You only get one chance to make a first impression, and what an impression Syracuse University basketball made on me when I attended my first game as a wide-eyed 15-year-old at dusty, old Manley Field House on Jan. 14, 1971. That wicked cold night remains indelible all these decades later thanks to an en fuego performance by Bill Smith. Playing against an overmatched Lafayette College center who was six inches shorter, the 6-foot-11 Smith poured in 47 points. And by doing so, the former Rush-Henrietta High School All-American became the answer to a trivia question that continues to stump even diehard Orange devotees nearly a half century later: Which SU player scored the most points in a game?
When I recently mentioned to Smith I was at that game, he joked, “If I had known that, I would have gotten you season tickets.” I chuckled. Bill Smith was talented enough not to need any help from me or any other perceived good-luck charm. In fact, he was so skilled that you’ll continue to see his name splattered all over the SU record books, holding his own against other Orange legends in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. His legacy clearly has stood the test of time, but also has been lost in time. One of the greatest players in Syracuse hoops history is somewhat of a forgotten Orangeman. And that’s a shame.
Heck, Smith also has been forgotten in his hometown, though that oversight will be partially rectified when he’s inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame before the Rochester Red Wings game Sunday at Frontier Field.
Here’s how good Smith was: Good enough to average 28.5 points per game his senior year at Rush-Henrietta to earn Coach & Athlete Magazine first-team All-American honors. Good enough to receive 168 college basketball scholarship offers, making him one of the most heavily recruited athletes ever from Rochester. Good enough to average 20.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game during a Syracuse career that also saw him become just one of three players (Dave Bing and Greg Kohls are the others) to average 20 or more points in consecutive varsity seasons for the Orange. Good enough to be drafted in the second round by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and score 17 points in a single quarter against Basketball Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
From an early age, Smith stood head-and-shoulders above his peers. “I came out long and stayed long,’’ he joked. “From kindergarten on up, I always seemed to be at least a head taller than my classmates.” Height is an advantage, whether grabbing cookies from the top shelf of the cupboard or rebounds off the rim. So it wasn’t surprising that by the time Smith reached junior high, coaches were begging him to take up basketball.
“I was pathetic at first,’’ he recalled, laughing. “Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t dribble. Couldn’t do anything, really. But I had a coach (Joe Drum) who spent tons of time with me, teaching me to do all those things, as well as teaching me to become ambidextrous, and I developed an affinity for the game and eventually became pretty good at it.”
By the end of his senior year, virtually every major college basketball program had offered a scholarship. “About the only coach who didn’t was UCLA’s John Wooden, but I didn’t feel slighted because he already had a pretty good big man,’’ Smith said. “Some guy by the name of Lew Alcindor, who later would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
Smith eventually whittled his list to Syracuse, Louisville and Michigan, and ultimately decided on the ’Cuse because it would enable his family and Mary, the high school sweetheart who became his wife, to make the 90-minute drive to watch him play often. He would be part of the big-men-from-Rochester legacy at SU, joining the likes of Jon Cincebox, Roosevelt Bouie and John Wallace.
After dominating with the freshman team (first-year players weren’t eligible for the varsity in those days), Smith averaged 19 points and 11.6 rebounds during his sophomore season. His second varsity game was a harbinger, as he scored 41 points in a loss to Niagara.
“I thought that was pretty, darn good until I saw on the scoresheet that Calvin Murphy had 68 points for Niagara,’’ he joked. “He was only about 5-foot-9 and I tried my best whenever he drove to the basket, but he was unstoppable from just about anywhere on the court. A true magician. So clever with the ball. He gave me nightmares. I was in therapy for about four years after playing him.”
Smith has fond memories of playing in front of the rowdy fans who inhabited the “Manley Zoo” student cheering section.
“You want to talk about a home-court advantage,’’ he said. “Those people were absolutely crazy. Some of their cheers were outrageous, and often quite obscene. They usually intimidated the heck out of our opponents. We felt invincible there.”
Smith never felt more invincible than that January night in 1971 when he converted 17-of-23 field goals and 13-of-19 free throws to break, by one, the scoring record Bing had set six years earlier.
“I knew I was hot that night, but I had no idea I was closing in on Bing’s record,’’ he said. “Late in the game, we were walking back onto the floor after a timeout, and Coach (Roy) Danforth motioned for the four other guys to come back. He told them how close I was, and asked the guys to feed me the ball. That record clearly doesn’t happen without Coach doing that and without my teammates being so unselfish.”
That game would be the highlight of a senior season in which Smith averaged 22.7 points and 14.5 rebounds per game as the Orange earned a bid to the NIT, which in those days was vastly more prestigious than it is now. His heroics helped remove some of the stench from the previous season, which was cut short for Smith after he punched a referee and was suspended for the final five games. All these years later, he regrets it ever happened, but said there was more to the story than people realize. The game was played in West Virginia, and after Smith was called for a fifth foul late in the game, he voiced his displeasure to the ref. Smith said the official shocked him by smacking him in the face.
“I was stunned and then I was angry,’’ he said. “At that point, he no longer was a guy in a striped shirt, and I retaliated. Next thing you know, there were fights everywhere as people stormed onto the floor—a real donnybrook.”
After Smith was suspended, SU assistant coach Bill Vesp told him to keep his nose clean, tend to his academics in summer school, and hope that his subsequent good behavior would result in reinstatement. And that’s what happened before his senior year.
The Trail Blazers wound up selecting him 43rd overall, and the sky seemed the limit after that 17-point-outburst against Jabbar. But Smith wound up tearing several knee ligaments his rookie year, and was never the same. He called it quits in his second season, and eventually landed a long-time job with the famed wealth management firm, Smith Barney.
Smith never stopped bleeding Orange, and finally made the trek from his Oregon home to the Carrier Dome for the first time in 2008. During a timeout, he was shown on the Jumbotron and it was mentioned that he still held the all-time record for points in a game. His grown sons, who had arranged the trip, were among the 31,000 fans standing and applauding. He later attended the post-game press conference, and SU head coach Jim Boeheim, who had been an assistant coach during Smith’s SU days, acknowledged his old player.
“That’s Billy Smith,’’ Boeheim told reporters. “He looks as good today as he did back in 1971. In fact, for a minute during today’s game, I almost called his number.”
Smith is surprised his scoring record still stands. He thought Gerry McNamara, who had 43 in an NCAA tournament game, might break it. And there’s no doubt in his mind that if Carmelo Anthony had not departed after his freshman season, he would have shattered the mark.
“I think one thing working in my favor is the balanced scoring that’s a hallmark of Jimmy’s teams,’’ Smith said. “He’s looking for several guys to score in double-figures, and that’s been a winning approach.”
So, Smith’s record endures. And 48 years later, the first impression he made on me remains indelible.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.