Forever on Tryout, 1980

[This is a great article. It also is one of the rare gems that comes with its own intro. So, no need for me to set up anything, except to say that the article was written by the late, great Phil Berger and published in the magazine Inside Sports on April 30, 1980. Enjoy!]


The player remembers the summer the agents were wooing him. In his hometown, he played in an outdoor league and, after each game, a local man—an aspiring agent—would give him a wad of bills to treat his teammates to a night on the town. What was leftover, the player pocketed. It was one of the best summers—an endless party. 

It is like that when an athlete is young, he is sure that the good times are forever. He goes to camp with a future full of money, love, and dreams. 

One minute he is talking strategy with the coach, playing three-on-three against the game’s biggest names. The next, the GM is saying, “. . . and bring your playbook with you.” In an instant, it’s all over. 

At first, there is shock and maybe anger. The world seems out of whack. His mind conjures up should-haves and could-haves, and eventually he shapes a version of what went wrong to tell the folks back home. 

For almost everyone cut, the dreams fade. The odds of wearing the NBA satins are miniscule: Only 5 percent of the 559 rookies cut in the last four years have come back. But for those who won’t quit on their dream, that small minority who won’t give up, it’s on to another tryout camp, back to another lonely gym to work on the game they thought they had sharpened. And usually it means a trip to the bush leagues and starting over. 

For some, success in a minor league like the Continental Basketball Association may mean a job in the NBA. Everyone who has played in outposts like Utica, Bangor, Anchorage, and Scranton knows of Bob Love, Ray Scott, George Lehmann, M. L. Carr, Bob Weiss, Paul Silas, Charlie Criss, Mike Riordan. They made it back. 

But the return trip may bring another run of hard times—second and third shots, tryout camps ad nauseum. Who knows what goes on in the head of a man who was bounced around? There’s nothing stable about big-time ball. The minimum salary in the NBA these days is $35,000; in the CBA, the pay can be as low as $70 a game, even for an ex-NBA player. The lobster dinners, the swank hotels, the jet travel that are de rigeur in the NBA are not part of the CBA life.  

Every time a man is waived, the odds of finding a job in the NBA decrease. Deserved or not, he gets a book, a rep that he can’t shake. “He’s a head case.” “He can’t play the good D.” “He’s got box scores in his head.”

He plays scared, worried that his next pass or shot will betray him. He adjusts his game to impress the coaches, the scouts, anybody who can help. 

He stops checking the sports pages for injury reports, cuts, waivers, news of expansion, and plans for roster increases. Phone calls to the NBA won’t do any good. In the bush leagues, everyone is waiting for the call. 

And waiting means surviving. Playing in the CBA is a little like being a character in a cartoon. “Looney Tunes,” is the way Mike Riordan describes it. “The fans in some of those places,” Riordan says, “you just wouldn’t believe. Coal miners in overalls and hayseed hats, chomping on straws. Even the refs were characters. 

“One time, a ref called a foul on the guy, Bob McIntyre—he played at St. John’s—for pushing. A guy on the other team had ripped Bob’s pants. You could see flesh up to the hipbone. Bob pointed to the rip and said, “What about this?” The ref said, ‘Fuck you, man.’ Afterward, he wanted to fight.

“I was used to playing to win. But there, the thing was to fight your own teammates for the ball. The league had a three-point rule. One time a guy shot from 25 feet on a fastbreak, missed, followed his shot, got it, and dribbled out to 25 feet and shot it again.”

When Riordan played, it was a weekend league. Today, the CBA is recognized by the NBA, the teams play during the week and they travel from Lancaster to Honolulu. Still, game sites mysteriously change; schedules, too. Rosters are cut from 10 men to nine to eight. 

There are plenty of 6-foot-3 guards out there, guards who can run and shoot. The Dennis Johnsons, the George Gervins, they stand out, and the others move in a restless pack around them. The idea is to keep the skills polished and hope that somewhere in a poorly lit gym you’ll catch the eye of the NBA. The idea is to keep pushing. 

Coniel Norman

Arizona, 6-foot-3, 170

A wintry wind is blowing in under the door of Room 138 of the Congress Inn ($11 a room) out on Route 30 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, seeping through the roll towels wedged against the door. 

For Coniel Norman, the chill takes on metaphorical significance. Once Norman was one of the country’s hot-shooting youngbloods, averaging 23.9 points a game at the University of Arizona while a freshman and sophomore. A hardship case in 1974, he was drafted in the third round by Philadelphia, then moved on to Washington and San Diego—with minor-league stops in Allentown and Tucson. Now, at age 26, he is a Lancaster Red Rose and, to hear it from some basketball men, possibly out in the cold for good. 

Norman’s first time in the CBA was brief and tumultuous. “Four games,” says Norman. “That’s all it lasted. I guess you could say I was upset about being in Allentown. I felt I should have made the Philadelphia 76ers. It deflated my ego for a little while. I got angry and got technicals called on me. I was the kind of guy who nevergot T’s called. I got three in four games and packed it in.”

Norman plays with gliding, smooth strides, never in a hurry. Off those easy steps, he accelerates for a variety of shots, frequently put up in traffic. As ever, Coniel Norman can shoot the basketball. On February 10, against the Anchorage Northern Knights, he pounds up and down the court of McCaskey High School in Lancaster scoring 32 points as the Roses lose 128-112 before 360 fans. A week later, he scores 54 points in a double-overtime loss to the Pennsylvania Barons. 

Scoring was once enough for Norman, but no longer. The rap against him in the NBA was that he was a one-dimensional player—a shooter who didn’t know squat about defense or team play. In the minors, he was supposed to rework his game. 

By Norman’s account, it hasn’t been easy. At Tucson in the old Western Basketball Association, he says, Coach Herb Brown had favorites—“Herb’s boys,” he calls them—and at Lancaster, too, there have been coach’s pets, players he nicknamed God and Jesus. Somehow, their preferred status put a crimp in the Norman style. 

Allentown, Tucson, and Lancaster twice: For Norman, there are too many seasons in too many nowhere towns. Maybe he has one more shot left at the NBA. If not, he doesn’t figure to be back here next year. But what the hell, he’s a guy who can put the ball in the hole, no matter what they say about him. And they’ll always want a shooter somewhere. 

The trouble with pure shooters is they tend to see basketball in terms of me/myself, which makes them disruptive to coaches trying for a team game. “Coniel,” says Bob Raskin, the Lancaster coach until he was let go at Christmas, “is an intense competitor, but when he’s off, he tries to get back all alone. If somebody blocks his shot, he takes it personally. He has to do it all by himself. He shoots you in and out of ballgames. 

“I spoke with 76ers’ GM Pat Williams, and their scout, Jocko Collins, when Coniel first came here. They thought his attitude was great at Philadelphia. And in 1978, he was no problem for the Red Roses. He put out defensively. He gave up the ball if he didn’t have the shot. In fact, I voiced his case to NBA teams. I was pushing for him . . . This year, he was not the same player. His attitude after playing part of last season at San Diego had changed. 

“You speak to him off the court, and he’s a nice enough fellow. In ballgames, though, he’d throw towels. Constantly bitching and moaning. You’d want to put your fist to him. He and I once almost got into it after a game—the only time in 13 years I’ve been coaching. On the court, he’d over-control the ball and force up shots. If you’d take him out—even if he’s played 42 minutes—he’d complain: ‘Gee, Bob, you play all these other guys.’

“We had a team meeting this year about team priorities, passing the ball and so on. Came his turn to speak, he said, ‘I got nothing to say.’ I told him: ‘Let’s talk it out. You’re an integral part of the team.’ He says, ‘All these rookies . . . I got nothing to say because I’m going to get mine.’ Meaning, he’d get his points. And that’s Coniel. He wants to win. He works hard. But if he can’t be one of the featured characters, he’s not interested.”

The day after Norman scored 32 points against Anchorage, Raskin’s successor at Lancaster, Stan Novak, a school principal who has coached 31 years in the minor leagues, sat at his desk at Enfield Middle School in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and made these notations about his ballclub:

1. Selfish

2. Not caring about winning. 

3. Pass ME the ball. 

4. Facial expressions.

5. Quit if someone does something you don’t like (rather than encouraging the guy)

Against Anchorage, Novak saw his club suffer from dissention. “I learned,” says Novak, “that Coniel told one of our forwards, Sylvester Cuyler, ‘Gimme the ball,’ two or three times. And Sylvester got mad and took himself out of the game mentally. Which got the pivotman Jim Bostic, annoyed. And so, you ended up seeing a lot of faces being made out there and a team giving up on itself. 

“When I took over his coach, I talked to Coniel about working on his defense and hitting the open man. He said yes, he would. But I think he’s played so long his way, it’s difficult for him to change. The night after I talked to him, somebody missed him on a pass. ‘See,’ he says, ‘they missed me on the pass. And you talk about me?’

“To be honest, if I were coming into the situation fresh, I’d get rid of Coniel first thing. Now, I coached Charlie Criss at Scranton the night he scored 72 points [January 25, 1976] against Hazleton. Criss was the kind of guy who could score all those points and not have the other guys resent him. He had a great attitude. A great kid. He’d encourage everybody. That’s why he’s playing NBA today. Today, ability might even be secondary. 

If Norman has an attitude problem, as Raskin and Novak claim, he doesn’t know about it. He disputes many of their assertions. “I came from the NBA to the minor leagues and didn’t take stuff some of the younger guys might. The league don’t care about its players. I’m one of the top guys—third-leading scorer, when I left. And when they didn’t treat me right, I let them know. I wasn’t even the highest-paid player on the team. In fact, I was about the fifth highest. [Team officials say he was the fourth highest.]

“On that kind of money, you can’t survive. Those of us who stayed in Lancaster—there were five of us at the beginning of the season and three of ‘em left by February—were promised jobs. And we didn’t get jobs. The team didn’t keep its promise. And because they didn’t treat me right, I let ‘em know. 

“As for the other stuff, I’ll tell you this: It doesn’t surprise me about Bob Raskin. He and I didn’t get along. We had words. But that didn’t mean he should lie about me. That meeting in Anchorage, that wasn’t about me. The young players called the meeting. They felt they should be getting more playing time and getting the ball more. Those young dudes directed their conversation to Bob, I never said, ‘I’ll get mine.’ That’s not in my program. 

“As for Stan, that surprises me. I liked Stan. But after what you tell me, I think he could have confided in me and not gone behind my back to a reporter, if that’s how he felt. I don’t consider myself a guy that creates animosity. My teammates get me the ball. I never cry for the ball. It was a misunderstanding on Stan’s parts about me and Sylvester. We had a meeting on facial expressions, and I think we cleared it up. Me and Sylvester are best of friends. None of the players conflicted with me. I felt I got along with everybody.”

On the weekend of March 1, Norman missed two Lancaster games. He then went back to Detroit, he says, to rest for a few weeks. This spring, he plans to join a pro league in Mexico. 

Rickey Green

Michigan, 6-foot-1, 170

Mass is over. And at 7:15 on a Saturday night, workmen remove folding chairs from the gym of the Phillipsburg (New Jersey) Catholic High School. The Lehigh Valley Jets are about to play the Hawaii Volcanos. 

At tipoff time, a problem develops. One of the game’s two officials, Vince McKelvey, has turned up at the Jets’ other homecourt, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, unaware of the schedule switch. The announcement in the change of the starting time is garbled by microphone feedback piercing enough to contravene the Geneva Conventions. And so it goes on a mid-winter’s night in the CBA. Mere anarchy, in Yeats’ phrase, loosed upon the world. 

For Rickey Green, there is order among chaos, a welcome change for him after two troubling seasons in Lawrence F. O’Brien’s league. He is doing what he was supposed to do in the NBA: He is running a basketball team. With Golden State and Detroit in the NBA, Green had trouble getting his own game in gear. His stats are a throwback to the Syracuse Nationals and the Fort Wayne Pistons: In two NBA seasons, he shot 38 percent from the field and 63.1 percent from the free-throw line. 

For Hawaii, he is shooting a whisker under 50 percent from the floor and averaging 20 points, eight assists, and a couple of steals a game. Against Lehigh Valley, he hits jump shots, steals the ball, and deftly sets up teammates—22 points, nine assists in a 135-133 loss. The performance brings back images of his glory years at the University of Michigan, where he was an All-American and, it was said, quicker than a speeding bullet. 

So how did he land in the CBA? Listen:

Gordon “Scotty” Stirling, assistant to the president, Golden State: “He was not a very good shooter. The mechanics of his shots were bad. But that can be improved. Look at Dennis Johnson of Seattle. He worked at it and became a credible shooter. But Rickey Green didn’t work on his game. Some players have good work habits. Some don’t. He could have been a good player. Talk to Joe Roberts. He was an assistant coach who worked with Green.”

Joe Roberts, now a real estate agent: “Rickey had speed to burn. He could run teams out of the arena. Speed like Gus Williams. But he tended to go at the same pace with his dribble. I wanted him to vary his speeds, use the change of speed dribble . . . Another problem he had was he’d make his mind up where and how he was going to shoot before he shot. 

“But the main thing was he didn’t take the game seriously. You’d tell him something, and he’d look at you like you were crazy. He’d do what you’d tell him not to do. Like, a fellow as quick as Green should practice shooting on the move—practice the way he plays. You’d tell him that, and he’d practice standing jump shots. He didn’t take coaching like he should have. Not that he was a bad kid. It was never extreme. More like benign neglect. You’d talk, he’d look away. It’s really too bad. He could have been excellent.”

Dick Vitale, ex-coach of the Detroit Pistons: “There are so many Rickey Greens—kids that “shoulda been.” It’s that thin line. Outside of the real superstars, the difference is mental toughness. 

“We gave Rickey shooting drills to do. One-minute, constant-motion drills that build up your legs. In this game, you shoot with your legs as well as your arms and wrists. Same as a baseball pitcher depends on his legs. Rickey would never have made a great shooter, but he could have gone from 38 percent to 45 percent.  A guy like him, in 20 minutes he’s good for two, three baskets in transition—layups at the other end and, say, maybe one for three on jump shots. Hey, that’s four for six, four for seven. But the point is, he was getting blanketed. He had problems on the break. Against the Celtics one night, he missed three breakaways, two in the last minute. I blamed it on his legs. He didn’t punish those legs. 

“He came with an attitude—’I am a superstar’—and kept talking how he didn’t get his shot at Golden State, they used him wrong. That scared me. Al Attles is a winner. I couldn’t buy that reasoning. After 17 years coaching, you can see the chip on the shoulder. Like, ‘I need P-T [playing time], never mind the drills.’ 

He never got nasty. He didn’t sulk, didn’t pout. And you want to know something? I like him. He’s a good kid. There’s something about him I do like. But he just didn’t really want to work. My assistant coaches would say, ‘Rickey’s not receptive to this, to that.’ The point is so many kids give every excuse. They don’t look in the mirror and let the mirror look back.”

Rickey Green, Hawaii Volcanos: “At Golden State, I wasn’t playing much. I was getting frustrated. I’d have a tendency to be down. Which I should never have done. I should have been doing extra running. But I said, ‘Damn, I ain’t playing—I don’t need extra running.’ I know I shouldn’t have thought like that because when I did go in, I didn’t do well. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have acted like that. 

“The next year, when Dick Vitale said he was letting me go [after 27 games], I couldn’t believe it. Damn, brought me all the way from Golden State. I was shocked. I thought they were trading me. But no, he was just cutting me. 

“After they let me go, my lawyer told me they were saying it was my attitude—that I didn’t care. That was the first I heard of it. I’m a quiet person. Maybe ‘’cause I didn’t talk a lot, they thought I had a no-care attitude, that I didn’t want to be bothered. But I never talked much to my junior college coach, or [Johnny] Orr at Michigan. [Orr confirms this.]

“You know, in Hawaii, the NBA games come on at eight in the morning. For certain teams—the good ones like L.A., Philadelphia, San Antonio—I set the alarm so I can get up and watch. What’s it like looking in from the outside? Well, I’ll tell you: I don’t feel frustrated, even though sometimes I see a player and say, ‘Damn, I could do as good as that.’ It gives me some more incentive. 

“One of my Hawaii teammates, Mel Bennett, he’s always saying, ‘Stay steady, Green. Just play your game. Something’s going to break.’ And that’s what I believe. But I’ll tell you what. If I ever went back to the NBA, I know I’d be verbal this time. I’d do things differently. 

Brad Davis

Maryland, 6-foot-3, 180

Back in 1977, Bradley Ernest Davis could run a fastbreak as well as anybody since Guy Rodgers. Not only that, he was considered “good people”—NBA code for anybody who is not a general pain in the ass. At the University of Maryland, Davis would show up an hour before practice and would stay late. In games, he was content to parcel out the ball to teammates and take just enough shots to keep defenses honest. 

He was a kid who was bright, white, and could play like hell—all the ingredients to help a team in its division and at the box office. The Los Angeles Lakers, suffering in both departments, made Davis, a hardship case, one of three first-round draft choices. 

Brad Davis was gone from Los Angeles by the end of October 1978. Davis, it was said then, was a so-so shooter, suspect on defense, and not quick enough for the NBA. He was signed by Indiana late last season and waived early this year. He moved to Anchorage, where he became a starting guard and shot 51.9 percent from the field. These days, he is reluctant to talk about his NBA experiences and comes off a bit stiff and sorrowful, as if he were being asked about a departed loved one. 

His older brother, Mickey, who played four seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, says, “My impression is, Brad feels embarrassed by going into the pros and not doing what he did in college: (A) run a team and (B) score when necessary.”

With his mustache, scruffy whiskers, blond hair that flops up and down when he runs a basketball team, Davis looks California laid-back. Although Davis (who was raised in Pennsylvania steel country) owns a condominium in Manhattan Beach, California, he is hardly the easy-timer. 

His business manager, Thomas Collins, says, “He is just a nice person. He calls a coach ‘Sir.’ Uses ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir.’ ‘No sir, yes sir. I heard him call [Lakers general manager Bill] Sharman ‘sir’ at least a hundred times. Where that comes from, I don’t know. Nobody told him he had to do it, but it’s not something he forces.”

Adds Mickey: “His approach to everyday life is on a sincere basis. Whether it’s schoolwork or friends. He takes everything seriously. He has—and I don’t mean this critically—a minimal sense of humor. Everything is interpreted as a challenge. Some of it probably stems from following a brother through school who had some success. Even though he eclipsed everything that I did. 

“While he was in the NBA, he became more and more determined to do well, and he increased the pressure on himself, so much so, it may have had a detrimental effect.”

In the early days of Los Angeles’ training camp, the Lakers were baffled by Davis, who seemed slower than he’d been at Maryland. Investigating, they found that after every team practice, he was taking long training runs along the beach, which deadened his legs. It was a forgivable excess, and typified an admirable NBA attitude. Time and again, scouts came back to Davis’ maturity, his professionalism. Phrases like “a good kid,” “coachable,” “supportive of his team,” And yet . . . 

“I have discussions with NBA people every week,” says Bill Klucas, Davis’ coach at Anchorage. “It’s hard to sell them on Brad. They ask who’s playing well around the league, by position. I tell ‘em Brad is the best playmaking guard in the CBA, and I hear hesitancy. Like there’s a ‘book’ on him. Sometimes it’s hard to outgrow that.”

Klucas himself saw the traumatic effects of Davis’ NBA experience—both this year and last year when they were together at the WBA Montana Sky. In both places, Davis seemed to play scared. “Somebody had beat it into him,” says Klucas, “that he wasn’t supposed to shoot. He was hesitant. He passed up shots, wide-open shots.”

There is no mystery about what happened to Davis at Los Angeles. He came into the league with a specialty—running the fastbreak. Coach Jerry West didn’t want his team to run back in 1977-78. They worked a set offense around, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That styled detracted from Davis’ game, and it put a premium on ball control. Brad Davis was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Davis says, “A lot of my problems had to do with playing time. It’s hard when you come in off the bench and play three to five minutes in the first half, three to five minutes in the second. You get stiff and cold. West told me, ‘Hang in there. Your time will come.’ Yeah, I guess it has. I’m here [Anchorage]. 

Many players go from the NBA to the CBA convinced they are victims of the basketball crapshoot—mismatched to time and team. It was what Klucas was telling NBA scouts who were dubious about Davis earlier this year. Though Davis does not say it (Klucas: “Brad complains about nothing. He’s a class guy.”), West’s impatience made Davis a timid player. His instructions to Davis—”Move the ball, move the ball”—translated, ‘Don’t shoot the damn thing.”

“He played,” says Klucas, “like his head was in a guillotine. What happens is guys worry about making a mistake—and they never get into the flow.”

“I tried to talk with him,” says Mickey, “and it was hard to communicate. He thought it was his fault. I felt that he should share the blame with the situation.”

This year, when NBA teams are not calling up a lot of CBA talent, preferring to play musical chairs with their injury reserve lists, athletes like Davis are weighing their decisions for next season. The expansion team in Dallas and the prospect of 12-man rosters keep motivating the floating pool of ex-NBA players marking time in the bush leagues. 

In Davis’ case, the time at Anchorage seems well used. In late February, he was averaging 13.3 points and four assists per game. This team was battling the Rochester Zeniths for first place in its division. His future? “I’m just going to let fate take its course. I don’t plan to spend a good portion of my young life hooking up in the NBA, playing CBA. I plan to get into something more stable.” With his Anchorage salary of about $12,000 and the reported $85,000 the Lakers were paying off on a three-year guaranteed contract, he could afford this season in the CBA. 

February postscript: Early in a two-week road trip, Davis was making notes from a textbook called Questions and Answers on Real Estate, and talking of taking the test in California. Security, and all that. 

Then on February 27, Davis called business manager Collins to tell him the Utah Jazz wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract. “He was elated,” said Collins. “Eee-lated. He reports to Utah by the end of the week . It may be the break he needs . . . Oh, one other thing. Brad felt an obligation to Anchorage and Bill Klucas, so we’ve worked it out that he’ll go back for the CBA championships, even if the NBA season overlaps.”

On February 29, Davis’ name returned to an NBA box score. He scored four points in a Jazz victory over Portland. 

Willie Smith

Missouri, 6-foot-2, 170

It was a routine line from a 76er-Cavalier box score of a game played February 17:

                        MIN     FGA     FGM    FTA      FTM     REB      ASST    ST        PTS

W. Smith         22        9         4         2         1         5         4         3          9

Though they were not the sort of numbers to get a man a spot in the Hall of Fame, for Willie Smith they represented a day’s work. And that was plenty good for a man who’s got the mileage that Smith has. At 26, Smith is one of the NBA’s leading transients, moving from team to team as regularly as Allied Van Lines and the league’s waiver system permit. 

He is lean and high-waisted, with a whippet’s body suggestive of quickness and cunning. Smith was a scorer at the University of Missouri—43 points against Rickey Green and Michigan in the 1976 NCAA Midwest Regional finals. In the NBA, he’s a marginal player working on the grey areas to stay on NBA rosters. He has adapted. 

When he came to the Bulls’ training camp in ’76, the knock on him was that he couldn’t play defense. That reputation followed Smith when he was waived by the Bulls. 

But as the Sixers and Cavaliers battled in Philadelphia, Smith was Quick Willy on defense, repeatedly doubling up on the ball, and guessing when he could gamble. On one play, Smith was sagging off his man, Henry Bibby, in the right corner of the floor, when Philadelphia got the ball to Darryl Dawkins in the low post. Smith ran the length of the baseline, picked the ball clean from Dawkins, and raced it upcourt. Forward Don Ford followed the steal with a 16-foot jump shot. 

That hustle has impressed Cavalier coach Stan Albeck: “If it’s the last seconds of the game and you have to overplay the ball, I don’t care who he plays, Willie Smith won’t let the guy get the ball.” Even with Albeck, Smith has been a transient. He started this season with the Cavs, was waived when guard Butch Lee returned from an injury in December, signed two successive 10-day contracts in January, when Lee’s rehabilitation was deemed incomplete, and was signed in late January for the duration of the season. 

There is no guarantee that Smith will be back next year. He is about to reach that point where NBA general managers view his spotty record suspiciously. Their thinking: “If he hasn’t made it by now, he’s had his shot.”

That Smith is still knocking around the NBA as a tribute to his staying power. His NBA baptism at Chicago was a weird and perplexing ordeal. The details are blurred by conflicting accounts, but the disparity in versions does not dispel the impression that he got caught up in a strange situation. 

To begin, there was a Chicago Tribune story, written by Ed Stone, that appeared after Smith had been drafted by Chicago and included this quote attributed to Smith: “If they [the Bulls] need a miracle, they have the right person.” Meaning, him: W. Smith. The problem with the quote, says Smith, is he didn’t say it. The reporter put words in his mouth. (Stone disputes that.)

Jerry Krause, the director of player personnel for the Bulls, then told people that the veterans resented the braggadocio. Smith showed up at camp with a new Cadillac, a luxury some of the vets hadn’t acquired. These things do matter. 

Krause himself may have had a role in Smith’s downfall at Chicago. His enmity with Ed Badger, the man the Bulls named head coach just before the season, is acknowledged by both parties. But on the question of whether Smith—who was considered Krause’s draft choice—was a victim of those circumstances, there is less unanimity. Some—including Smith, Stone, and Krause—say yes. Badger says no. He claimed Smith just couldn’t cut it, that he was a liability on defense. The Bulls needed a big guard, not Smith. 

“I got caught in a crossfire,” says Smith. “I played well enough to stick. But people took advantage of my situation, but being caught between Krause and Badger. Like, Norm Van Lier was playing so crazy in practices. Sometimes, I’d post him and try to shoot over him. He’d grab me around the waist and just throw me. And the coaches wouldn’t say anything. I’d elbow back, but what the hell, he wasn’t letting me play. And then, running downcourt, Norm would be cursing me: ‘You son of a bitch this, you son of a bitch that.’ Make it look like I couldn’t get along with people. I can’t blame him. He was doing what he could to make the team. But the whole thing was like a nightmare.”

(Van Lier: “Oh, yeah. We’d go hard at it. No question. It was tough. A lot of elbows and so forth. But he encouraged it by the way he talked to the papers, bragging on himself. As for cussing him, that I don’t remember.”)

On October 28, 1976—after he’d played a total of 11 minutes in two games—Smith was waived. “Badger called me into his office and had this little smile on his face, like he’d won. Krause had been let go by Chicago. And I guess he expected me to react violent or nasty. But I didn’t ask why or anything. I told him: ‘I’ll keep working hard and be back. It’s not the last you’ve seen of me.’ Badger just laughed. Like, ‘You stupid ass.’

There’re not many people I despise, but he’s one of them. He told people that I was on drugs. It’s wrong to do a person like that. I found this out from the Bulls assistant coach, Gene Tormohlen. He told me: ‘The word he’s got out on you is that you’re on drugs.’ That hurt me. After all he’d done, he was still trying to discredit me.” [Tormohlen: “Badger didn’t put the word out about Willie’s being on drugs. Somebody told it to Badger. Badger’s not that type of individual. He’s got nothing bad to say about anybody. He’s a good Christian.”]

“Is that what he says?” asks Badger. “I thought he had more ethics than that. He’s suffering from hallucinations. He wasn’t let go because he was a Krause man. What it boiled down to was I couldn’t use a small guard. And he can’t accept that. As far as the drugs, back then I didn’t even know what marijuana smelled like. If I really thought that, I could have called Jack Ramsay up, a friend of mine, and told him about it when Portland was thinking of using Willie on its team.”

The Bulls’ interlude is behind him. And though it hasn’t been a breeze since Chicago—Philadelphia, Indiana, Portland, and Cleveland—Smith is not complaining. He’s alive and reasonably well in the NBA. He may not be signing any long-term leases for a while, but he takes what tomorrow brings. Lord knows, he has had practice—enough to bring another man down. Not Willie. “No way. Down is for a person who don’t really understand himself. You don’t do anything if you’re down. That’s how I see things. I keep myself up.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: