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Hard work trumps NBA fantasy, period (part 2)

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.


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            There’s a difference between having the talent to run and dunk with the big boys in the NBA and actually playing in the NBA, or even Division I college ball, for that matter.

            For many of the all-time greats in the sport of basketball, pre-collegiate development – specifically learning how to shoot, play defense, work hard and be a teammate – was the make-or-break point of all their dreams.

            For Cleveland native Clinton Smith, high school is where it all began, and that’s the on-court message he preaches to the youth AAU players in the DG Warriors program that he coaches and helps with development out of Auburn Township’s Community B facility and eight other sites in Northeast Ohio.

            While Smith helps build individual skills with any and all of the 250-plus youngsters on 21 DG Warriors teams, he specifically coaches eighth-grade boys.

            “NBA life is a fantasy. Most of you dudes will never see the NBA,” Smith said he tells his players. “I don’t care how much potential you guys got. If you don’t really put in the work, good luck, period.”

            Division I college basketball is what kids should be striving for, Smith said.

            “Most kids don’t believe when you tell them they can’t go Division I if they don’t put in more work,” he said. “You see all these funny looks when I say, ‘Try to get at least a Division II or III scholarship, please, fellas.’ They say, ‘What do you mean? How come we can’t get a Division I?’ ‘Because you don’t play hard enough.’ See, I tell them the truth.”

            As a 6-foot-3 freshman at John Adams during the 1978-79 school year, a still-growing Smith could run, dribble and dunk with all the juniors and seniors at his school, but he didn’t have a team or a coach to teach him the game, he said.

            Fortunately for him, then-Athletic Director Spencer Kane took notice of Smith’s potential from what he saw during pickup games in the city, Smith said.

            Everybody around was familiar with Spencer Kane, because he knew basketball very well, “just like Bobby Knight,” Smith said.

            “You see, in ninth grade, we didn’t have athletics. They cut it out of the city of Cleveland,” Smith said. “So Spencer saw me in the 10th grade that I was running and dunking over these guys that were seniors. So Spencer took a liking to me to show me how to be a basketball player. I had all that athletic ability, but now I had to think. So I would go over and play with the white kids in Bay Village. That’s just how it was back then.”

            Through his adventures on the court with the white boys from the west-side suburb, Smith became friends with players like Billy Toole, who went on to play at Kent State, and Steve Stoyko, who played at the University of Michigan.

            Smith said he couldn’t understand why his athletic director, Kane, wanted him to play with guys like that.

            “But when I got there, I was like, ‘Wow, this makes sense,’ because the white kids would play more fundamentally sound,” Smith said. “They would pass the ball, they were always better shooters than black kids, because we always wanted to go to the hole and do all that.

            “Spencer saw that in me and said, ‘Now I’m going to show you how to play basketball, because you’ve got all this athletic ability.’ I could run and dunk with two hands and do all this kind of stuff. So then I understood.”

            That year, Kane helped Smith sign up to all sorts of different five-star camps where he started meeting and connecting with other future greats. Through his roundabouts in the park and at the Glenville Y, Smith befriended future NBA standouts Charles Oakley, of John Hay, Brad Sellers, of Warrensville Heights, and Scott Roth, of Brecksville.

            Smith grew very close with Oakley, in particular, and the two remain friends today. While Oakley towered at 6-foot-9 and went on to be a two-time rebounding leader in the NBA, Smith had no problem matching up against him on defense during their high school days.

            “Smith was a great player,” Oakley said. “He could guard anyone on the court, all five positions. He knew how to make his team go and knew how to be a leader. So we knew about each other and just tried to see what each other could bring to the table. We bonded that way and just stayed close over the years to hang out and have a good time.”   

            Oakley actually got picked ninth overall in the 1985 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers but got traded to Chicago, where he was referred to as “the cop” for protecting a young Michael Jordan on and off the court.

            “Well, I don’t know what they be saying, but I’ve heard that,” Oakley said. “I mean, I never had a badge or a gun, but I did do some community service, I guess.”

            While Oakley went on to play at Virginia Union University and Smith played at Cleveland State, the two remained best friends and would play anywhere and everywhere during their summer days back home from college.

            “I used to battle against Oakley all the time,” Smith said. “I didn’t have problem with bigs, because, with bigs, you find out which shoulder they went, and I was a master at defense to see what a guy did. I would just play up on him, and, as soon as he hit me, I’m falling. I used to get Oakley out of the game so fast, you wouldn’t know.”

            Smith said he tries to preach that defensive know-how to the eighth-graders he coaches in the DG Warriors program.

            “I try to get these little knuckleheads to get it right,” he said. “I tell them this kid is going to shoot the same way every time. He goes over his right shoulder. That’s all he’s going to do. If he tries to go left, he’s going to trip. Then they go, ‘How did you know that?’ I study the body real well, that’s what I do.”

            During Smith’s junior season at John Adams High School, he was able to rise to the 28th-ranked player in the country and lead his Rebels – who had eight seniors on their 11-player roster – to their first Ohio Division I final-four appearance.

            In front of 14,025 fans, Smith led his team with 16 points, but the Rebels lost, 59-57, to Wadsworth in the state semifinals and finished their campaign at 24-3.

            The next season, Smith was named Ohio Mr. Basketball while getting recruited by big-name programs like Ohio State University and the University of North Carolina, where Michael Jordan played.

            He would choose to attend one of those two programs before transferring twice and ending up at Cleveland State University.

            Read more about Smith in next week’s Times Sports, including his college recruitment, NBA draft camp and more about the path that led him to the DG Warriors youth basketball program.

Read Part 3: Smith’s Vision Brings Past to Present