The shot that put a charge into Lute Olson making Arizona basketball relevant belongs to a man today’s Wildcats need to read a book to learn about.
The Cornerstone of Arizona Basketball is that book. Eddie Smith, the author, is that man. His last-second prayer at ASU in Olson’s first season of 1983-84 is that shot.
“I never want to make myself seem like I’m living in the past,” Smith commented to me this week. “I think it is good that the story comes out.”
The Wildcats were 5-15 overall, only one win more than the previous year’s victory total in Ben Lindsey’s 4-24 season, before Smith made the winning shot against the Sun Devils that bounced on the rim before finally falling. Arizona’s 65-64 win over ASU, completing its first season sweep over the Sun Devils since 1969-70, put the Wildcats in motion toward where the program stands today.
Smith, Pete Williams, Steve Kerr and the Wildcats won six of their last eight games, including the victory at ASU, to finish the 1983-84 season with an 11-17 record. The Wildcats won nine of their first 12 games in the next season before traveling to ASU again to start the Pac-10 season. That’s when Smith contributed to one of the most legendary comebacks in UA history.
“This was the start of something that would set a tradition,” Smith writes in his e-book. “The clock clicked down to less than a minute. They were up 9 points. And remember, at that time in the game, there was no 3-point line.”
Smith converted on two traditional three-point plays instead as part of Arizona’s winning rally after ASU led 60-53 with 37 seconds remaining.
He scored and was fouled with 26 seconds remaining. His free throw cut the lead to 60-56. The late Bobby Thompson, an ASU guard who is the son of the former UA all-star tailback with the same name, missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation and Williams grabbed the rebound. Arizona’s Morgan Taylor made a 20-foot jump shot with nine seconds left to cut the lead to 60-58.
|Williams deflected the inbound pass and Smith emerged with the ball after a scramble. His scoop shot banked in while he was fouled by Thompson with two seconds remaining. The game was tied. A free throw would give the Wildcats the improbable lead.
“I went out to the free throw line,” Smith writes. “Got my rhythm and shot the ball with a relaxed follow-through motion. It went in. … Man, that was a comeback!
“We shocked the players, their coach, their fans and the majority of the betting world.”
The victory propelled Arizona to a 12-6 Pac-10 season, its best record since the Wildcats joined the conference in 1978-79. Only two years previously, before Olson arrived, the Wildcats finished 1-17 in conference play. The UA also advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.
One recurring theme with the Arizona basketball program is a very strong rebirth after uncertainty.
Fred Snowden was hired in 1972 after the Wildcats finished 6-20 in 1971-72, their fifth losing season in a seven-year stretch. After his hire, Snowden recruited Eric Money, Coniel Norman, Al Fleming, John Irving and Jim Rappis, the best five players Arizona’s featured in a recruiting class. The Wildcats did not suffer another losing record for eight seasons.
Olson was hired in 1983 after the debacle under Lindsey. Olson recruited Smith and Williams from the junior college ranks and Kerr, an unknown guard from Pacific Palisades, Calif., in his first class. Those three players have as much to do with Arizona’s emergence as a national power as anybody else, including Sean Elliott.
Sean Miller was hired in 2009 after the Wildcats endured two interim staffs following Olson’s leave of absence and subsequent retirement. Miller recruited Derrick Williams, Lamont “MoMo” Jones, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom in his first class. Williams and Jones were essential in Arizona reaching the Elite Eight in 2010-11 and Hill and Parrom started for the UA’s Sweet 16 team this year.
The players from each of these initial recruiting classes share a common significance for the development of the program. The man responsible for enlightening Smith about the potential at Arizona was the late Ricky Byrdsong, who started recruiting Smith out of Dodge City Community College before Olson arrived in Tucson.
Byrdsong, kept as an assistant by Olson, laid the foundation to bring Smith to Tucson — despite Smith committing at first to Cal State-Fullerton and having interest in Tulsa — but it was the presence of Olson (called “The Big Guy”) in his living room that swayed him.
Smith, an educator and motivational speaker who resides in Stockbride, Ga., cites scripture throughout his e-book, which is available on Amazon.com for only $3.99. The tone of the book is uplifting with Smith recounting how he matured from when he was a gang member as a teen in Wichita, Kan.
“If I had to pick one word about Eddie, it would be character,” Olson writes in the foreword to the e-book. “He exhibited the character in what was needed to succeed.”
Smith came of age as a basketball player and person after hearing he was washed up as a basketball player during his junior season in high school. He hit the game winning shot as a senior in the state championship game and opting to attend Dodge City Community College rather than try a small four-year college, much to the chagrin of his father.
His estranged relationship with his father became worse when his father tossed Smith’s letter-of-intent paperwork with Dodge City on the ground and bolted out of the family home. His father did this with the Dodge City coach in the room.
“Your protests as a parent can either move your child closer to you or push them away from you,” Smith writes. “That one move me further away. My dad never deposited in me when I was growing up.”
I have followed Arizona basketball closely since Snowden’s early years. I did not know some of the information in the e-book about Smith’s odyssey to Tucson, such as his recruiting visit to the city with fellow prospect Reggie Miller and the rift between the holdovers from the 4-24 team and Olson’s first class that included Smith, Williams, Kerr, Michael Tait and Van Beard.
The state of the program — “I thought we would get our tails kicked,” Smith writes — almost forced him to leave Tucson within a month of his arrival.
Smith writes that he overcame his doubts after talking to his mother, junior college coach and sister. All of them assured him of his standing as a talented basketball player and that Arizona offered him the best chance to flourish because of Olson and the availability of playing time.
“When I think back, I was a skinny thing back then,” Smith told me in a 2010 interview with TucsonCitizen.com. “I wonder what did Coach Olson think about what he was getting based on my build.
“I knew that I had heart and determination and that I would not give up on the assignment. I believe coach saw that after a few games.”
Smith reflects positively on his relationship with Olson in the e-book. Parts of the book include moments when Olson was firm with Smith, including the time the former coach called the player into his office after a fight broke out in a pickup game at McKale Center shortly after Smith arrived on campus.
Olson told him to get it together and learn to play within the team concept or leave, Smith writes. That was a significant event that contributed to Smith’s maturity and what he has become today.
“The book was written to show people how important effective leadership impacts a person’s life for the good,” Smith told me last week. “Being in education, I see so many children lacking leadership in their lives. The key to effective leadership rests on the leader making a connection with the person.
“The book is directed to any adult who is leading others. Athletics provided the path for some great men to pour into my life structure, standards, unselfishness, and commitment. Those are the qualities that need to be transferred to willing participants.”
WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes blogs for Lindy’s College Sports, TucsonCitizen.com and Sports Illustrated-sponsored site ZonaZealots.com.