2010 ACC Men's Basketball Legends: Chris Smith, Virginia Tech
Feb. 4, 2010
The 2010 ACC Basketball Legends class is a group of 12 former standout players - one from each ACC school - who will be honored during the 2010 ACC Men's Basketball Tournament. TheACC.com will feature two members of the ACC Legends Class each week during the six weeks prior to the tournament.
The annual ACC Legends Brunch will be held on Saturday, March 13 beginning at 10 a.m. Hosted by television personalities Tim Brant and Mike Hogewood, the ACC Men's Basketball Legends Brunch will be held in the in the Guilford Ballroom of the Sheraton Four Seasons Hotel.
If you haven't heard of Chris Smith, that's probably by choice. His choice.
A three-time All-Southern Conference player for Virginia Tech from 1959-61, Smith was a contemporary and a peer of future NBA legends Jerry West, "Hot" Rod Hundley and Elgin Baylor, among others. There's ample evidence to suggest he could have enjoyed a nice professional career.
He had one, all right. It was in chemical engineering. Nearly 50 years ago, Union Carbide Corp. made a better offer in Smith's judgement.
These days, the 70-year-old former Hokie is curious about what a life in pro hoops would have brought, but there's no need to lament a decision that seems inconceivable by modern standards. After all, he is a legend now, an ACC legend.
"This is very exciting," he said of his selection. "A very good feeling. And I've got to be the oldest of the group."
Smith's age gives him away as the product of an entirely different era. In his playing days, he was a 6-foot-6 post man; the Tech teams were known as the Gobblers as well as the Hokies; they played in War Memorial Gymnasium rather than Cassell Coliseum; and they were in the Southern Conference.
The SoCon, once a massive association of 23 institutions, is the father of the modern ACC. The most famous power of Smith's era was West Virginia, which West led to the 1959 NCAA championship game, but the Hokies were right on the Mountaineers' heels. In Smith's final three years, the Hokies were 34-6 in league play to WVU's 31-3.
And the Hokies owed much of their success to their center, who arrived as a long-armed prospect from Charleston, W.Va. Intriguing, coach Chuck Noe called him. Intriguing but raw. He assigned Smith to extra practice time every day in the name of development, not punishment, and all were rewarded.
Smith would jump 100 times and touch the rim with his left hand. After a brief rest, he'd jump 100 times and touch with the right. Then another break and 100 more jumps - this time with both hands.
"The other guys on the team said they felt sorry for me because my practice was so long," Smith said. "By the time I'd get out, the mess hall would be closed and I'd go get pizza. But I thought it was wonderful. I knew I could only get better by playing against better competition."
His shadow was Bill Matthews, a 24-year-old assistant coach known as "Moose" who was the 1956 Virginia Player of the Year and eventually became the head coach in 1962.
"At first, every shot I took, he blocked and every shot he took, he made," Smith said. "By the end of the second year, that changed."
His skills honed by untold leaps toward the rim, Smith corralled 1,508 rebounds in his tenure. Once called "the human pogo stick," his marks for rebounds in a single game (36) and in a season (495) still stand half a century after he played his last game. Entering this season, he still stood 24th on the NCAA career list for boards.
Some of the statistical longevity can be attributed to changes in the game. In Smith's day, players had more opportunities for rebounds. But, one thing time can't change is Smith's excellence in comparison to his competition.
And it was considerable. After his junior season at Tech, Smith was in a summer league with West, a player so iconic that the NBA used his likeness in its signature logo. Newspaper reports said Smith was among several players in the league who would be invited to the Olympic trials in that summer of 1960. Smith's still waiting on that call.
"No one ever contacted us," Smith said, "and we didn't know who to call."
After graduation, Smith had the chance to play in a two-day tournament that can't happen by modern NCAA rules. Collegians and professional players competed in Smith's hometown of Charleston, W.Va., in a charitable event organized by the father of Les Robinson, NC State's coach in the early and mid 1990s.
The cast included West; Hundley, the No. 1 overall NBA draft choice in 1957; Rod Thorn, a longtime league executive; and Baylor, like West a Basketball Hall of Famer. In the 1961 Sportsman Fundraising Tournament, Smith found himself going against Baylor, a 6-5 forward who had been the No. 1 pick of the 1958 NBA Draft. It's safe to say he didn't disgrace himself. He, West and Baylor were named to the all-tournament team.
Smith assumed that sort of performance would help nudge the Syracuse Nationals, who had recently selected him in the second round, off their offer of $10,000 a year. He called and waited for a returned communiqué.
"Our offer still stands," the Nationals said.
A chemical engineering major at Virginia Tech, Smith declined the basketball offer. He took the gig with Union Carbide and served as a manager in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina before retiring in Charleston. The relationship with the company was mutually beneficial.
Today, Smith owns 57 acres and lives in an 8,000-square-foot house that he and his family built on a mountain top. He's the author of two books and has two more pending. He reveled in his alma mater's admission to the ACC in the summer of 2003, and he has remained in contact with the Hokie program.
"I know Seth Greenberg and like him a lot," Smith said of the Hokies' coach. "I like the way he emphasizes character. That's so important. As important today as it was in my day."