about two or three weeks before I could get adjusted to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe. I used to get a rebound and throw it out there for Randy and he would run under it and get it. I was throwing passes out to Frazier and Monroe and they just would watch the ball go out of bounds. It was a big adjustment for me.”
Smith began as a defensive specialist and grew so much as a scorer that he averaged more than 20 points four years in a row. The Cavaliers and Knicks each traded a first-round pick to get him. His then-record consecutive-games streak would have gone on longer, but he had to wait 24 hours to clear waivers when he went (by his own request) from the San Diego Clippers to the contending Hawks in 1983. The league ruled that the streak was over because he had missed a game.
No hard feelings. He was gracious when A.C. Green broke the mark in 1997, showing up for the game (as did baseball’s Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr.). Smith had a history of graciousness.
While he was with the Braves, he bought a house for his mother in North Carolina. A popular story in Buffalo says he once noticed two fans stranded in the cold after a game, brought them home and established friendships with both.
Distance and stardom never kept him apart from Bellport. “He would come back in the summers, and whenever he was there, he was great,” said Jim McGowan, who coached Bellport in the 1980s and 1990s and whose wife was in Smith’s graduating class. “Once the kids saw him, everybody wanted to challenge him. He was playing two-on-two, three-on-three. The kids loved it.
“The first time he came in, he was like Joe Namath. He pulled up in a Rolls-Royce and had a fur coat on. I said, ‘Weren’t you hot?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I wanted to make an impression.’ ”
Smith’s point was that Bellport’s teenagers should aspire and know they can get somewhere. “He harped on going to class, getting an education and making something out of your life,” McGowan said.
Bellport was shaken by the news in June 2009 that Smith, 60, died of a heart attack while on a treadmill at Mohegan Sun, where he was an executive host. Tears flowed. Tributes followed.
As Bullock said this week, “He represented Bellport to the best. He carried himself well. It was good to see him do great.”
To this day, his successors in Bellport Clippers uniforms look up to him as they reach down to touch the name emblazoned on their court.
With Steve Popper
Born: Dec. 12, 1948, in Bellport
Died: June 4, 2009 (Age 60)
Vitals: 6-3, 180
High school: Bellport
College: Buffalo State
Drafted: 1971 by Buffalo Braves (seventh round)
NBA CAREER (976 games, 16.7 ppg)
Buffalo Braves* 1971-78
San Diego Clippers 1978-79, 82-83
Cleveland Cavs: 1979-81
Atlanta Hawks** 1983
*Buffalo Braves became the San Diego Clippers after the 1977-78 season
**Traded to Hawks in March, 1983
+Held record of 906 consecutive NBA games (1972-83), broken in 1997 by A.C. Green.
+ 1978 NBA All-Star Game MVP with 27 points in 29 minutes.