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What goes around comes around for pro (part 4)

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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            He had no clue who this shy dude from Southeastern Oklahoma State University was, but it was the guy whom Clinton Smith had to room with during the 34th annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in 1986.

            After his Sweet 16 Cinderella run with Cleveland State, Smith made the April pilgrimage to Portsmouth, Va., for the PIT, which invites 64 of the best college basketball seniors from across the nation who are not expected to be first-round draft picks.

            The four-day, 12-game tournament – now in its 62nd year – draws the attention of 200-plus scouts and general managers from all 30 NBA teams, as well as numerous international leagues. More or less, it’s a pre-draft camp for NBA hopefuls.

            “So we go to Portsmouth, and I had one of the greatest teams ever,” Smith said. “I had Dennis Rodman, Andre Turner, Barry Mungar, Joe Ward, myself. We tore that whole tournament apart.”

            From Southeastern Oklahoma State, an NAIA school, Rodman was a no-name player who shined in a small-college athletics program with 15.7 rebounds per game.    

            While no one knew who Rodman was or that he would go on to play 20 years in the NBA, including seven consecutive seasons as a leading rebounder and twice named the defensive player of the year, he just so happened to be Smith’s roommate in Portsmouth.

            “This guy was introverted, very shy to where it was like if a kid was picked on when he was little,” Smith said. “So he was very peculiar about me, like I’m watching him. But we got along. I said, ‘C’mon Rodman, let’s play. What, you from Southeast Oklahoma? It doesn’t matter. I don’t know where that’s at.’ So I ended up bringing him out of his shell a bit. We started hanging out, went to dinner. So he came around.”

            Before Rodman turned 10, his father, a Vietnam War veteran, left his family and settled in the Philippines, leaving Rodman to grow up in a single-parent home in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, which was considered to be one of the worst areas of the city.

            Smith said he had no clue that one day his PIT roommate would be the NBA bad boy with artificial hair dye, tattoos and piercings that made him notorious.

            “Man, Rodman got on the floor in Portsmouth, and I’m telling you, I had never seen anything like this dude in my life,” Smith said. “I mean, we had guys who were committed to getting the rebounds, but, man, he snatched about 20 rebounds a game, and he went second round. And man, I think he got us all drafted.”

            Rodman won MVP honors that year at the PIT and caught the attention of the Detroit Pistons for the 27th overall pick.

            Brad Daugherty, a North Carolina Tar Heel, was the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers that year. Maryland’s Len Bias was selected second by the Boston Celtics but died two days later, at age 22, from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose.

            Brad Sellers, a Warrensville Heights graduate whom Smith used to play pickup games with at the Glenville Y growing up, was selected ninth overall by the Chicago Bulls. Mark Price went 25th overall to the Dallas Mavericks but was traded on draft day to the Cavaliers.

            As the fourth round ended, Smith’s PIT teammates, Turner, Mungar and Ward, all got selected, but he had yet to receive his phone call. More than 30 players who would never see a minute in the NBA got drafted before Smith, but, with the 97th pick, the Golden State Warriors selected the 6-foot-6 shooting guard out of Cleveland State.

            “Oh, man! That was crazy,” Smith said, reminiscing about that life-changing moment from 28 years ago. “When the fifth round came up, I knew I was getting drafted, because my agent at the time was Frank Catapano, another Bostonian – (Kevin) Mackey’s buddy – an Italian guy. So Frank said, ‘What do you want to do? Golden State is up. We know George Karl wants you.”

            Before taking the head coaching position with the Golden State Warriors, Karl coached the Cavaliers from 1984 to 1986, when Smith played at Cleveland State.

            While Karl had one of the greatest basketball minds in the game and would go on to become the seventh coach in NBA history to record 1,000 wins in 2010, Smith said he didn’t want to go to the Warriors at the time.

            “I was upset, because Charles Oakley and Brad Sellers, you know, the dudes I grew up with, were with the Bulls, and the next pick up was the Chicago Bulls,” Smith said. “And Billy McKinney was the GM and called me up and said, ‘I’m going to take you. I’m going to draft you with your buddies.’ And I was dreaming of Michael Jordan and all them, but George Karl came up and was like, ‘Clinton, I’m taking you. Sorry, you’re not going to Chicago.’ And what am I going to say, ‘Don’t take me?’”

            In the end, Smith said it was for the better, because there was no way he would have seen the NBA court with the guard and small-forward depth the Bulls had at the time.

            With the Warriors, coach Karl taught Smith how to play point guard, and he saw action in 41 games as a rookie. But after two years in California, Smith went over to Italy to play European ball

            “Yeah, that was phenomenal. I’ve been to Italy, Israel, France, and then I went to Argentina,” Smith said. “That was amazing. You don’t know anybody. You can’t speak their language, and it was just a perfect let-me-be culture, because I really love privacy. I’m really content with just being private and just doing my thing. So that was nice.”

            Smith came back to the states to play minor-league ball in the Continental Basketball Association and was picked up by the Washington Bullets, now the Wizards, in 1990. He played five games that season and concluded his NBA career at age 27, although he continued to play in the CBA into his early 30s.

            During Smith’s season with the Warriors, the average NBA player made $431,000. During his 1990-1991 season with the Bullets, the average salary nearly doubled to $927,000.

            A role player with very limited minutes, Smith didn’t earn the average salary.

            “Yeah, that’s definitely a stereotype,” he said about the false notion that all former NBA players are living a rich, luxurious life. “I only played like 2 1/2 years. And a lot of former NBA players who were in the league a while blew that money, man. I know a number of guys who played for 15 years and are broke.”

            Many of even the high-profile NBA players went from riches to rags because of poor investments, crooked agents, greedy friends and family members or crippling habits such as drugs and gambling.

            While Smith will admit that he has had a trouble or two in his post-playing days, he’s not going to sit down and talk about it for three hours, he said.

            Nowadays, he’s committed to bettering himself through praying every day, reading the Bible, doing some spiritual sole searching and giving back to the 250-plus youngsters in the DG Warriors AAU basketball program.

            “The big message I’m trying to teach these kids is to love God and obey your parents,” he said. “You’ve got to love yourself too and love your neighbors as yourself. That’s what Bob (Fruchter) and I are trying to do. We’re just trying to build something and keep building for the kids so they become great people and they have great people around them.”

            Read more about the DG Warriors program and how its founder, Bob Fruchter, and Clinton Smith connected in next week’s Times Sports.  

Read Part 5: Smith Finds Glass Slipper with Warriors