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Smith’s vision brings past to present (part 3)

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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            He cried like a little newborn when his mom and dad left, and the grown man won’t deny those tears of his youth.
            Upon graduating from John Adams High School in 1982, Clinton Smith was off to college to pursue more of his basketball dreams.
            Like many teenagers, leaving the nest for the first time was an unforgettable experience, he said.
            “They looked at me, and then my mother started crying,” Smith said about the day his parents dropped him off at college. “You see, me and my mother are very close. She started crying, and then my father had tears in his eyes. He’s always been the rock. But we were so close, because I’m an only child. And my mom and dad did great by me.”

            Along with great basketball talent comes great possibilities and responsibilities, notably a college scholarship. But it wasn’t talent alone that got Clinton Smith a ticket to the next level.

            If it weren’t for John Adams Athletic Director Spencer Kane and the fundamentally sound white boys in Bay Village who helped develop his game, Smith might have never had the vision to make it big in the sport he loves.

            Looking back in time, he would have done things differently in regards to his college selection, but Smith is not one to get caught up in the rearview mirror.

            Nowadays, as an AAU basketball skills development trainer and coach, Clinton Smith shares a vision with DG Warriors founder Bob Fruchter, of Bainbridge, in helping not only the financially stable kids in the suburbs but also the athletes in homes that struggle to make ends meet.

            “The inner-city kids that we’re bringing in, I can really relate to, because that’s most of the kids with the problems, period,” Smith said. “With this being a great community out here, you’ve got two parents most of the time. With the inner-city kids, we try to show them the message. And I’d rather do the speaking with those kids, especially if it’s about getting in trouble. I really get their attention.”

            When Fruchter founded DG Warriors five years ago, he did so with a vision to help inner-city children not only in Cleveland but throughout the country, he said.

            With 21 basketball teams and growing, the DG Warriors program officially began working with the international nonprofit Livio Cares Foundation, which has a mission to impact the lives of children through the direct support of organizations that focus on helping youth overcomer physical, mental and financial obstacles in order to achieve God-given potential.

            “Our vision is to have tryouts and practices in as many of those locations that cater to kids in the Cleveland (Metropolitan) School District as we can,” Fruchter said. “Without the help of scholarships, which we’re already doing, they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the AAU experience and more.”

            The goal is to help some of the less-fortunate kids change their lives for themselves and their families in terms of getting a college scholarship and more, Fruchter said.

            Many kids have the potential to be the breadwinners of their families, but they need help with that long-term vision, because they don’t have it on their own, Smith said.

            After graduating from John Adams in 1982, Smith couldn’t see past playing basketball during his freshman year of college, and that was the biggest mistake ever in life, he said.

            Chuck Machock, who was Ohio State University’s assistant men’s basketball coach at the time, scouted Smith during his junior year of high school when he would play pick-up games with his boys Charles Oakley and Brad Sellers, among others, at the Glenville Y.

            “There was a lot of talent there, and coaches used to come up there and see us play,” he said. “So Machock saw me and said I was the one who shined more than all the rest. Them other guys were just tall and big. I was out-rebounding them, dribbling the ball and passing. I was complete.”

            While Smith grew up in a Buckeye-wannabe city, he was also recruited by the University of North Carolina, he said.

            Fresh off an NCAA national championship, the Tar Heels were stacked with future NBA greats like Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty, not to mention a host of other all-Americans like Matt Doherty, Jim Braddock and Buzz Peterson.

            “That was the best team I’ve ever seen in college,” Smith said. “So their coaches Eddie Fogler and Dean Smith came by, and North Carolina was where I always wanted to go.

            “So they came to me and suggested I go to a prep school for one year, because they were stacked up. And I didn’t want to go. That was my biggest mistake. My mother wanted me to go to Carolina so bad. I should have just sat out a year, but I’m anxious to play and didn’t really know how things go. They saw the vision, and I didn’t.”

            With the opportunity to play as a freshman, Smith enrolled on a full scholarship at Ohio State University instead, and his coach, Eldon Miller, attempted to develop him as a 6-foot-6 post player.

            After playing just 108 minutes in 22 games with a mere 11 field goals, Smith chose not to return to the Buckeyes the following season.

            “I didn’t want to leave Ohio State. I love Ohio State. If you’re from Ohio, you want to go to Ohio State,” Smith said. “But it was better for me. Morally, I knew right from wrong, but just being that independent, just the maturity factor, it was on me. That’s why I had to transfer. So I went off to junior college way out in the desert in Arizona and really focused on my studies and my spirit and soul. So it was right.”

            After a year studying and playing ball in Arizona, Smith returned home in the summer to continue his pick-up games with Oakley. They extended their presence to the courts at Cleveland State University, where they were surrounded by guys like John Bagley, Mark West and 7-foot-7 Manute Bol.

            More or less, it was pro-caliber central on the Vikings’ courts in the summertime, Smith said. That’s when Cleveland State head coach Kevin Mackey recruited him.

            “It was incredible. It was just, ‘Wow!’ Everybody was going up and down, running, pressing, dunking and this and that,” Smith said. “Mackey was looking at me like, ‘This is what we do. I’m from Boston. I like hard guys. I don’t like soft guys. You’ve got talent. Let’s press. You give four to five hard minutes, and then you come out.’ And it was nice.”

            After coach Miller at Ohio State failed to develop him as a slow-paced, slim and skinny post player in the Big Ten, Smith was high on Mackey’s high-tempo, guard-oriented system.

            An Irish-Catholic with a thick Boston accent, Mackey was an educated guy with common sense, Smith said.

            “He knew what to say and how to say it to make you feel good,” Smith said. “At that time, I was only 19, 20, and he said, ‘Hey, look, you don’t need to see your name in the newspaper no more. You don’t need to be the kingpin of the neighborhood with people patting you on the back. It’s time to let your actions speak for your game.’ And that’s just how Mackey always used to talk.”

            Smith was sold and enrolled at Cleveland State University in the fall of 1984 to finish his last two years of college and lead the Vikings to a Sweet 16 Cinderella run in 1986.

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

Read Part 4: What Goes Around Comes Around for Pro