In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Alcorn State great Larry Smith, who remains one of the greatest players in the history of the SWAC. Smith, who was the head coach at Alcorn since 2008, is now the Director of Athletic Development at the school.
Jon Teitel: Your nickname was "Mr. Mean". Who gave it to you, and how did you like it?
Larry Smith: I got it from our SID because I never smiled a whole lot. I am a real nice guy so the name does not fit me, but I still like it.
JT: In 1979 your team went undefeated during the regular season, including a comeback from eight points down with 1:20 to play to beat Southern in overtime on a jumper by Joe Jenkins. How were you able to pull out the win over Southern, and what did it mean to you to go undefeated?
LS: We had a great collection of talent who believed in one another and played hard each day. We had a great coaching staff and everything just fell into place for us.
JT: You made a baseline jumper at the buzzer for a two-point win over Mississippi State in Starkville. Where does that shot rank among the most clutch of your career, and how big a deal was it to be the first HBCU to win an NIT game?
LS: I had not really experienced anything like that before. It was tremendous to beat an opponent of that caliber. I was blessed to go to Alcorn State and do something I loved to do: play basketball.
JT: Your team then had a four-point loss to eventual champion Indiana in Bloomington (future NBA teammate Mike Woodson scored 19 points). How close did you come to winning that game, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?
LS: We competed well but there is no consolation when you lose. It was a major contribution to show that HBCU's can compete on that level. It also opened so many doors for me, as I got to go to the Pan Am Games trials and even tour Europe.
JT: In 1980 your only regular season blemish was a three-point loss to Mississippi State. Do you think that Mississippi State was out for revenge after you beat them in the NIT, and how did it feel to be only a few points away from back-to-back undefeated seasons?
LS: We still had a talented team but you cannot make mistakes against great competition. It was a tough game and we just came up short.
JT: In 1980 you led the nation with 15.1 RPG despite being only 6'8". Did you feel like you were one of the best big men in the country, and what is your secret for rebounding?
LS: I loved to play the game and had the heart and desire to get it done. I was not a great jump shooter so I had to get to the glass to score. I did not have the most talent but I never let anyone outwork me, which I will carry to my grave.
1980 NCAA Tournament
JT: You scored 18 points and grabbed a school tournament-record 17 rebounds in an eight-point win over South Alabama. How did it feel to finally make it to the NCAA Tournament, and how big a deal was it to be the first HBCU to win an NCAA Tournament game?
LS: I thought we could beat anyone because we were a very deep team. South Alabama was a great team so after we beat them we knew that we belonged.
JT: You scored 13 points in a 10-point loss to LSU (All-American Rudy Macklin had 31 points and 19 rebounds). How close did you come to winning that game, and where does Macklin rank among the best college players you ever faced?
LS: LSU was ranked #2 at the time and Macklin had a bunch of other great players around him. We represented ourselves very well but they were so much deeper than us.
JT: You were a two-time SWAC POY. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor twice?
LS: It was a great feeling because I had put in a lot of hard work and really believed that I had earned it.
JT: You played for College Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Dave Whitney, who made his players do pushups if they misbehaved at dinner or run laps in the middle of the night if they missed curfew. What made him such a great coach, and were you ever subject to his discipline?
LS: Whitney liked to win and he wanted guys who could compete on every possession with minimal mistakes. He made me a better player and a better person. He made me grow up as a man and become aware of things outside of basketball.
JT: In the summer of 1980 you were picked 24th overall by Golden State (one spot ahead of Jeff Ruland) despite a 1979 SI article that said, "Unless he unveils a perimeter jump shot in his senior year, it's doubtful that Larry Smith will make the pros". Did you end up developing that jump shot or was it just impossible for the NBA to ignore your rebounding skills?
LS: When I got to the pros my agent told me to keep working on my game. I knew that I had a decent jump shot but I was most valuable to the team by working on the glass. I was never a prolific scorer but I could run the floor and make shots from 12-14 feet out. We had guys like Purvis Short, World Free, etc., so there were not a lot of plays that were run for me! I knew that I would last in the league a long time by playing good defense and rebounding.
JT: You were named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team after averaging 12.1 rebounds per game in your first season, including a career-high 31 boards in a loss to Denver in your home finale. How were you able to come in and contribute as a rookie, and how on earth did you get 31 rebounds in a single game?
LS: I think I had an impeccable work ethic at the time so Coach Al Attles gave me the opportunity to play. Denver was a scoring machine back then so they took a lot of shots that allowed me to get a lot of rebounds. It was great to accomplish that.
JT: In 1987 your team made it to the Western Conference Semifinals before losing to the eventual champion Lakers. What was the biggest difference between the regular season and the playoffs, and where does that Lakers team rank among the best you have ever seen?
LS: It was great to finally put it all together and make it to the playoffs. We just could not beat that Lakers team. They were tremendous and knew how to win with a great nucleus.
JT: Your career average of 9.2 rebounds per game (in only 25.9 MPG) still ranks in the top 75 all-time. How satisfied are you with your career, and do you have any regrets?
LS: I have no regrets at all; God really blessed me. I got to meet some terrific people and visit a lot of places. I think I did an okay job but I played hurt a lot because I would not let anything stop me from playing the game.
JT: You spent a decade as assistant coach with Rockets under Rudy Tomjanovich, including back-to-back NBA titles in your first two years in 1994 and 1995. Did the team see you as a "lucky charm" because they started winning as soon as you showed up, and what were you thinking when Nick Anderson missed four consecutive free throws in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals?
LS: It was great to work for Rudy as he had coached me as a player, so I could not have come into a better situation. We had a bunch of blue-collar workers like Robert Horry and Kenny Smith who were very instrumental in us winning, as they did all the little things. I still cannot fathom how Nick missed those free throws because he was such a great player, so I really think it was just destiny.
JT: In 2008 you were an assistant coach for the LA Sparks of the WNBA. What is the biggest difference between coaching men and women, and where do Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker rank among the best female players you have ever seen?
LS: The women are more disciplined in what they do, as they want things to be perfect. Candace and Lisa were true professionals. Nobody worked harder than they did and they became terrific players.
JT: You had been head coach at your alma mater since 2008, but your team started 0-13 last season due to multiple Top 10 opponents and no home games. Does your coaching style change when your team is winless?
LS: We had a young team but the hardest part was that we did not get a chance to go out and recruit. When you have a coaching staff of just one assistant, you just try to make the best of it.
Smith is also on Jon's list of best pro players in SWAC history.
Alabama A&M: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Alabama State: Kevin Loder (1982)
Alcorn State: Larry Smith (1981)
Arkansas Pine Bluff: Charles Hentz (1971)
Grambling State: Willis Reed (1965)
Jackson State: Purvis Short (1979)
Mississippi Valley State: Alphonso Ford (1994)
Prairie View A&M: Zelmo Beaty (1963)
Southern: Bob Love (1967)
Texas Southern: Woody Sauldsberry (1958)