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Ranallo’s account portrays unlikely rise of Randy Smith

February 18, 2011 2 comments

As the NBA All-Star Weekend approaches, we go back in the way-back machine to 1978. In the Braves’ final year in Buffalo and his team in a state of disarray, Randy Smith took the nation by storm and was voted the All-Star game’s Most Valuable Player. The game featured several amazing shots by Smith who had joined the Braves in its early years after being selected as a 7th round draft choice in 1971.

Phil Ranallo, veteran writer of the “Buffalo Courier Express” newspaper brillantly recounts Smith’s stellar performance in his morning column: “What’s New, Harry?”. Ironically, the Braves’ coach at the time, Cotton Fitzsimmons, had doubts about Smith’s abilities, especially in clutch situations. In a style that made him a staple at Western New York breakfast tables, Ranallo recounts not just Smith’s All-Star performance, but also the unlikely path that brought him there.

WHAT’S NEW, HARRY?

Phil Ranallo, February 7, 1978

   LET’S ALL HOPE THAT Cotton Fitzsimmons was paying close attention Sunday afternoon as Randy Smith – with the world watching – did everything with the basketball but take the air out of it.

   If Fitzsimmons was all eyes as Randy transformed the NBA All-Star game into “The Randy Smith Show,” Cotton’s worries are all over – at least in any future critical late-game situations the Braves may find themselves.

   I’m willing to bet that, from this moment on, whenever the Braves are in desperate need of a field goal in the dying seconds of a basketball match, Fitzsimmons will know exactly what to do.

   I mean, Cotton will do the logical thing.

   He’ll order Randy to take one of those high-percentage shots of his, one of those dazzling high-arching 35-footers – the kind that way, way up there, gather a little snow, then come down and go, “Swish!”

   What Randy Smith did Sunday, in the Atlanta Omni, is straight out of Frank Merriwell – or straight out of the wildest dreams of little kids who go to bed with their arms wrapped around a basketball.

   And what Smith did – what happened to him in the Omni – could not have happened to a more deserving fellow.

   FOR A LONG TIME now, Randy Smith has been one of the best basketball players in the business. And for an equally long time, all he ever got in the plaudits or recognition department – beyond the city limits of Buffalo – was the business.

   Despite the fact that talent oozes from his every pore, what Randy always received from pro basketball America was short shrift.

   In the balloting for this All-Star game, for example, Smith failed to make it among the top 10 guards in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. He picked up fewer votes than Al Lorenzo did in the last Democratic mayoral primary.

   Smith went into this game a veritable unknown basketball soldier.

   But Randy came out of this game a basketball guard of the highest rank, a celebrated hero, a basketball darling – a guy who, figuratively, was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of pro basketball America.

   USING THE OMNI AS his headquarters, Randy introduced himself to the pro basketball world – “Hello, all of you out there in basketball land; my name’s Randy Smith; I’m quite a pro basketball player; so watch and I’ll prove it.”

   Smith, in this All-Star match, showed ‘em all what he really is – a shooting star of breathtaking dimensions.

   With a wondrous, spellbinding demonstration of long-range firing, Smith, the city slicker from the East, won the West.

   Smith, the basketball pride of Buffalo, buried the West in a blizzard of baskets.

   Fittingly, the play on which Smith climaxed his 11-basket performance was his piece de resistance. It left the folks in the Omni – and in television land – gasping.

   The play was vintage Randy Smith.

   Randy stole the ball and dealt it to Julius Erving – and Erving shot and missed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Smith appeared, leaped, grabbed the rebound, put up a 15-footer and – “Swish!”

    SO NOW THAT THIS All-Star game is history, Randy Smith no longer is a Rodney Dangerfield of pro basketball – no longer is a guy who commands no respect from the nation’s basketball fans.

   They now know exactly who Randy Smith is – a sleek, quicksilver fellow with a marvelous outside jump shot and incredibly fast hands that can catch flies in mid-air and steal hubcaps off speeding automobiles.

   The fans now know that if there’s anything faster than Smith’s hands, it’s his feet.

    It was Smith’s blazing speed, by the way, that gave him his chance in pro basketball.

    Seven years ago, after the Braves drafted Smith seventh in the draft, Randy’s chances of making the Buffalo squad were regarded as slimmer than slim.

    Until he took one of Coach Dolph Schayes’ agility tests.

    THE FIRST DAY they passed out the uniforms that season, back in 1971, Smith popped the eyes of Schayes and the rest of the Braves brass with his performance in the agility drill.

   In this drill, the players ran from one end of the line of the court to quarter-court and back, then to half-court and back, then to three-quarter court and back, and finally to the other end line and back.

   Well, when Randy completed that first agility drill, his closest pursuer still hadn’t made it to the other end of the court.

    Randy was so much the best, so much the fastest, that he could have showered before the second guy got home.

    Right then and there, Schayes and the rest of the Braves people – Eddie Donovan, John McCarthy and Joe Niland – made up their minds.

  “For a kid with this kind of speed,” Schayes said, “there’s got to be a place on the squad.”

   SO RANDY SMITH stuck with the Braves. And now, today, fans everywhere know who he is and why guards who guard him run the risk of going cross-eyed – since it sometimes seems that there are three of him.

   Randy Smith, the fellow who for seven years, night after night, has played beautiful music out there on the basketball court – the guy who has conducted, composed, arranged – has finally been allowed to make all the curtain calls, instead of somebody else.

   Sunday afternoon, in the Atlanta Omni, justice was served.

For more on the Braves see the book “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” which features a comprehensive team history and over 260 vintage photos.

As Aud falls author recalls rise of Braves

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment
Note: It’s been over a year since the release of the book Buffalo, Home of the Braves. We’ve reposted a column written by Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News from 2009. The book is now classified as “out of print” but there are still a limited number of copies available online from the Sun Bear Press web site and Amazon.com.

 

Jerry Sullivan

May 22, 2009

I can see it from the third floor of The Buffalo News, a crumbling carcass of steel and brick. You think of the ghosts and memories contained in the old Memorial Auditorium, and in the hearts and minds of the athletes and fans who spent so many hours there.

Tim Wendel remembers. Wendel grew up in Lockport. He came of age in the 1970s, when pro sports in Buffalo were at their zenith and two daily newspapers were there to record the moment. Wendel would run out of his house on cold winter mornings to pick up the old Courier-Express, and to see what Phil Ranallo had to say in his column.

Wendel went to Syracuse to learn journalism. He got work as a sports rewrite guy at the Courier, editing Ranallo’s stuff. He was on his honeymoon in September 1982 when he got a phone call from a friend who was watching his apartment. Your apartment’s fine, the friend said, but your paper closed.

He ended up in Washington, D. C., where his wife got a job with the Post. Wendel wrote a book about the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team. He covered baseball and wrote a baseball novel about Fidel Castro.

He remained a Buffalo guy at heart. He and his brother, Chris, sat around at family gatherings, rehashing games from their youth. One day, they were carrying on about the Braves when a relative said, “Why don’t you guys shut up and write about it?”

That’s where the idea for the book started. Wendel got access to the Courier archives and reread Ranallo’s old Braves columns. Chris said he should start calling some of the old Braves. The first call went to Ernie DiGregorio.

“I said, ‘I want to talk about the Braves,’ ” Wendel said Thursday. “His reaction was, ‘Wow! Yeah, let’s talk about the Braves.’ All the guys felt that way.”

Wendel’s labor of love, “Buffalo, Home of the Braves,” was more than four years in the making. On May 30, Wendel will be at New Era Cap on Delaware Avenue for a book signing and release.

The book is 216 pages, coffee table size, and costs $89. That’s a tad pricey, but it’s hard to place a value on people’s memories. There are some 250 photographs, most by Robert L. Smith. There are eight chapters, one for each year of the Braves’ existence. Wendel’s text is accompanied by 15 of Ranallo’s columns.

“We’re bringing Ranallo back to life, so to speak,” Wendel said. “Once again, I’m playing straight man to Phil. I’m writing the narrative and he’s the voice of outrage and reason.”

Wendel traces the team from its inception through the playoff seasons to the grim departure, after Paul Snyder sold the team to John Y. Brown. There are eerie parallels to the current sports scene. Snyder wanted to regionalize his franchise. The Braves played as many as eight games a year in Toronto.

“The Braves’ so-called home games in Toronto, about a 90-minute drive north of the border, often grated on the team’s die-hard fans,” Wendel writes.

Sound familiar, Bills fans?

Wendel talked with most of the main parties, including DiGregorio, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Jack Marin and the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay.

“They all hold a sweet spot in their hearts for Buffalo,” Wendel said. “They realize this is where they came of age. They talked about how great it was to play in the Aud, and how great the fans were, and about going out at night. They talked about going to Cole’s and seeing Bobby Chandler and the Bills there.

“They loved the Aud. McAdoo, Randy, Marin, it was almost Field of Dreams stuff, about shooting a basketball at the Aud. They loved shooting there.”

It’s good to know that, as the Aud was coming down, a Buffalo guy was retrieving its brief but precious NBA memories, which live forever.

Today’s NBA reflects the speed and athleticism of Randy Smith

June 3, 2010 Leave a comment

By Tim Wendel

Of course, height is often paramount in basketball. As the NBA Finals get ready to tip, much of the discussion has been about the front lines. Andrew Bynum’s knee. Kendrick Perkins’ technical fouls. Phil Jackson calling out Kevin Garnett.

But the series could turn on another crucial element that Buffalo Braves fans know all so well – speed.

Today is the one-year anniversary of Randy Smith’s death. He was the local star who often transformed the game on the fly.

“Randy Smith was the perfect physical specimen,” Van Miller, the team’s legendary play-by-play man, told us during the writing of Buffalo, Home of the Braves. “There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the guy. … Randy was so quick that he could guard anybody.”

Or beat anybody else down the court, even when dribbling the ball.

NBA insiders know how valuable speed can be. Rajon Rondo was only a pup when the Celtics won the championship in 1998. Now he has matured into the team’s court leader due, in large part, to his ability to fly down the floor.

 In a few weeks, the NBA draft will be held and Kentucky’s John Wall is expected to be the top choice overall. He’s not a big man, either. But Wall also has the ability to run the floor, too.

Both of them are following in Randy Smith’s footsteps.

Buffalo celebrity smackdown

April 13, 2010 1 comment

Interesting results and comments from a weekend ‘Buffalo News’ article that attempted to define, classify, and define what celebrity status means in Western New York.

“Star power: What it means to be a WNY celebrity” included an “A” List and “B” List along with list of celebs that have lived in the Buffalo area and famous and pseudo-famous people on to the “Celebs who have passed on” list.

After reviewing the multiple lists, I decided that even from my jaded perspective of someone who has not lived in the region for years, that the “Buffalo News” staff missed some obvious WNY celebrities of local and even national significance.

I was moved enough to write in (along with many others) omissions to the lists, in fact the accumulated omission list from the reader’s comments section has star power compared to the roster put together by the seemingly young “News” staff. If one is under the ago 40 Tim Horton may be more associated with the doughnut franchise than his Hall of Fame hockey career. Horton made the list, whoch begs the question: Do people know what the people listed actually acomplished?

Here are the names the “Buffalo News” missed, compiled into one list. See how many you many you recognized or would have missed:

  • Jack Kemp: former Bills quarterback. U.S. Congressman, Vice Presidential candidate
  • Grover Washington, Jr.: soul-jazz saxiphonist, pioneer of the smooth jazz music genre
  • Rick Azar: longtime WKBW sports anchor
  • Bob McAdoo: Buffalo Brave, NBA Hall of Fame member, NBA scoring leader and MVP
  • Randy Smith: Three sport All-American at Buffalo State, NBA All-Star MVP, still Braves/Clippers franchise leader is every major category
  • Foster Brooks: entertainer, actor
  • Van Miller: longtime voice of the Bills and Braves, sport anchor WBEN for decades
  • Danny Neaverth: morning radio host, public address announcer during glory days of Bills and Braves
  • Ed Kilgore: local sports anchor since the early 70’s
  • Freddie Smerlas: former Bills great and radio personality
  • Sal Maglie: major league all-star pitcher
  • Stephanie Miller: sundicated radio talk-show host
  • Seth Godin: nationally acclaimed business writer, marketing expert, entrepreneur
  • Kim Alexis; super model in the 70’s and 80’s, television host and fitness expert
  • William Fichtner: character actor
  • Rick Jeanneret: voice of the Buffalo Sabres

Please feel free to add to the list.

Buffalo Master’s Basketball Tournament

March 12, 2010 Leave a comment

by Chris Wendel

Last week I attended the Buffalo Masters Basketball Tournament at Alumni Hall at the University of Buffalo, selling copies of  “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” and meeting a good number of Buffalo Braves fans. Plenty of Braves stories were told including one that revealed the motivation of  Paul Snyder’s to sell the team in 1976.

In its 17th year, the tournament has over 500 player and also honored former Buffalo Brave Randy Smith. who was a supporter and participant of the Tournament.

Thank you to Peter Durham and his staff for organizing the event that drew players from throughout Western New York as well as Detroit, Syracuse, Toronto, Dayton, Columbus, and California. A one point on a practice court near me, I saw a player in his late 70’s helping a seven year boy hone his shooting skills. That’s something one doesn’t see too often, but it’s what the Buffalo Masters Tournament is all about.

Buffalo State celebrates Randy Smith’s place in history

February 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Randy Smith in 1971 playing for Buff State at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium

The long overdue tribute to Randy Smith from his alma mater Buffalo State was held last night at the school’s Sports Arena. During the half-time presentation, Smith was celebrated for his gentle caring demeanor, as well as his phenomenal sports career.

The ceremony included a short speech from the Buff State Athletic Director Jerry Boyes, a proclamation from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (noticeably absence was the key to the city), and touching remembrance from Smith’s wife Anjela. After the presentations, a huge banner in Smith’s honor was raised before the surprisingly sparse crowd, and his number was finally retired.

Before he became a NBA All-star with the Buffalo Braves , Smith was a three sport All-American at Buff State from 1967-71, excelling in soccer, track, and of course basketball. His soccer coach at Buff State talked of the immense talent Smith was blessed with as a soccer player, mentioning that the Bengals during that era were ranked as high as 7th nationally (there were no divisional categories at that time). Smith scored a record 40 goals in his three year soccer career which remains a school record

In 1970 Smith led the Buff State to the NCAA College Division Final Four in 1970, and was a 1969 track All-American in the triple jump, setting a NCAA triple jump record at the time at 52 feet, 1 ¼ inches. It was mentioned last night that there is likely no other school that has celebrated a three sport All-American. Upon further review, apparently the only other person to claim the three sport honor is Jim Carrington of Navy who excelled in football, swimming, and lacrosse in the 1940’s. Ironically Carrington passed away on June 1, 2009 four days before Smith.

All of this is remarkable in the context of Buff State, a small school that is many times confused by the outside world with the University of Buffalo. The night’s presentation put things into historical perspective, making it clear that Randy Smith represented the greatest era in Buffalo State athletic history, perhaps forever.

Buffalo State gets Banner Idea

February 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Two Buffalo area events scheduled for next week will resonate for those who have memories and interest in the Buffalo Braves. The most noteworthy is Buffalo State College’s tribute to their three-sport All-American Randy Smith to be held during the halftime of the mens basketball game against Cortland State on Friday February at 8 PM at the Buff State Sports Arena.

Smith who died unexpectedly last spring, excelled in track and soccer at Buff State while also honing his basketball skills with the Bengals, before embarking on an improbable NBA career with the Braves.

According to an article which appeared in The Record (student newspaper) on Wednesday, Feb. 10th, “Smith’s mother, wife, and daughter along with several coaches and teammates will be on hand for the ceremony that will include a banner being raised in his honor being raised to the rafters.”

For those of us who have been banging the drum for the Buffalo Sabres and HSBC Arena to honor Randy (sorry I can’t keep referring to him as Smith) with a banner, it’s nice for Buff  State’s Athletic Department to have an appropriate ceremony for “arguably the greatest student-athlete to ever don Orange and Black in Buffalo State history.”

Another special event slated for Tuesday February 16th features devout Buffalo Brave fan and Western New York native John Howell. “If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” plays off the painful punchline from the musical “A Chorus Line” to produce a powerful presentation about Buffalo’s roots and more importantly suggests that the future of Western New York  is brighter than one would imagine. Howell wrote a great piece on after Randy Smith that we’ve featured before, but “Remembering Randy Smith” is always worth revisiting.

Chris Wendel, co-author of  “Buffalo, Home of the Braves” will also be at the event to sign and sell copies of the Braves coffee-table style book.

“If you’re from Buffalo…Is Suicide Really Redundant?” will be held at 8 PM on Tuesday February 16th at Allen Hall at the University of Buffalo’s South Campus.