There aren't all that many people left in the world for Randy Smith to surprise. He's done it to every other guard in the NBA by now. Jack Ramsay, his coach at Buffalo, is on the list and so is Eddie Donovan, until last week the Braves' general manager, who picked Randy as a 6'3" forward in the seventh round of the 1971 college draft in what amounted to a public-relations gesture. Howie MacAdam, Randy's coach at Buffalo State, is another. He didn't even know Smith played basketball until school began. In his capacity as State's Athletic Director, MacAdam had recruited Smith for the track team.
Randy has a penchant for springing surprises. A while back he astonished the Braves' management by telling them he was thinking of playing professional soccer in the NBA off-season. He would probably excel at that game, too, and in the Superstars competition, if he were invited. But his biggest surprise this season is the way he has helped the playoff-bound Braves to their best record ever. This is the year that Randy Smith finally managed to harness his spectacular speed and his exceptional physical talents and has emerged as one of pro basketball's finest guards.
Ray Melchiorre, the Braves' trainer, says Smith has the most perfect body for an athlete he's ever seen. "Legs like Secretariat," he says. "You could take him into an anatomy class and show every muscle in the body." Before Smith came to the Braves, he never had an ankle taped and never had an injury, despite playing one sport or another practically every day of his life since childhood. This is only his fourth year with Buffalo, and he holds the NBA's second-longest consecutive game string (259) as of the end of last week.
At Bellport (L.I.) High School Smith starred in basketball, soccer (there was no football team), and track, but didn't draw a great deal of attention from college scouts, partly because Bellport is a small high school and partly because his college board scores were not much higher than his scoring average.
But he did catch the fancy of MacAdam, who watched him at the State Intersectional track meet in his senior year when he won the high jump with a state record leap of 6'6¾" and placed third in the long jump with a 23'1½"-Buffalo State admitted him, and the Randy Smith legend began.
Not content to sit around until the track season started, he went out for freshman soccer (Buffalo State didn't have a football team, either) and scored just three fewer goals than all of State's opponents combined. After that, MacAdam suspected that he might have discovered a basketball star to boot. Soon it was obvious that he had, and Smith gained a courtside following despite the presence of two certified All-Americas in the area: Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure and Calvin Murphy of Niagara.
As a junior, Smith led State to the semifinals of the NCAA College Division championship, averaging 30 points a game. He scored all the goals in a wild 4-0 soccer victory over archrival Niagara. He set a school record in the high jump (6'10¾") and briefly held the national college division record in the triple-jump (52'1¼") Randy Smith stories proliferated. After spending the night in a Philadelphia jail—the result of a complicated misunderstanding with an off-duty patrolman—he placed second in two events at the Penn Relays. A month after the last basketball game of his sophomore year, he won five events in a dual track meet with the University of Buffalo.
As it turned out, Smith needed every bit of the celebrity he gained in Buffalo. If he hadn't been so well known there, the Braves, then a pitiful expansion team, might never have drafted him. "We didn't exactly expect Randy to make our team," said Donovan recently. "When you're drafting that far down, you're looking to give a local kid a chance who might not get one. With his name, if he makes it he helps us. If not, we still look good for giving him a chance."
At the Braves' 1971 camp, Smith again found himself overshadowed, this time by two rookies of greater acclaim—7'1" Elmore Smith and high-scoring Guard Fred Hilton. On the first day, Coach Dolph Schayes lined everyone up for the "suicide drill," a gruelling series of back-and-forth sprints. When Smith finished, Hilton, his closest pursuer, still had a zig and zag to make. "Something's wrong," yelled Schayes. "Do it again." Same thing. Randy Smith sat down under the basket waiting for the rest to finish. "He's fast," said Schayes. "He's staying."
Smith began his rookie season as a forward, the 12th man, but John McCarthy, who replaced Schayes when the season was one game old, decided Randy should become a guard. By the end of the season he had made the difficult transition and was a starting guard on a team that finished 22-60. Says veteran Guard Em Bryant, who was with the Braves then, "Randy may not appear to be the smartest man in the world, but he is a brilliant athlete. Anything he sees that looks right, he can do."
What Randy docs best is play defense. "There is not a man in the league who can run with him," says Ramsay. Smith sometimes literally runs circles around his man to steal the ball from behind, or disrupts the other team's flow by deflecting the ball with a blurring swipe of his foot, both tactics he has adapted from soccer. He will run full speed into a pick and spin away without losing either his balance or his speed. Last season he ranked third in the league in steals, averaging 2.5 a game.
Smith has improved on offense, where the forward-to-guard switch is more difficult. He is the Braves' second-leading scorer with 18 points a game, is a .475 shooter and stands fourth in the league in assists. What may be of most value to his team, though, is his ability to run the opponent's best guard into exhaustion, which he takes particular pleasure in doing to the Knicks' Walt Frazier.
Soaking both feet in ice water after the Knicks had lost one to Buffalo in mid-season, Frazier shook a weary head. Smith had scored only 14 points and Frazier had put in 24, but the Knicks had come undone when Frazier slowed down in the game's closing minutes.
"I hate guarding him," said Frazier. "Even when he isn't scoring, he's running so fast all over the place and I have to chase him. I feel like a free safety."
What Smith lacks is consistency on offense—the game-after-game reliability of a Frazier, a Jo Jo White, a Phil Chenier. As the Braves' "off-guard" last year, Randy was free of many duties, which were handled by his backcourt mate, rookie Ernie DiGregorio. After DiGregorio was injured early this season, Randy had to become the playmaker, and when Forward Jim McMillian went out with appendicitis soon after DiGregorio was sidelined, Buffalo was expected to fold. Instead it led the Atlantic Division until Boston regained its form. "I had to readjust," Smith says, "to be conscious of setting up plays."
It wasn't easy for a jumping-jack ex-forward who moved so fast in his first two years that he would run away from his own teammates on a fast break. "I've seen Randy turn a three-on-one break into a one-on-zero," says Melchiorre. "He'd run away from both his wing men and the defender and lay it in himself." Melchiorre made Smith wear a weighted belt in practice so his teammates could keep up with him.
"He's amazing," says Ramsay, who takes a fatherly shine to all his players. "Each player needs the correct approach. Randy requires patience and a soft hand. He does best if I can keep him calm and poised and make my point to him. But I have to be sure that he understands.
"Two years ago he used to do things you wouldn't believe. We had a game in Milwaukee and they ran off six straight points. I wanted a time-out. Randy was bringing the ball up and I yelled, 'Randy, time-out!' He just left the ball in the middle of his dribble and came over. He forgot to call it."
In another game that year at Golden State, the Braves were playing unusually well. They led all the way, but the Warriors were catching up in the final seconds. After a Golden State field goal, the Warriors pressed as Smith tried to find an open receiver. With the clock ticking down and the crowd screaming, Ramsay remembers yelling for Randy to call a time-out. Instead, Smith casually flipped the ball in the direction of Don Murphy, the referee, who had to jump out of the way. Jeff Mullins got the ball and the Warriors went on to win. "I was beside myself," says Ramsay. "I said, 'Randy, what are you doing?' He looked puzzled and said, 'Coach, the ref knew I was throwing it to him.' "
Ramsay and the Braves can laugh off such stories now, as Smith gains what Ramsay calls "game awareness": knowledge of how much time is left in the game and on the 24-second clock, the team foul situation, who's guarding who. "Randy didn't used to see these things," says McMillian. "He'd be going so fast he couldn't look up to see what was happening."
With his easygoing manner, accentuated by a breathy, soft, singsong voice, Randy Smith is the most fun of all the Braves. His byplay with teammate Bob McAdoo keeps the team loose and laughing. His penchant for dashing from hotel lobbies with an open suitcase, looking like a runaway clothesline, early earned him the nickname "Two-Till" as in "two minutes till we leave and Randy's just getting ready." Two seasons ago he contributed more than $600 in fines to the fund that pays for an end-of-the-season team party. At the $1,200 spread, Smith stood up and announced, "Half of this comes from my pocket. Now stand back while I gorge myself."
Now 26, Smith is becoming somewhat better organized, as befits a man with a two-year $200,000 contract. The only time he's been late this season was when he couldn't start the 1964 sand-and-green Rolls-Royce he bought in September. He also owns a '66 Corvette, which he drives in the winter because he doesn't want to subject the Rolls to Buffalo's snows. The chief signs of opulence in his modest two-bedroom townhouse apartment are a large color TV surrounded by $2,500 worth of stereo equipment, including a pair of refrigerator-sized speakers ("They could blow down the house") and 300 albums.
Smith is thinking of buying a home for his mother Jewel, who lives with four teen-aged daughters and a 3-month-old grandson in a small weathered house in a deteriorating subdivision of Medford, L.I. They exist on the $540 a month they receive from welfare. Smith talks about the situation uneasily. He says he helps them out whenever he feels he can. "I may be making my $100,000," he says, "but that isn't really enough to support all those dependents."
"I don't ask him for anything, and when he offers I accept," says Mrs. Smith, who proudly displays a shelf full of scrapbooks and a wall full of pictures of her son. She is also proud of the 1975 Mercury he provided so she can drive to New York whenever the Braves come to town.
In January, the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League asked Smith to play with them during the off-season. His immediate reaction was to say yes ("Soccer was my first love"), but the Braves, with veto power, said no, the risks being too great for a man who could become one of basketball's alltime-best guards. Ramsay agrees that the potential is there. "Certain players never made the wrong play," he says. "Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were two of them. I don't know if Randy will reach that level, but it's possible. As far as pure physical ability, I haven't seen anyone in the league to match him."
"I've always been the best in everything," says Smith. "Small high school, small college, no publicity. Then nobody thought I could make pro ball. People have always come to me and said, 'Randy, I didn't think you could do it.' I always say, 'Well, I thought I could.'" And it will be no great surprise if he winds up driving a 1975 Rolls-Royce.