Smith: Bridgeport's best from the 1980s.
CHRIS ELSBERRY firstname.lastname@example.org 09/09/2007 BRIDGEPORT — When the Orcutt Boys Club finally shut its doors for the night, Charles Smith still wanted to play basketball. So he and his friends, eight or nine strong, would walk over to the outdoor courts at Father Panik Village, where, in the shadows of the lights that surrounded the courts, drug dealers did their business. But when they saw Smith and company coming, the drug dealers vanished. Most of them, anyway. Maybe it was his size (he stood 6-foot-10) or maybe it was his stature as a rising high school star. Whatever it was, they left Smith alone. "Actually, some of them would ask if they could play with us," Smith said. "In high school, we'd go wherever and do whatever, and around 11 o'clock at night, we'd go play at the Village until the sun came up. It would be myself and a lot of the guys, and we would just play until we got tired. There were a few (drug) guys that would play with us and they'd drive to the basket and we'd let them score, we wouldn't foul them. We'd just run up and down the court with them." Smith grew up on Dover Street, over by the General Electric plant, playing at the Boys Club or wherever he could find a game. He led Harding to three straight MBIAC titles and state crowns in his junior and senior seasons. He played four years at the University of Pittsburgh, leading the Panthers to the Big East title as a senior in 1988. In 1986, he led the United States to the gold medal in the World Championships, and in 1988, he won a bronze medal with the U.S. in the Summer Olympics. He was the third pick in the 1988 NBA draft by Philadelphia before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. He spent nine seasons in the NBA, playing for the Clippers, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs. He was the 1989 NBA Rookie of the Year, and in 1994, he played in the NBA Finals. His Harding jersey, No. 15, is retired. His Pitt jersey, No. 32, is retired. He is one of Bridgeport's finest. "I love Bridgeport and I will always be from Bridgeport and I will never be ashamed of being from Bridgeport," the 42-year-old Smith said. "That's where it all started for me." Starting early Smith started playing basketball at the Orcutt Boys Club, but also honed his skills playing in the old People's Bank summer leagues. He went to Harding but got a little disillusioned after his freshman year, when Smith played only for the freshman team. "I didn't play either varsity or junior varsity and after my freshman year, I wanted to go to Bullard-Havens," Smith said. "I'd go over there and play with those guys, and one day I came home and told my mom (Dorothy) that I wanted to go to Bullard-Havens, and she said, 'Why?' And I said that the guys at Bullard-Havens weren't that good and if I went there, I'd play more. And her response was, 'You want to go and play with guys that aren't as good as the ones at Harding so you can be a lot better and stand out?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'No, you go up there (to Harding) and work and make yourself a standout.' She wouldn't let me go to Bullard-Havens." So Smith stayed at Harding. And worked. And became a standout. Over the next three seasons, the Presidents won three MBIAC titles. In Smith's junior year, Harding went undefeated and won the Class LL title. The next year, the Presidents lost just once en route to a second straight state crown. He scored a reported 1,400 points, was named both a Parade Magazine and a McDonald's All-American. Early in his senior season, after finally deciding on Pitt, WICC-AM broadcast the press conference live. "It was an amazing run, but that one loss (to Wilbur Cross) still stands out," Smith said. "We had seven guys that went Division I. Back then, guys really competed. Our practices were way tougher than the games. "We had Mike Gaines, Willie McBroom, Mike Jones, Warren Bradley, Buddy Jordan, Robert Summerville. We had a huge front line and great guards, Frenchy Tomlin, Davis Brown, Marvin Griffin. Everyone competed so hard to get playing time. We had a great time. You'd see eight or nine of us walking around the mall or hanging out at someone's house after school. Our chemistry was great." In high school, Smith learned a simple rule: play hard and stay focused. He carried that with him throughout the rest of his basketball career. "You didn't care about anything that wasn't happening on the court, you just played, and you played with reckless abandon," he said. Ranked as one of the top 15 high school players in the country, Smith's services were sought everywhere, including UConn, where the Huskies were looking to establish themselves in the still-young Big East Conference. But rather than see cows, Smith wanted to see skyscrapers. "I went up there (UConn) but I wanted to go to a city campus. Pittsburgh was downtown and UConn's campus at the time, it was very rural," he said. "They still had cows around and it was nothing close to what it is today. There was pressure to go there, but I thought it was good to move and enjoy my college experience the way I wanted to." The Panthers went 17-12 in Smith's freshman season and made the NCAA tournament. They slipped to 15-14 in his sophomore year and played in the NIT. But in Smith's junior season, things started to click. Pitt went 25-8 and tied for first in the Big East at 12-4, again making the NCAAs. The following year — after Smith decided to stay for his final season rather than go to the NBA — Pitt won the Big East regular-season title outright, going 24-7 as Smith was named the league's player of the year. He finished with 2,045 points, 987 rebounds and 346 blocks, earning NABC second-team All-America honors in 1987-88. "I'm glad I did (stay in school). I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate college and that was very important," Smith said. The next step In between his sophomore and junior seasons, Smith was chosen to play for the United States in the 1986 FIBA World Championship in Madrid, Spain. He scored 17 points in a loss to Argentina, 18 in a medal round win over Canada and 17 as the U.S. clinched the gold medal with an 87-85 win against Russia. "Coming off the world championships, I led the team in scoring, and that was the first time I realized I had the opportunity to become a professional basketball player," he said. "I had never really thought about it before, I had just played. But in that tournament, my stock rose and teams started talking about me." Smith was the third selection in the 1988 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, but was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. Before his NBA career started, however, Smith played in the Summer Olympics in Seoul, winning a bronze medal. "Playing in the Olympics, I realized how blessed and how special it all was," he said. "Here's this guy from Bridgeport, walking into the stadium in Seoul, South Korea, wearing the colors of the United States ... to remember where you came from and all the things that are ahead of you. I got emotional walking around." He spent four seasons with the Clippers before being traded to the Knicks in 1992. He played three seasons and part of a fourth in New York — helping the Knicks reach the NBA Finals in 1994 — before being traded to San Antonio midway through the 1995-96 season. After battling constant knee troubles and playing in just 19 games in 1996-97, Smith retired. In his career, he played 564 games and averaged 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds. "So many players play hurt," he said. "I had some knee scopes and they weren't that bad, but there's a reason the doctors say you're out for six weeks. You have to heal. But you can't. There's the pressure to come back and play and help and you come back in three weeks instead of six. You never truly heal. "Right now, I'm probably playing more now than I have in a long time. I feel great. I'm blessed to be able to play (games) with my sons. I can play pick-up. I'm grateful, blessed and doing well." The Foundation In 1992, Smith created the Charles D. Smith Educational Foundation in Bridgeport, an after-school facility for kids from first to ninth grades. Fifteen years later, his foundation continues providing educational programs to empower children to reach their potential and achieve their dreams. "That was something where I was afforded an opportunity to do something for my friends, family, relatives, and I did that," Smith said of creating the foundation. "I wanted to help others and I still enjoy helping others." In addition to the foundation, Smith started a technology business and later sold it for $7 million. He now works as the Northeastern Regional Director for the National Basketball Players Association, helping players with their transition after they leave the league. He is also studying for his MBA. And he's not done trying to make Bridgeport a better place. There is still the dream of bringing the old summer basketball leagues back, something Smith truly relished playing in as a kid. "It's just a matter of applying time and commitment," he said. "I talk to kids all the time and it's just a matter of them getting structure. I would love to work with kids and open up every avenue I could possibly open to them on the sports platform and let them go from one stage to another. "Working with children has always been a passion of mine. I did that at Pitt, starting a program with the athletes (to help them adjust athletics with academics). In Los Angeles, I worked closely with the YMCA, and there's the foundation in Bridgeport. I've always done that and I'll always continue to do that."" _______________________________________ Rest of the best 1980s 09/09/2007 There have been hundreds of outstanding athletes that grew up and had sparkling careers right here in Bridgeport and in your dozens of letters and e-mails to me over the past couple of months, you've told me all about them. And while this list isn't close to being complete, it's just a sampling of some of the city's sports greats from the 1980s that you still remember today: -Kurt Kepshire (Central), baseball — Attended University of New Haven. Made major league debut with St. Louis Cardinals on July 4, 1984, pitched 8 innings to beat San Francisco. Went 10-9 4.75 ERA in 1985 as member of Cardinals starting rotation. Sent to Class AAA Louisville and Class AA Arkansas in 1986. Re-signed by Expos organization and played for Class AAA Indianapolis in 1988. Signed by Minnesota and played for Class AAA Portland in 1989. -Chris Smith (Kolbe), basketball — Two-time all-state performer, Class M, 1986-87, 1987-88. Attended UConn between 1988-92 and became the Huskies' all-time leading scorer with 2,145 points. Drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1992 NBA draft. Played three seasons in the NBA with Minnesota, averaging 5.1 points. Mike Ambrose (Central), track — Attended University of New Haven. Set seven UNH school records, all of which still stand today. Named all-New England four times and qualified for two Division II nationals. Finished 12th in the 1984 Division II 1,500 meters. Was elected to the University of New Haven Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991. -Tyrone Kingwood (Bassick), football, baseball, basketball — Named all-state in football, 1984-85. Named all-state in basketball (Class L), 1983-84. Attended Imperal Valley Junior College. Drafted by the Montreal Expos in the first round (28th overall) of the 1987 MLB draft. Played for six seasons in the minor leagues, reaching Class AAA Rochester of the International League in 1991, where he batted .312 with one home run and 18 RBI's. -Bob Olah (Notre Dame), baseball — Drafted in the 28th round by the New York Mets in the 1986 MLB draft. Played five seasons in the minor leagues, reaching Class A St. Lucie in 1990, where he batted .257 with five home runs and 45 RBIs. Darrin Robinson (Central), basketball — Named all-state, Class LL, 1985-86. Played at Sacred Heart University between 1989-93. Holds the Pioneers' single-game record for scoring (55 points), scoring in a half (34), steals (9), career scoring average (27.0) and 3-point goals made (219). Finished as SHU's No.2 all-time scorer with 2,402 points. -Frenchy Tomlin (Harding), basketball — Two-time all-state performer, Class L, 1985-86 and 1986-87. Played collegiately at Cleveland State (1987-88), playing in 30 games and averaging 6.1 points. He also played at Rhode Island (1990-91). n Jerome Johnson (Bassick), basketball — Named all-state, 1988-89. Harper Williams (Bassick), basketball — Named all-state, 1988-89. Played at UMass between 1989-93. Scored 1,534 points. Averaged 12.9 points and 7.2 rebounds. Was 1992 Atlantic-10 Player of the Year. -Jason Turner (Central), basketball — Named all-state, 1988-89 -Alex Wright (Harding), basketball — Named all-state, 1988-89 -Damon Lewis (Harding), football — Named all-state at linebacker, 1989. Captain of both football and basketball teams. Three-time all-MBIAC in football. Played in three basketball state championship games (1987, '88, '89). Played football at UConn. -Derrick Russell (Harding), basketball — Helped the Presidents to two state championship games (1987, '88). Played at Trinidad Junior College in Colorado before transferring to University of Bridgeport. Played two years for the Purple Knights. Averaged 8 points and had 208 assists as a senior as UB reached NCAA Division II finals in 1991-92. -Anthony Jeter (Kolbe), basketball — Named all-state, Class M in 1982-83. Mike Jones (Harding), football, basketball — Attended Texas A&M, played football. As a senior (1989), caught 36 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns. Also a two-time junior college All-American at Sacramento Community College. Chosen by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round (54th overall) of the 1990 NFL draft. Played two seaons (1990, 1991) with Minnesota and played the 1992 season with the Seattle Seahawks. — CHRIS ELSBERRY