Posted on 08 March 2010.
This is Part 1 of our two part interview with Chris Smith, VT’s 2010 ACC Tournament Legend. Click here to read Part 2.
This Saturday at halftime of the first ACC Tournament semifinal game, Chris Smith will be introduced as Virginia Tech’s 2010 ACC Tournament Legend. Chris joins John Wetzel (2009), Glen Combs (2008), Bimbo Coles (2007), Dell Curry (2006), and Allan Bristow (2005) as ACC Tournament Legends from Virginia Tech.
Chris Smith was an absolute force inside for the Hokies from 1957-61. He doesn’t just hold every Virginia Tech rebounding record, he has a padlock on them. It has been almost 50 years since his playing days ended but no one has come even close to reaching his rebound numbers. Chris had 1,508 career boards, 129 ahead of second place (Bill Matthews) and more than 300 ahead of anyone that has played since Smith. Smith has three of the top four rebounding averages in a season for the Hokies. He averaged 20.4 rebounds in 1958-59, his sophomore season. Chris followed that up with a 19.0 average the next year and “slipped” to 16.5 rebounds per game his senior year. He also holds the single game record with 36 rebounds in a game against washington & lee in 1959. To put that in perspective, that’s more rebounds he had by himself than VT had as a team in 12 games this season!
Chris was more than just a rebounder. He still ranks 13th on the VT career scoring list with 1635 points. But that doesn’t do him justice, as Tech played fewer games back then. Smith averaged 18.6 ppg for his career, 8th best in Virginia Tech history. His junior year Smith averaged 22.2 points per game to go along with those 19.0 rebounds! And Chris believes that had blocked shots been tracked back then, his numbers in that category would have been even more astronomical.
The Hokies went 62-26 during Smith’s career, including losing to wvu in the finals of the 1960 Southern Conference Tournament. After his career in Blacksburg was over, Chris was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft. Chris decided to take a job with Union Carbide as a Production Engineer in his home state of West Virginia over trying out for the NBA. We asked him about that decision and more.
Chris was selected as a charter member of the VT Hall of Fame in 1982. Chris now has a web site at ChrisSmithPublishing.com and has published two books – ‘It’s More Than Just Winning!’ – focuses on Chris’s basketball experiences, amusing stories at Charleston High School and Virginia Tech, and the importance of character. Chris’s second book, ‘From the Shenandoah to the Kanawha’, is a biography of his first Smith immigrant ancestor.
TechHoops.com interviewed Chris Smith as he prepares for his induction as an ACC Tournament Legend. The interview has been split into two parts, the first part focusing on Chris and his career, the second part looking into his thoughts on the game, Virginia Tech, and the rivalries.
Q: How much of an honor was it for you to be named the 2010 ACC Basketball Legend for Virginia Tech?
Chris: It was very much an honor. For one thing, it is the ACC. I’ve always felt that the ACC was and is the best basketball conference. We only played UVA, South Carolina, and Wake Forest while I played at VT. We did scrimmage Maryland at College Park just before my junior season started and we did well. I played head-to-head against Al Bunge, who was the star of the Maryland team that year and was an ACC legend selection last year. Our team performed well on their home floor, and we won the scrimmage, 67 to 60. I had 24 points and 28 rebounds. I was able later to get a film of the scrimmage from Lefty Driesell. After the game, Bud Milliken, who just passed away recently, asked me to test my jumping ability on a rebound machine he had just purchased. I had gotten a couple of dunks during our scrimmage and he told me he was impressed with my jumping ability. I told him about my jumping exercises that I had been doing since the start of my freshman year. He was very interested, and we had mutual respect for each other. When he tested me, he had also had a high school recruit there from one of the Washington City high schools. His name was John Thompson, who later became the Georgetown coach. My other contact with the ACC was playing against players who were playing in the ACC. We had several players in our Kanawha Valley Summer Leagues including Les Robinson and John Key from NC State, Howard Hurt and Buzzy Harrison from Duke, and others. My younger brother had a football scholarship from Duke.
Q: Describe yourself as a player.
Chris: I would describe myself as a team player whose best team skill was helping out on defense by positioning myself away from my man (sluffing off as we called it) toward the ball and the basket in order to help clog up the middle as much as possible. Since I felt my best skill was blocking shots, I was able to start many fast breaks by blocking shots toward our point guard, Louie Mills, who could read and know where I was going to slap the ball. Then my next best skill was rebounding due to my ability to jump successively with multiple jumps especially from a standing position (versus running), my long lateral and vertical reach, and my upper torso strength from lots of pushup and boat rowing that I had done since I was twelve.
About half of my scoring was a result of my offensive rebounding. Short left or right-handed hook shots and turn around jump shots provided the rest of my scoring.
I did very limited ball-handling and never filled lanes on our fast breaks. After getting rebounds and initiating a fast breaks, I often got my wind back by “holding back” on my return to the offensive end of the floor while hoping to see a successful fast break. That provided time to reenergize myself. The only problem was that when our fast break did not work, Louie would hold up our break until I ran the floor from end-to-end and that was sometimes embarrassing.
Q: You rank #1 on the Hokies’ rebounding list, with 1,508 rebounds, and you have three of the top four single season rebounding averages in VT history. What made you such a great rebounder?
Chris: Jumping rope, performing the 300-jump routines [he'd jump 100 times and touch the backboard with one hand, then 100 more with the other, then 100 with both], off-season jumping on one leg, and trying to take care of my ankles as much as possible helped me to improve my jumping. Also the one-on-one sessions for two hours after the regular practices with the 1956 Player of Virginia, Moose Matthews, provided an great opportunity for improvement during my freshman and sophomore years.
Q: Shot goes up, hits the back of the rim and pops way up in the air. You’re underneath with Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley. Who gets the rebound of the three of you?
Chris: First, the better the competition, the more challenged I felt. I would never be intimidated. Second, I would try to get side by side to limit their movement so we would all be jumping from a standing versus a moving position. At times, I might even check them away from the basket. If the ball did not get retrieved initially, I would continue to jump toward the ball repeatedly until someone had possession of it.
Q: Do you think your Tech or Southern Conference rebound records will ever be broken? Ace Custis came the closest and he was still over 300 short of you.
Chris: Teams play more games today. If you look at rebounds per game and not total rebounds, I think the records will hold. After all, it has been almost 50 years. Also, if you look at my three year average by eliminating my freshman year when I was in foul trouble almost every game, my average rebounds per game would be 19 per game rather 17.
Q: What was your best game as a Hokie?
Chris: Mike Harris’s book, ‘Game of my Life‘ (pages 177 to 184) describes my game against Marshall during my sophomore year when I had 30 points and 31 rebounds along with several blocked shots. But I had several games where I felt I was able to often “control the game” with my rebounding and shot blocking.
During our 1958-1959 season, these games included our 85-73 win over UVA @ Blacksburg (18 points, 19 rebounds, and held big Herb Busch to 6 points), our 105-24 win over W&L @ Blacksburg (24 points, 36 rebounds) after leading 41-4 at halftime as a result of W&L slowdown offense and our full court zone press, our 93-80 win over Marshall @ Bluefield (31 points, 30 rebounds, and several blocked shots), our 74-68 win over William & Mary @ Blacksburg (14 points, 24 rebounds, and several blocked shots), our 104-66 win over Richmond @ Blacksburg (20 points, 27 rebounds, and “a dozen spectacular blocked shots” as reported by newspapers), and our 91-84 win over GW @ Washington (28 points, 23 rebounds, and several blocked shots).
Then during our 1959-1960 season, these games included our opening 75-62 win over GW (19 points, 21 rebounds, and “blocked a 12-15 shots” as reported by several sportswriters), our Watauga Invitational Tournament games with Tennessee Tech and host East Tennessee State when we won the Tournament and I was selected MVP, our 82-61 win over Mississippi State in Sugar Bowl Classic (set rebound record), our 79-72 win over Marshall @ The Charleston Civic Center (26 points, 20 rebounds, and several blocked shots), our 95-93 OT win over VMI @ Lexington (41 points, 27 rebounds, and many blocked shots), our 89-78 win over Navy @ Annapolis (25 points, 16 rebounds, several blocked shots, and MVP of our only televised game), our 82-66 win over W&M @ Williamsburg (23 points, 14 rebounds, and several blocked shots to hold down Jeff Cohen of W&M under double figures until I fouled out), our 86-74 win over Citadel @ Charleston (31 points, 19 rebounds, and several blocked shots), our 100-71 win over VMI @ Blacksburg (32 points, 31 rebounds, and several blocked shots), and our Southern Conference Tournament games including our 78-58 win over Richmond (34 points, 27 rebounds which was a single game record for Tournament), and our 88-52 win over GW (25 points, 28 rebounds which broke my record set the day before). [Note: We'll have more from Chris and the 1960 Southern Conference Tournament later in the week.]
During my 1960-1961 final season, these games included our 76-54 opening win over Richmond (25 points, 25 rebounds), and our 106-75 win over South Carolina (28 points, 20 rebounds). I also had two good games in the Birmingham Classic and was selected MVP even though we lost to Auburn.
Q: Off the court, what’s your favorite memory of Virginia Tech?
Chris: Crossing the drill field several times each day was my favorite thing to do and my favorite memory. I spoke to everyone, and they spoke back to me in a very friendly way. This mutual respect we had for each other taught me a lot about people.
Q: After your time at Virginia Tech ended, you were taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by Syracuse. You ultimately decided to go work for Union Carbide as an engineer instead. What were the biggest factors on your decision?
Chris: First I had to decide if I could make it in the NBA and decide how well I could do. What I needed to do was to play with and against some of the players drafted by the NBA and some of the players who were playing in the NBA. So, after our senior season, our seniors played in several independent games and Tournaments. First, Louie Mills, who was from Roanoke, organized a game with Lenny Rosenbluth’s All Americans in the Salem Civic Center. Rosenbluth’s North Carolina team had won the National Championship against Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in 1957 and we felt he was loaded with talent. We had our VT players including Moose Matthews, Bobby Ayersman, Dean Blake, and Louie Mills. We then recruited Bucky Bolyard, who was coaching at VMI and had played for WVU during the Hundley/West years. During the game, we out-rebounded them badly, and Louie, Bobby, Dean, and Bucky ran the fast break perfectly as we won by 33 points, 104 to 71.
The following week we played in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, there were several teams with ACC players, mostly from Duke, N C State, and Maryland. Many of the players had been drafted, and we were all trying to compete and measure our potential for making it in pro ball. I felt pretty good about the experience because we won the tournament and I was selected as the Tournament MVP.
The next weekend was the Tournament of all Tournaments right in my hometown of Charleston, WV. Jerry West had a team of West Virginians. We had a Virginia Tech team with Bobby, Louie, Dean, and me along with Hal Geer and Wayne Embry. Also there was a group of Dayton players with Arlen Bockhorn and Elgin Baylor. The fourth group was an ACC group. We beat the WV group and the ACC team lost to Elgin Baylor’s group. So we played in the championship game against the Elgin Baylor/Dayton team and we lost on a last second shot. I was fortunate to make the All-Tournament team with West, Baylor, Cleo Hill (the number 1 pro draft choice my senior year) and Arlen Bockhorn, who made the last second shot against us. I felt honored being the only one on our team who made the All-Tournament Team while playing with two NBA Hall-of-Famers, Hal Greer and Wayne Embry. I’ve described this in detail in my book. Based on these experiences, I concluded I could play professional basketball successfully. So I had to choose between basketball and chemical engineering. The money was not that great in the NBA at the time. Also, I wasn’t certain about my ankles and knees after several 100-plus game seasons.
Q: Do you ever regret not giving the NBA a shot?
Chris: Intermittently, I wondered if I made the right decsision, but fortunately I played in that same Charleston Sportsman Tournament each year. This was because Jerry West and Rod Hundley had the Tournament sponsors place me on their team. This gave me an opportunity in 1962 to play against the great Ohio State team and later against a team with Oscar Robertson and Nate Thurmond. That year, I was able to guard Jerry Lucas the second half and slow him down by blocking two of his shots, but John Havlicek made up the difference. The next night I was able to block one of Oscar’s hook shots. In 1963, we had Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West, me, Bucky Bolyard, and Bill Russell. Hot Rod, who played on several All Pro Teams said that was the best starting five he ever played with. In 1964, I was able to play with Hot Rod, Jerry West, and Rod Thorn, the only time they ever played together. Tom Lowry and I did the rebounding against two first team consensus All-American centers, Gary Bradds and Len Chappell and we out rebounded them. After that in the summer of 1964, I received an invitation to tryout with LA. Reluctantly, I turned it down but I felt it was quite an honor.
Click here to read Part 2. It focuses on Chris’s thoughts of the Hokie program today, the rivalries, and the game in general.