Larry Smith: Mr. Mean, 1981

[Larry Smith was one of the NBA’s great rebounders of the 1980s, spending most of his 13 NBA seasons with Golden State. To quote a 1980s basketball publication, Smith, a.k.a., Mr. Mean, “Plays the game like his life depended on the outcome . . . hands out bruises like they were mere pennies.” Smith was also said to be a quintessential nice guy off the floor.

This article, published during Smith’s second NBA season in December 1981, makes the ambitious claim that Mr. Mean was an even-better rebounder than Moses Malone, and that’s obviously saying something even to suggest it. Smith, a forward, finished with a 9.2 per game career rebounding average, which included five seasons with double-digit rebounds and another at 9.9 caroms per game. As floated in this article, Smith had the talent and timing to average 15 rebounds per game, considered a measure of rebounding greatness. Smith never attained that milestone; Malone, though a center hovering around the basket, did a couple of times and even blew past the milestone with a 17.6 per game rebounding average in 1978!

Nevertheless, Smith’s NBA body of work off the backboards speaks for itself. He’s one of the greats and truly worth remembering. Here’s his story, told by the late Ralph Wiley, then writing for the Oakland Tribune, where he started his journalism career as a copy boy. Wiley would later file some fine stories for Sports Illustrated and an ESPN publication. But he’s best remembered as an author and for his penetrating essays on race in America.]


Those persons on the cusp of Aquarius and Capricorn are said to have a firm grasp on the vicissitudes of life. That may be one reason why last season as a rookie Larry Smith of the Golden State Warriors was the very best rebounding forward in the NBA.

Great NBA rebounders—their number has been few—have a knack for the ball, a Spartan work ethic, and Brobdignagian size. Moses Malone, the Houston Rockets’ engine of destruction, is currently considered the league’s finest. 

Malone led the NBA in rebounds last season averaging 14.8 per game. Smith averaged 12.1 rebounds a game, third in the league. Swen Nater was second (12.4). Moses averaged 40.6 minutes per game. Smith averaged 31.4 minutes.

Moses is 6-foot-10; Smith is 6-foot-7 ½. These days, guards are 6-foot-7 ½. Moses weighs 235 pounds. Smith is 210 after his favorite lunch. Moses is a center, always near the basket. Smith is a forward, all over the floor. Moses is a seven-year pro, an All-Star. The referees know this. Moses did not foul out last season. Smith was a rookie. The referees knew this. He was disqualified 10 times. 

Malone played 767 minutes more than Smith last season, but had only 43 more offensive rebounds than the younger man. For purposes of justice, Smith should have been judged rookie of the year. The NBA’s official award went to Utah’s Darrell Griffith. 

Griffith is a great shooter. The NBA brims with great shooters, so much so that shooting is almost passe. Besides, brainstorming old men can shoot. Find the ones who can gather the missed shots, and you find the rare birds. 

Of the top 10 NBA rebounders, Smith is the smallest, youngest, lightest in weight, and the only second-round draft choice. He is the Leaping Unknown, Mr. Mean, Electric Legs, Little Moses. He is the fiercest rebounding forward alive. 

This is how that came to be. 

There are different types of genius. For Dumas and Fitzgerald, it was the written voice. For Chopin and Joplin, it was melody. For Pythagoras and Larry Smith, it was angles. When Smith was 15 years old, 6-foot-4, “and about 125 pounds,” according to his high school coach, George Willis, he already had the knack of gauging the arc of a ball and where he had to go to reach it at the apex of his jump. He also had the rare voracity to go after them all. The combination was enviable. 

Things went well for Smith. He had four brothers and four sisters, and there was plenty of work to do. But work never bothered him. 

His family lived within walking distance of Simmons High School in Hollandale. Mississippi. “He always believed every ball was his,” Willis said. “After his father died, [Smith’s junior year], he got off to himself. But his senior year, we won this state.”

Scholarships? Well, Smith was by then a 6-foot-6 rebounder who could block shots and pass. But he didn’t average 30 points, and he was from the back roads of a state not steeped in hoop. The final choice was simple. Approximately 130 miles due south, was the mossy-campus of Alcorn State, where Smith averaged 16.7 points and 11.1 rebounds a game.

“I’m afraid Larry Smiths don’t come along very often,” says Dave Whitney, who coached Alcorn into the NCAA tournament during Smith’s time. “He’s not doing the glamour work. But no one can do what he does quite the way he does it.

“I would not call him a loner. He’s very mature. He’s not the type to go out and make friends, but he’s friendly. His physical stature will fool you. It fooled the NBA people. They’ve been apologizing to me all year. But he’s strong, has great stamina, and he doesn’t back away. 

“He ate folks alive at Indiana and Mississippi State. Nobody could rebound with him. He was No. 1. The scouts said he couldn’t shoot. I said he’s an intelligent, intense kid. I was glad he went to Golden State. They needed a rebounder.”

No, Golden State desperately needed a rebounder. Notice the need is now past tense. “Teams usually gear to stop a scorer,” Warrior coach Al Attles said. “I think in the future, teams will gear for Larry Smith. They will say, ‘Our job is to keep Smith off the boards.’”

In last season’s last meeting with the Rockets, Houston concentrated on keeping Smith off the offensive boards. For a half, it worked. Smith had only four rebounds. But it is like trying to hold back rushing water. He had eight rebounds in the third quarter and finished with 15. Malone had 14. 

Three days later, the Phoenix Suns concentrated on keeping Smith off the glass. “You’ve got a job to do, keeping him off the boards,” said 6-foot-10 Jeff Cook, the man who was assigned to do it. “You can’t help out as much. That might have hurt us tonight (the Warriors won, 114-109) because I couldn’t help out on [Joe Barry] Carroll. But I think I did a good job on Smith.”

He must have. Smith had only 10 rebounds. 

“Yes, we are really concerned about his ability to work the offensive boards,” said Suns coach John MacLeod. “He’s one of the big keys to their game.”

Smith is also an effective scorer down low, but speaking of scoring at this point is almost sacrilege. The points will come. He averaged 9.3 points a game taking only seven shots a contest.

Testimonials and statistics are well and good, but the highest praise came before the season. “He was accepted quicker than any rookie I’ve ever seen,” said Attles. “I’ve never seen veteran players sitting on the side clapping for a rookie. But they did it for him. It took longer for J.B. [Carroll] to be accepted. It was because Larry’s nose was in the dirt.”

Smith’s head was in the sky—and still is. Whether it be scaling after a rebound or spike-tip-dunking in a teammate’s miss, his inside moves are inspirational to the discerning. Julius Erving, Dr. J., always has one spectacular dunk-swoop during a game. His fans count on it. Smith is the same. It will be a rebound gathered angrily, gracefully, and at a breathless altitude. Or, a spike-tip-dunk over a grove of seven-footers.

“What Larry has is the incredibly quick jump,” Attles said. “Other guys get into their jump, and Larry’s feet are still on the floor. But Larry will get up to the ball first. 

“In an exhibition game against the Lakers in Fresno,” Attles recalled. “Magic came through the middle—he’s 6-foot-9 himself—and floated one up. Larry came from the weak side and just threw that shot away. Magic looked up and stared. It was like he was wondering, ‘Who’s that?’”

Magic was not alone. But the identity crisis is over for Smith, though Attles thanks it unlikely that Smith could average 15 rebounds a game. In a game against Denver in late March, Smith took down 31 rebounds for the high mark in the league last year. 

“People don’t realize how difficult it is to average double figures in rebounding, especially from the forward position. This is the big time. There is no easy way to rebound here.”

But somehow, the feeling is that Larry Smith could average more than 15 rebounds a game, something no forward has ever even speculated on. But perhaps that is where Smith has the advantage. He does not speculate about what could be. He just plays, and plays, and plays. 

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