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Vikings’ run-and-stun Cinderella dance (part 1)

Editor’s note: This feature about Clinton Smith’s Sweet 16 run with the 1986 Cleveland State University Vikings is the first part of a weekly series.

By TONY LANGE

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            To the kids, he’s just a 6-foot-6, 50-year-old black man whom they call coach. Clinton Smith, a former NBA player, wouldn’t have it any other way.

            Many of the 250-plus youngsters perusing their athletic dreams with the DG Warriors – an Auburn Township-based AAU basketball program with 21 teams at nine training facilities – only have a slender hint of who Smith is and where he’s been.

            To the wide-eyed dads who come and watch practices or skills development sessions, Smith represents the true Cinderella story of Northeast Ohio – a guy whom they watched take down Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers back in the days when TVs still had antennas, referees didn’t need instant replays and even the first-round draft picks would stay in college through their senior seasons.

            “You get nostalgia, of course,” Smith said about watching March Madness year after year. “You know, you go through it. This is what I do. I’ve been playing basketball for the last 40 years. So I do get in a certain mood. And then I like to see the underdogs. You see, I root for the underdogs, because that’s who we were at Cleveland State. So I understand and I feel what they’re feeling.”

            When Clinton Smith and his fellow Vikings returned to Cleveland from Syracuse, N.Y., on March 17, 1986, thousands of fans mobbed them at the airport. In Cleveland State University’s first appearance to the NCAA tournament, Smith and his teammates – including head coach Kevin Mackey and point guard Ken “Mouse” McFadden – had just knocked off No. 3 Indiana and No. 6 St. Joseph’s to bubble into the Sweet 16.

            Despite a 27-3 record on selection day, Cleveland State University received the final at-large tournament bid in 1986. The previous year, a 21-victory season failed to get the no-name Vikings into the National Invitational Tournament.

            “We went to Syracuse and beat Indiana and St. Joe’s, and then we came back home for a while, and it was total chaos,” said Smith, the Vikings’ leading scorer that season. “I really couldn’t understand the magnification of it then. I was happy we were winning. Everybody was patting you on the back like you could do no wrong. Like, ‘Come into Rascal House and eat a free pizza,’ and, ‘Here, have a free drink to go with that.’”

            Just last month, ESPN’s investigative series “Outside the Lines” referred to Cleveland State University’s 1986 team as “the first Cinderella.”

            Despite spanking DePaul, 90-75, in the regular season, Cleveland State arrived on college basketball’s largest scene as “The Mistake by the Lake,” a 14-seed that surely wasn’t going to upset Indiana in the first round.

            “Of course, that’s David and Goliath,” Smith said about the Hoosiers, who already had won two national championships under coach Knight at the time. “Indiana, Bobby Knight, the history, everybody was laughing like it’s a joke. ‘Ha, cakewalk. Cleveland State? Who’s next?’ But we weren’t scared. We were happy to get in. We knew we could do some things.”

            Coach Mackey’s run-and-stun system with quick and speedy athletes who created 94 feet of havoc made the Vikings a nightmare to play against. They caused 22.7 turnovers and scored 90.2 points per game – with no three-point line and a 45-second shot clock – entering the NCAA tournament that year.

            After selection day, coach Knight and his plodding-style Hoosiers had a few film sessions to study Cleveland State’s turmoil press, but it’s not like Indiana could focus on any one player. Smith only averaged 26 minutes a game, and so too did the rest of the Viking starters.

            “I remember that, because we used to constantly argue with Mackey about that,” Smith said. “Like, ‘I ain’t tired.’ ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s the system.’ We got over that quick, because he said, ‘If you keep talking about it, then you won’t play at all.’”

            While Indiana scored the first bucket of that 1986 opening-round matchup, the Vikings took a quick 6-2 advantage at the other end of the floor before the Hoosiers could get back on offense, because it took them four tries before finally executing a clean inbounds pass.

            “Yeah, we wanted to make it 40 minutes of hell,” Smith said. “When the ball would come in from the baseline, I was on top of the press. As soon as the ball came in, I’m at you.”

            The wallowing Hoosiers, the crowd at the Carrier Dome and the rest of the country that tuned in to CBS Sports that day quickly learned the dangers of Cleveland State’s chaos theory. The Vikings caused 15 turnovers and led, 51-41, at halftime before going on to win a bracket buster, 83-79.

            Two days later, Cleveland State knocked off St. Joseph’s, 75-69, as Smith had a career-high 15 rebounds to propel the Vikings to the Sweet 16.

            The mob at the airport, the free pizzas at Rascal House and the pats on the back lasted four days before the new-kid-in-town Vikings left town and traveled to East Rutherford, N.J. to take on future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and his Navy Midshipmen in what would be the final game of Smith’s college career.

            With 35 seconds left the contest, Navy clung to a one-point lead when Smith picked the pocket of Midshipmen guard Doug Wojcik, dribbled down court and laid in the go-ahead bucket.

            Back at the other end of the floor, Cleveland State sophomore Paul Stewart – whom Smith described as the team comedian – forced a jump ball with eight seconds left, but Navy had the possession arrow.  

            “I used to pay him $5 to crack jokes on people,” Smith said of Stewart, who suffered a heart attack during a pick-up game two months after tournament and died at age 19.  “We were very close. He used to have me in stitches.”

            Navy’s ensuing inbound, a lob pass to 7-foot-1 Robinson in the middle of the key resulted in the game-winning basket, 71-70, with five second to play. Smith did, however, have one final attempt for the Vikings as he dribbled the length of the floor and hoisted a 25 footer at the buzzer that banged off the rim and never found its way through the bucket.

            “Man, it hit right off the rim. But it ain’t tough to talk about it,” Smith said. “People like to hear about stuff like that. So it’s cool. If people ask, I have no problem talking about it. Otherwise, I don’t mention it. I know who I am. I don’t need the notoriety.”
           
            Read more about Smith in next week’s Times Sports, including his high school days at John Adams, his NBA draft and the path that led him to the DG Warriors youth basketball program.

Read Part 2: Hard Work Trumps NBA Fantasy, Period