Each Friday we will count down the 10 greatest basketball players in the history of Virginia Tech. This week we look at Tech’s 2010 ACC Legend...
Chris Smith | 6-feet, 5 and 1/2 inches | Center | 1957-61
Interview is at the bottom of this article…
- Points: 1635 (15th)
- Scoring Average: 18.6 (8th)
- Free Throws Made: 398 (9th)
- Rebounds: 1508 (1st)
- Rebound Average: 17.1 (1st)
- Charter member of the VT Sports Hall of Fame: 1982
- Named Virginia Tech’s ACC Legend: 2010
- 14th Overall Draft Pick (5th pick of the 2nd round): 1961 – Syracuse Nationals
- Portsmouth Invitational Tournament MVP: 1961
- First Team All-Southern Conference: 1961
- Second Team All-Southern Conference Tournament Team: 1960
- First Team All-Southern Conference: 1960
- First Team All-Southern Conference Tournament Team: 1960
- Converse Second Team All-American: 1960
- First Team All-Southern Conference: 1959
- Second Team All-Southern Conference Tournament Team: 1959
Why He’s in the Top 5:
Chris is a tough person to rate because most Hokie basketball fans never saw him play. But his career numbers read like a tall tale, and Smith was Paul Bunyan in the low post… 36 rebounds in one game, a VT record. 17.1 rebounds per game for his career, a VT record. He averaged 18.6 rebounds per game in his final three seasons. He averaged more than 20 rebounds for an entire year, a VT record. His four season rebounding averages all rank in the top 10 in Tech history, and he has three of the top four averages. He was such a good offensive rebounder, his teammates called their shots “passes” since they knew if they missed, he’d clean up the mess. Chris’s rebounding records will stand FOREVER.
Smith wasn’t a one trick pony either – he ranks in the top 10 in points per game at 18.6, and had blocks been an official stat back then, he’d easily be in the top five in that category. Smith, by many accounts, would have racked up many a triple-double (points, rebounds, and blocks) if blocks had been kept.
Before you give me the “his rebounding numbers were inflated because the game was different” schtick, keep in mind that even for his day Chris was a rebounding machine. His 20.4 rebounds per game in 1958-59, his sophomore year, were second best in the nation by Chris’s recollection. Even if you halfed that average to 10.2, only seven times in the 50 years since Smith’s career ended has a Hokie averaged that many rebounds per game. And no one has come close to his real totals. Even his 16.5 rebounds he averaged his senior year is three rebounds per game more than anyone has averaged since.
ESPN, according to their College Basketball Encyclopedia, thinks Smith is THE Greatest Player of all time in VT basketball history. So the evil empire doesn’t think his stats are just based on his era. They, like us, know Chris was just plain talented and worked very hard at his craft. Numbers may be higher because of eras, but his are just plain ridiculous.
One thing none of us will ever know is how good he would have been in the NBA. Chris chose to take a job with Union Carbide as a chemical engineer over playing in the NBA after being drafted in 1961 (imagine someone making that decision today other than hero Pat Tillman).
(see question #6 below — Chris had 34 points and 27 rebounds in the 1960 Southern Conference Tournament Quarterfinals against richmond… and 25 points and 28 rebounds the next day. He added 14 points and 16rebounds in the Finals loss to wvu for 83 points and 71 rebounds in three days. Pretty good, I’d say.)
Smith’s career high in points was 41 against vmi in 1960.
Team Record: 62-26
The Hokies really took off during the Smith years. Tech was competitive in a very talented Southern Conference that featured wvu, who were NCAA runner-ups in 1959, william & mary, the citadel, gwu, furman, vmi, richmond, and davidson. Tech won the regular season title in 1960 (I’d have to check but that may be the only time in VT’s history they won a regular season conference title). The Hokies were ranked as high as 17th in the AP Poll that year. But back then the ncaa tournament only took conference tournament winners, and that was wvu in 1960 (detailed below in the interview). That 1960 team was the first ever Hokie team to win 20 games.
The Hokies were Southern regular season runner-ups in 1958, 1959, and 1961. But Tech was never able to win a conference title in the postseason, with only the one championship game appearance.
Chris is the greatest rebounder in Virginia Tech history. Period. And believe me, 6-feet, 5 and 1/2 inches is still a legit big man (trust me when I say Jeff Allen was not much, if any taller than that even if he was listed at 6’7″). And while, by his own admission, he wasn’t a great shooter, he was a great team player. Smith loved to battle inside, doing the dirty work like blocking shots and fighting for rebounds. He allowed the guards to bomb away from the outside without fear. And Chris could rack up points on the inside, leading the Hokies his last two years with 22 and 19 points on average respectively.
When it all comes down to it, the greatest rebounder in VT history deserves to be on this list. Add in top 10 in scoring average, and likely one of the top shot blockers in VT history, and he’s a top five lock to me. Like Chris, I think he could still be a star today. The only question would be if a school like Tech would offer him, or if he’d have to go to a mid-major to strut his stuff? Regardless, I’m glad we had him.
Interview with Chris (Chris’s answers in quotes):
1. How does it feel to be considered one of the greatest Hokie basketball players of all time?
“It is a great feeling especially when you respect the judgment of the person doing the selection and you know that the person has really studied Virginia Tech basketball and is totally familiar with its history. And that person is Niemo!”
2. What led you to deciding to go to Virginia Tech?
“I strongly felt that Virginia Tech was the great place to get an excellent education in chemical engineering and to participate in a major college basketball program. At that time, Virginia Tech had 14 accredited engineering curriculums and that was quite impressive.
“Also the coaching staff was very committed to ensuring that each athlete received a meaningful degree that would help them after their graduation. Another factor was that Virginia Tech was not a party school and I would be able to focus on education and basketball without feeling that I was missing out socially.”
3. When you first got to Virginia Tech, what were your goals as a Hokie?
“My main overall goal was to do my best both academically and athletically. My ultimate goal academically was to earn my degree in chemical engineering so I could return to the Kanawha Valley where I was born and raised and start working as a chemical engineer in one of the many plants that were located there. The Kanawha Valley at that time was known as the chemical center of the world and 27,000 workers were directly involved with the chemical industry.
“My goals athletically were not as well defined. I knew I wanted to be a starter my freshman year and I knew we wanted to win every game we played, but other than that I looked to Coach Noe’s leadership to help us define any additional goals. Looking back when I first arrived at Virginia Tech, it is obvious to me that I was just a kid with a large body and big size 15 feet trying to prepare myself for the rest of my life.”
4. What were the keys to your growth as a player at VT?
“The main key to my growth as a player was my discipline and willingness to work as hard as I could to be the best that I could be. There are two examples of this that stand out. From the time that I was in junior high school, I would do anything and everything to increase my strength and my jumping ability. To increase by strength, I would row my self-made skiff non-stop from our home located in Charleston on the Kanawha River to the Marmet Locks located about eight miles upstream and back without a rest. Other boats would row along with me, but they rotated two people rowing at a time and they rotated with two others who had been resting. The people in the other boats knew I was rowing by myself to get the maximum exercise, and they probably thought I was a little strange. But they never said so!
“For several years, I was always jump-skipping with a jump rope or hopping repeatedly on one leg at a time trying to strengthen my legs. Later I found I could touch our ceilings in our house with my elbow and later my head. Finally, my Mother’s fear of knocking myself unconscious forced me to abandon this technique of exercise.
“Later at Virginia Tech, I continued to work hard to become the best I could be. After our three-hour practices for the first two years, I participated in a 300-jump exercise that helped build my legs. Several of the taller inside players participated. It started out by our touching the rim 100 times with our right hand, then after a 15 second rest, we would touch the rim 100 times with our left hand, and finally after another 15 second rest, we would try to touch the rim 100 times with both hands. During the first part of my freshman year I was able to touch the rim all 300 times and with both hands on my 300th jump. A year later during my sophomore year, I was able to touch both wrists on the rim on my 300 jump. This meant I had improved my jumping ability by a full nine inches, which was the length of my hand.
“Finally the thing that helped me the most were the two-hour workout sessions that I had after our regular three-hour practices. These one-on-one sessions started early my freshman year with Coach Noe passing the ball into either Assistant Coach Bill “Moose” Matthews or myself so we could alternate between offense and defense. This intense two-year program of these private practice sessions demonstrated to me that I could and did improve greatly over time. Initially, Bill Matthews was able to outscore and outdefend me. This did not bother me because I knew the intense competition would help me grow as a player. During Moose’s last year, he was selected as the Best Player in the State of Virginia, so I knew I was playing against a guy who was probably the best player in Virginia Tech history. During the following year when I was able to hold my own and later outscore and outdefend “Moose”, I realized how much the extra practice had helped. The great thing about it was the fact that “Moose” and Coach Noe were just as happy over my progress as I was. Remember this was during a time when coach’s salaries were not very high, and they both sacrificed a lot of their personal time to make me a better player.”
5. If blocked shots had been an official stat back then, how many do you think you’d have had in your career?
“Blocking shots and dunking the ball were to me the home runs of basketball. In my mind, it was much more important to block a shot than it was to score a goal or to get a rebound. I felt blocking shots demoralized the other team’s players and often was enough to change the momentum of a game. Consequently, I loved playing defense probably since I was able to rely on my strong points which were my upper body strength, my endurance, and my hard-earned jumping ability. I was not a great shooter, so I devoted more of my energy to defense rather than offense. However, the part of offense that I enjoyed the most was offensive rebounding probably since I was able to rely on these same strengths that helped me defensively.
“The only downside to blocking shots was that I often got myself in trouble with too many fouls. This was a big problem for me during my freshman year because when I would block a shot, I would frequently bring my arm down on the opposing player. Fortunately, I was able to break that habit by the start of my sophomore year.
“As you mentioned, official statistics were not kept on shot-blocking. Consequently, I don’t have any official documentation for the number of blocked shots, but there were several newspaper articles written that documented that I had at least a dozen blocked shots for several games. Over my four year period of starting 88 consecutive games, I would estimate that I averaged at least 4 to 5 blocks a game, so you can do the math.”
[I just did, and if that estimate is true (4 per game), he’d have collected 352 blocks — 251 by Roy Brow is the official team record since the stat became official in the late ’70s]
6. What’s your favorite memory from your Virginia Tech days (one on the court and one off)?
“My favorite on-court memory had to be our Semifinal game of the 1960 Southern Conference Tournament against George Washington. We had just beaten the host team, Richmond, on Thursday afternoon by a score of 82 to 66 to advance to the Semifinal round of the Southern Conference. Louie Mills was able to lob the ball inside, and that helped me to score 34 points and get 27 rebounds prior to being taken out of the game with seven minutes to go with the score 74 to 43. At the time, several people mentioned that I could have broken the Southern Conference scoring record of 43 if Coach Noe had kept me in the game. I felt Coach Noe did the right thing in pulling Louie and me out so we could rest and get ready for the next game. What I did not realize was that my 27 rebounds was a new record for a single Southern Conference Tournament game, but it would only last one day. The main thing to me was that we had won our first game in the Tournament, and this allowed us to advance to the Semifinal round.
“George Washington, who had beaten us for our only season loss and had recently beaten WV, had also advanced to be our semifinal opponent. Coach Noe had an early morning meeting with our team. He reviewed our game plan and emphasized an aggressive defensive focus on the Feldman twins who had each scored 23 points in their opening game. Coach Noe felt we had better athletes and GW would not be able to hold up physically with our team. Bob Ayersman, Bucky Keller, and Louie Mills were each All State football quarterbacks in high school, so we had a very physical basketball team. Coach Noe proved that he was right and we started the game well by rebounding strongly and by playing an intense man-to-man defense. We also scored well, and with seven minutes to play, we led by a score of 77 to 38. At that point, Coach Noe decided to rest Bobby Ayersman, Bucky Keller, and me. He then told Louis Mills to control the ball for the next three minutes, and Louie did just that by dribbling around and through the Feldmans while the spectators watched in amazement. People did not realize how great of a ball handler Louie was. After the 3 minutes were up, Coach Noe had Louie call a time out and he walked off the court to a long-and-loud standing ovation while shivers were going up and down my spine. The final score was 88 to 52. That night we could have beaten anyone in the country. We had balanced scoring with my 25 points and four others in double figures. The main reason for our success was our defense and our rebounding. That night I had 28 rebounds which broke my one-day old record of 27 rebounds. Most newspapers reported that it was the best game they had seen a Virginia Tech team play.
“The next night we played the WV team that had lost an NCAA championship game the year before in an overtime loss to California. This year was Jerry West’s senior year and he wanted to win a national championship badly. The game started and our box-and-one rotation with a diamond-and-one defense seemed to confuse WV. We led most of the first half and into the second half. However, one of the referees was calling an excessive amount of fouls and Jerry West, Bob Ayersman, and I were in foul trouble very quickly. Jerry West fouled out first and we were still ahead. Then Bob Ayersman fouled out. I didn’t foul out, but I had four fouls and I had to modify my playing style which reduced my effectiveness. During the last ten minutes of the game, WV scored on some long-range shots and they won. Consequently, the final game was a huge disappointment. However, if we would have won, Louie Mills would have not been able to play and that would have been a major problem for us.
“However, I did have another 16 rebounds to add to my three-game total for a record of 71 rebounds. Both the 28 rebounds for a single tournament game and the 71 rebounds for the three-game-total still are, even after 50 years, the Southern Conference rebounding records. These records were more meaningful to me since tournament statistics were perceived as being most accurate since there were so many statistics being kept both officially and unofficially due to all the media being present at the tournament. Home game statistics were not perceived with the same level of integrity.
“With regard to my favorite off-the-court memory, it would have to be the intimate conversations that Coach Noe and I had from time to time in front of War Memorial Field House. Coach Noe was average height and he liked to talk face-to-face to his players. To elevate himself, he had several cinder blocks placed at specific hand-picked locations so he could have face-to-face conversations with his taller players. Once my senior season was over, he called me over to his favorite cinder block and talked about 15 minutes about the importance of personal dignity and reputation. He told me that I had worked hard to earn an excellent reputation and that I could lose it much faster than the time it required for me to earn it. He repeatedly said, “Your reputation is the hardest thing to build, but it is the easiest thing to lose!” His words were very meaningful to me, and I have reheard them several times during the 50 years since he said them. Niemo, this is one of things that I like about Seth Greenberg and that is his emphasis on strong character strengths and core values.”
7. Looking back on your Hokie career, what are you most proud of?
“We won our last 26 home games at War Memorial Field House. This home game winning streak was extended to 41 consecutive wins with 26 in War Memorial and 15 in Cassell Coliseum. These wins covered a time period from February 7, 1958 until January, 1963 and are the record for consecutive home wins for the State of Virginia. Also in 1960, we won the 1960 Southern Conference Championship with a record of 12 wins and 1 loss. It was Jerry West’s senior season, and WV was second with a record of 10 wins and 2 losses. During the 1960 Southern Conference Tournament, we lost the final Southern Conference Tournament Championship game to WVU, the 1959 NCAA Runner-Up. During the 1959-1960 Season, we had an AP national rating of 17th, which was the highest AP rating for any Virginia Tech team until 1985. Also, Dell ranked Virginia Tech 15th in their 1960 preseason ranking. However, our most significant team accomplishment was that our team success helped to promote the construction of Cassell Coliseum.”
[Perhaps we can call Cassell ‘The House that Chris built”… one rebound at a time]
8. After college, you turned down an opportunity to play in the NBA to pursue your career. Any regrets with that decision?
“When I was still in college, I wasn’t certain I could play professional basketball as well as I wanted to. Consequently, just after our senior season was over, I played in several independent tournaments both with and against several excellent college and professional basketball players so I could make a more accurate evaluation of how well I could play in the NBA.
“My first experience was to play in an exhibition game in the Salem Civic Center against Lenny Rosenbluth’s All-Americans whose North Carolina players won the 1957 NCAA national championship by beating Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in three overtimes. One pool hall in Roanoke sponsored the North Carolinians under Dick Kepley’s coordination and another pool hall under Louie Mill’s coordination sponsored our Virginia Tech Team along with Moose Matthews and Louie Mills. Rosenbluth’s team had several players who had played pro ball and even some seniors from Duke who wanted to play. However, we outrebounded them badly and we outran them until they were exhausted. We won by 104 to 71.
“A couple of weeks later, we participated as a team for Tusing Finance in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. We picked up Jeff Cohen and Bev Vaughn of William & Mary to play with Bobby Ayersman, Louie Mills, and Dean Blake. There were several other teams in the Tournament with several ACC players from Duke, N C State, and Maryland. Almost every college player who participated had professional ambitions and were later drafted. We won the PIT tournament, and I was selected as the MVP. This was a true confidence builder for me.
“Our final post-season tournament to participate in was the Sportsman Basketball Classic in Charleston, WV. The organizer, Inky Robinson, wanted Bobby, Dean, Louie, and me to play on a team with Hal Greer and Wayne Embry, who were two experienced and talented professional players. Inky Robinson wanted our team to play the Jerry West led WV team, composed of the West Virginia NCAA runner-up players, Rod Hundley, and Joe Roberts of Syracuse. We played the WV-team Friday night, and we beat them by a close score 83 to 81. I led our team by scoring 24 points.
“Then we had to play the Sunday Championship game against a Dayton group headed by professional Arlen Bockhorn and greatly supplemented by Elgin Baylor, who many regarded at that time as the greatest player in the NBA. The Dayton group had earlier beaten an ACC group of NBA hopefuls supplemented with professional Charley Tyra and Cleo Hill. When our game started, Elgin guarded me, and I did well especially in the second half after I calmed down. We lost that game by another close score of 94 to 92 on a last second shot by Arlen Bockhorn, but what a great experience.
“The All-Tournament Team was composed of Arlen Bockhorn, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Cleo Hill (a first round draft choice of the Hawks), and me. That was a real honor especially since there were so many NBA players and NBA-hopefuls who participated in the tournament.
“Due to my success in those post-season tournaments, my level of confidence increased greatly and I felt I could play professional basketball well enough to start for essentially any team. Consequently, I was able to make my decision on long-term versus short-term economics. Also, my short-term career might have been interrupted by the military draft. So I felt good about making the decision to go with Union Carbide in the Kanawha Valley to work in one of their production plants as a chemical engineer.
“However, I was able to continue my participation in the Sportsman Tournament for three more years by playing with Jerry West and Rod Hundley. During those years, I played against and blocked shots taken by some of the best professional players in the NBA including such players as Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer, and many others. In 1962, we played against the players on the Ohio State team including Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Joe Roberts, Larry Seigfried, and others. We lost. The next night, we played against Bob Boozer, who I guarded, Oscar Robertson, and Nate Thurmond. In 1963, I again played with Jerry’s team along with Rod Hundley, Bucky Bolyard, and Bill Russell. Russell was quite impressed when he saw me complete four dunks from offensive rebounds. Rod Hundley called our team the best starting five he had ever played with. We won the championship that year. In 1964, I played well against Len Chappell and Gary Bradds, two first team consensus All-Americans, playing on the same Team with Don Devoe, Mel Nowell, and Joe Roberts. Don Devoe, who later coached at Virginia Tech, probably remembers this game. We beat them with our rebounding and passing out to our three All-American fast breakers including Jerry West, Rod Thorn and Rod Hundley. We won the championship that year also. During the summer of 1964, Jerry West influenced the Lakers to invite me their tryouts. Since I was intimately involved in the critical design of a new grassroots Union Carbide Plant in Lulling, Louisiana, I was not able to participate in the tryouts without risking my job.”
[For you young’ens – Jerry West is who the NBA logo is modeled after]
9. What has been the biggest honor bestowed on you since your college career?
“In 1982, the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame was established. There were only two living people inducted including Carroll Dale and me. I felt much honored, especially since I was the first and only basketball player honored as a charter member of the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. Bill Matthews delivered the talk at the induction ceremony. He also played a taped message that Coach Noe had delivered over his radio show about my induction into the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame. Coach Noe’s words were quite special to me. I will never forget the event.
“Another more recent honor that has been very meaningful to me is the ESPN selection of me as the best men’s basketball player in Virginia Tech history. This along with many other interesting highlights in Virginia Tech’s basketball history is documented in the only ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, which was copy-righted in 2009 and distributed for sales in 2010. I only discovered this about six months ago, and I was both surprised and elated over it.”
10.What have you been up to recently?
“In 2006, I wrote, self-published, and contract-printed a 500-page book entitled It’s More Than Just Winning! I truly enjoyed writing about my basketball experiences both in high school and at Virginia Tech. Also, there are many funny stories. More importantly, there are many life lessons documented that demonstrate the importance of character in our lives.” In 2008, I finished writing, publishing, and printing a second book,From the Shenandoah to the Kanawha, which documents our family history from 1700AD until the present. I also have two more books copy-righted and ready for printing. My website isChrisSmithPublishing.com.”
11. Closing Comment:
“Some people say basketball has changed and that the players back then could not play with the players of today, but I don’t buy it. It still comes down to skills, discipline, and hard work and that applies to yesterday, today, and tomorrow! I feel a good player 50 years ago could compete well today.”
[Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to talk with us again!]
Previous Interview with Chris (from March 2010):