Memories of Randy Smith
Randy Smith was a great athlete who became a great basketball player. I joined Randy at Buffalo in his second year in the league. As an expansion franchise, Buffalo was not a good team. In fact, I was the third coach in two years. The team was in disarray and Randy was a player with rough skills, but great athleticism who could run like the wind and jump. He was very, very athletic. He was a very good soccer player and a long jumper at Buffalo State. He became involved in basketball relatively late and it was not his best sport for some time.
We had an out-of-bounds play that utilized his great speed. After an opposing team's made free throw, one of our big forwards, Garfield Heard, would take the ball out of the net. Randy would position himself near half court, then start back as if to receive the ball, foul line extended at that end of the floor. When [Smith's] man came, took one step, Randy would take off. Garfield would throw the ball. I'd say, "Garfield, you throw it and Randy will catch it." Randy would always catch up with the ball. Sometimes the ball would seem to be ahead of him, and he'd go and get it. He was an incredible athlete.
He was a wonderful, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Whenever he'd call me years after our NBA careers ended, he would say, "Coach, this is Randy!" as if I had seen him just an hour ago. He was such a likeable guy who became a very sound player, a great competitor and such a durable one, as well. He's well known for his 906 consecutive-games-played streak.
Early on I wasn't aware of his games-played streak. My first year in Buffalo (1972-73), we had a poor season. Randy's streak was underway but he was maybe only a year or two into it. We ended up 21-61 and I was always shuffling the lineup with the rag-tag group we had. I remember a road game where I was trying some new things and Randy hadn't played in the first half but didn't say anything. I eventually got him in in the second half, unaware of any streak. I was just trying to see which guys on my roster could play. He came to me after the game and told me he hadn't missed a game last season and had hoped to play every game that season. I said, "Don't worry; you're a good player, so I'll play you."
Even though we didn't have much success, that was a fun group to coach. We ended that season with eight straight road games and lost them all. In one of the games we were playing well and actually beating Golden State. They started to make a run at us, so I signaled to Randy and told him to take a timeout. Well, he had the ball but just kind of tossed the ball to the ref without actually asking for the timeout and the official jumped out of the way of the ball and one of the Golden State players grabbed the ball and took it down court for an easy score. When I asked Randy why he never actually called for the timeout, he said "coach, he knew I wanted a timeout."
The following season (1973-74) we only kept three of our 12 players: Randy, Bob McAdoo and Bob Kauffman. We had nine new players but we went from 21 wins to 42 wins and made the playoffs. It was a big turnaround and Randy was a big part of that.
Ernie DiGregorio, McAdoo and Randy were our three key players that season. I remember Randy wanted to handle the ball more, and I said, "No. [Braves point guard] Ernie DiGregorio handles the ball." Randy would come to me and say, "Coach, I can make the play!" We weren't a great defensive team but we could run and score. I said, "Randy, look, if you're me, and you're getting a fast break going what would you do? Think of it this way: If we're on the fast break, do you want Ernie DiGregorio on the wing, or Randy Smith?" Smith said, "Well, I'd say Randy Smith." I said, "Right! Ernie can make the pass, and you can make the pass, too. But Ernie can't finish on the fast break like you can." I would pump him up and say, "Nobody runs the fast break like you do." And Randy would say, "Well, you're right coach."
As a young man, he fought a stammer in his speech. It must have been a real battle in several ways. One time during a game that wasn't going well I raised my hand to make a point to the team in a timeout and Randy drew back almost as if he was afraid he was going to be hit. I asked what was wrong and he explained that he'd been hit a lot when he was young and he was afraid I was going to hit him.
He was kind of a flamboyant character, too, and drove this beautiful Rolls Royce. I don't know what his salary was, but it was probably $25,000 to $30,000 a year back then. But he had a Rolls Royce. It seemed bizarre almost, but he loved the car and the idea that he could have one. He was a fan favorite in Buffalo partly because he had gone to Buffalo State and most of the town knew something of him from his college days.
The great Walt Frazier was known to have said he hated playing Randy because he was constantly in motion. Later, when I left Buffalo to coach in Portland, we won the championship the first year there and I was the Western Conference All-Star coach in 1978. Randy and Bob McAdoo, another Brave, were selected for the East team. Before the game we had a chance to congratulate each other on being there. Those guys had been through a lot of on-court struggles in Buffalo before and even after I got there, so we were happy at each other's success. But in that All-Star game, Randy went crazy. He made a couple of running one-handers, one which was just inside midcourt just before the half that brought the East team back within double-digits, and another at the end of the third period. They won the game 133-125 and Randy was MVP of the game. It was a great day for him.