By David Neiman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 14, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- On Sunday night, when they take on the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Clippers will try to continue their remarkable transformation from one of the most ridiculed franchises in professional sports into a winner.
With every game they play this postseason -- their first playoff appearance since 1992-93 -- the Clippers seem to set a handful of franchise records, much to the pleasure of fans, players and coaches.
"It's great to be part of the history books, and making this tradition," said Elton Brand, Los Angeles's softspoken star, at a recent practice. "We're very proud, and we know that the organization is, too."
After all, these are the Clippers , a team that until recently was synonymous with ineptitude. The championship banners and retired jerseys that hang from the rafters here at Staples Center, all of them belong to the city's celebrated franchise, the Lakers. Former players do not show up at Clippers games because for the most part, their tenure with the franchise is something they would rather not be associated with.
The history of the Clippers is one that most people would rather forget, or simply know nothing about.
"There really hasn't been a history," said Los Angeles Coach Mike Dunleavy.
But there has been. Not only that -- some of that history is worth remembering, particularly for one of the players who helped make it.
On Sunday night from a condominium in Norwich, Conn., 3,000 miles away from Staples Center, Randy Smith will be watching. He has been watching Los Angeles ever since the team reached the postseason, and he likes what he sees.
"I just love the whole team," he said earlier this week in a telephone interview. "They play well together. They remind me of Detroit, where everybody has a role, and they play it well. . . . I wouldn't be surprised if they went all the way to the finals in the West."
Smith, a quiet 57-year-old, has faded into virtual anonymity. The front desk operator at the Mohegan Sun Casino, where Smith now works as the director of player development, was unaware he had been in the NBA.
"There's a Randy Smith here," said a woman who identified herself as Lenore. "I don't know if he was a professional basketball player or not."
He was that, and more. With the exception of Bob McAdoo, his teammate for five seasons with the Buffalo Braves (the first incarnation of the Clippers), Smith is the greatest former player ever to have played for the team.
From a statistical standpoint, it is no contest. The Braves' former No. 9 is the franchise leader in 10 categories, including points (12,735), steals (2,018), assists (3,498) and games played (715).
This is not simply a function of being the only player to stay with the Clippers for an extended period of time.
A former all-star, the 6-foot-3 Smith was the MVP of the 1978 All-Star Game, coming off the bench to collect 27 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the East's 133-125 win over the West. "Greatest game I played in my life," he said.
Born in North Carolina, Smith grew up on Long Island and was an all-American in track, soccer and basketball at Buffalo State College. Nevertheless, he was a virtual unknown, selected by Buffalo -- an expansion team -- in the seventh round of the 1971 NBA draft, and then, only as a token gesture to the community.
Those first few years were hard ones for Smith and the rest of Braves, marked by the same futility that characterized Clippers squads of recent memory. But from 1974 to 1976, led by McAdoo, Smith, and Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, Buffalo jelled, reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals for three consecutive seasons.
"We got some young players, and then the chemistry started to come together," Smith said. "And by 1973-74, we were well on our way to at least being respectable."
So was Smith. Given a chance to start in 1972, he made the most of his opportunity, and quickly became known for his feathery shooting touch, eye-popping 360-degree dunks and unsurpassed speed on the floor.
"He's been probably one of the most athletic guys, and definitely the fastest guy that I have ever played with," said McAdoo, now an assistant coach with the Miami Heat. "Foot speed, forget it. He was the fastest that this league has ever seen. Period."
For 12 years, Smith never missed a game, and until the 1997 season, when he was passed by A.C. Green, he was the NBA's ironman, having played in 906 straight contests. He was one of the few players who traveled from Buffalo to San Diego with the franchise, when it became the Clippers.
He is the kind of player a team would be proud to call its own.
Instead, no one on the current Los Angeles team seems to know who Smith is.
Asked which former players come to mind, Brand answered: "Benoit Benjamin. Danny Manning." He paused before recalling Norm Nixon. "He played with the Lakers, and played with the Clippers."
Twenty-year-old Shaun Livingston, a guard for Los Angeles, mentioned McAdoo, but admitted not knowing much about the team's history. "Last time they won a series, I wasn't even born." Even Dunleavy, who played against the very Buffalo teams that Smith played on, did not make the connection.
"I don't spend much time on history," he said. "Basically, this is a sport of the present and future." To be fair, the franchise, rather than current players and coaches, seems largely to blame.
Smith has not been contacted by Los Angeles one time in the more than two decades since he set so many team records. He made efforts to get in touch with the organization, even speaking with owner Donald Sterling at a past all-star game. Nothing came of it.
A Clippers spokesman declined when asked to comment about whether the team had made any effort to connect with past players.
"I've even tried going back, because they were my team," Smith said. "I would talk to a few people in management there, but to no avail. So I just stopped."
Has Smith been surprised by Los Angeles's lack of interest in him?
"Totally," he said. "I mean, it was my contention that you can never go anywhere unless you know where you've been. Every team has a history. We moved, but you'd think that the team or the city would go back and get all the history from where they came from, and obviously, blend that in. Because that's education for the team, and plus, the players can identify with other players like Bob McAdoo and myself. Because we were good players, back in those days."
Neither Smith nor Hall of Famer McAdoo, a former NBA MVP and three-time scoring champion, is bitter about being overlooked.
More than anything, they see themselves as casualties of an unstable franchise, a place that until recently, Smith said, was "a graveyard for most of the young players coming out of college."
"Only thing you can say is, 'Hey, that's the way the ball bounces,' " said McAdoo, who was honored this season with a halftime ceremony and commemorative Buffalo Braves jersey. (His No. 11 remains active, however.) Here, in the present, Smith is relishing the team's success.
"The Clippers have been struggling for a long time," he said. "It's great to see that the team has turned around, and hopefully has some new direction now, and hopefully it can stay on top for a while."
If Los Angeles called him, would he come to a game?
"I don't know," he said, chuckling. "Don't start anything. As I said, I'm a little disappointed because it should have happened years ago."
A little later, Smith revealed how he really felt.
"I'm looking forward to meeting them sometime down the road," he said.