Phil Smith: 51 Reasons to Believe, 1976

[Growing up in the early 1970s, I attended a summer basketball camp in San Jose. I found it advertised in the back of a basketball magazine. Today, I have zero recall of who sponsored the camp, how I scrounged the money to pay for it, who drove me the two-plus hours to San Jose, or even sleeping in an unfamiliar dorm room. 

But I recall vividly a laid-back, but cheerful, camp counselor named Phil Smith, who was always around lending a helping hand to the campers. Smith, then a rising sophomore at the University of San Francisco, seemed the longest of long shots to make the NBA, let alone spend nine highly productive seasons there as he later did. He was just seemed too nice to claw his way to the top.

Smith still lived with his parent on Pierce Street in San Francisco, walked to school by himself, and continued to count his lucky stars for his big chance to play college ball. That’s because Smith attracted no college scholarships out of high school. Desperate to get a look, he called around to local college coaches, which included an awkward conversation with an assistant coach at Cal. “He seemed pretty interested until he asked me again what my name was,” Smith recalled. “When I said ‘Phil Smith’ he sounded disappointed. He thought I was Pinky Smith (a Daley City, CA prep star). He just said he was sorry.” 

But USF coach Bob Gaillard gave him a shot, then a scholarship, followed by a summer job at my summer basketball camp in San Jose. A few months later, Gaillard told anyone willing to listen that his 6-foot-4 sophomore “would be the best guard USF ever had.” And he probably nailed it. Smith received All-American recognition in his senior year and lots of attention from the pros.

Then, inexplicably, Smith fell way down on just about every team’s draft list.  Lucky for Smith, though, the Golden State Warriors knew better and grabbed him in the second round. “The way I figured it,” said Smith, “the more scouts see you, the more they will dislike you because they can see more weaknesses and say you can’t play. But nobody can tell how much desire you have. That’s what basketball is all about. A guy has to be determined to do the job every night.”

Golden State coach Al Attles, like USF coach Gaillard a few years earlier couldn’t believe his second-round steal. “Watch Phil Smith,” Attles told anyone willing to listen. “He’s going to play some basketball for us.” But others, including San Francisco Examiner reporter Frank Blackman, were saying the same thing. During Smith’s rookie, Blackman wrote multiple stories, like this one from February 25, 1975, singing praises of this San Francisco treat:

Sitting quietly in his seat, either on a plane or on a bench, Phil Smith looks like a harmless sort. But when the Warrior rookie has gotten into a game lately, he’s just exploded on unsuspecting opposition. Last night, the former USF guard had the Atlanta Hawks picking shrapnel out of their uniforms as he came off the bench to score his pro high of 26 points . . . It’s getting to be a habit. Last Saturday, Smith detonated in Philadelphia, scoring 24 points.

Or, this blurb from late in Smith’s rookie season on the soon-to-be NBA champion Warriors. It provides a nice mental picture of Smith’s unstoppable slashes to the hoop:

Grabbing the rebound, Phil Smith whirled and began to head upcourt. As he advanced, the Golden State Warrior guard watched warily for an opening. Hesitating briefly at midcourt, the rookie seemed ready to stop and give up the ball. But then Smith suddenly accelerated past his man and burst toward the basket. Reacting to his charge, three Kansas City-Omaha players, including big center Sam Lacey, their imposing bulk into the breech to plug the hole. Undeterred, the 6-foot-4 Smith weaved his way throughout the moving mountain of muscle and, with a final flourish, soared up to stuff the ball into the hoop.

After Golden State claimed the 1975 NBA championship, Attles traded his veteran starting guard Butch Beard and cleared the way for the second-year Smith to “play some basketball” for Attles and the Warriors. He quickly filled up the box score to rave reviews. Then, on January 8, 1976, Blackman was there in the Oakland Coliseum Arena when Smith had a game for the ages. Here’s his call of that memorable outing—and some wonderful sportswriting to boot.]

The rest of the Golden State Warriors knew it was just a matter of time for Phil Smith. The only question was when. Now they don’t have to wonder anymore. “We’ve been telling him all along,” said Rick Barry. “He can score. When he’s on, there’s just nobody that can stop his shot.”

The Phoenix Suns certainly couldn’t last night as Smith hit 20 of his 27 shots from the field and scored 51 points to lead the Warriors to a 129-113 victory at Oakland Coliseum Arena. It was the most any player in the league has scored this season. 

“I’ve been telling him he better stop holding back,” kidded teammate Charles Johnson. “He’s always been capable of that kind of performance. Me and Westphal [Phoenix guard Paul Westphal] were talking out there. I told him not to be surprised if Phil had a 50 – or 60-point game. He said he wouldn’t be.”

Apparently the chatty type, Westphal had some things to say to Smith, too. “Westphal said to me that I was having a nice night,” said the 6-toot-4 guard, who came to the Warriors from USF two years ago. “I said, ‘Thank you.’”

Despite the prodigious effort, Smith admitted that it was not the highest he has ever scored. “In the playground, I scored 2,000 points,” he laughed, “but I’ve never scored as many points in a game with refs.”

It was fortunate they were around. Phoenix coach John MacLeod was getting violent thoughts watching Smith take apart his team. “He was just unbelievable,” MacLeod said. “If I had a gun in my pocket, I would have shot him. He was just outstanding.”

During one stretch in the third period, Smith was simply unreal. Having warmed up with 12 points in the first period and 20 by half, Phil was ready to really strut his stuff. With 8:11 left in the quarter, Smith spun toward the hoop and banked in a shot. Then he made another . . . and another . . . and another. In all, Smith scored the next 16 straight points for Golden State, victimizing three sacrificial lambs MacLeod sent in to guard him. During a fantastic stretch in the second half, Smith hit 13 straight shots, finally missing with 6:53 to go in the game. 

“He was unconscious tonight,” said Phoenix rookie guard Ricky Sobers. “Everything he put up went in.”

With the clock running down in the final period and the Warriors cruising toward their 15th victory in 16 starts at Oakland Coliseum Arena, the only question left was: Would Smith get his 50?

“I felt odd, they were trying to shove me the ball,” said Smith.  “I’d rather be in the flow. I told [Charles] Dudley to just play.”

The Warriors didn’t really pay attention to Smith’s entreaties. After a couple of misses, they got him the ball again with 2:54 left. Although John Wetzel was clinging to him like a body shirt, Smith faked, faked again, then went up from 15 feet to the left of the basket. The ball banked neatly in, and Smith earned the foul, too, as the crowd of 9,807 gave him a standing ovation. After completing the three-point play, Smith came out of the game to another standing ovation. 

“He just has such a future,” said Warriors coach Al Attles. “If he stays healthy and doesn’t have any serious injuries, he’s just going to be gangbusters.”

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