Sports

Mark Story: UK's Smith enters Hall having lived the dream

For former Kentucky Wildcats guard Adrian Smith, membership on the 1960 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team has been a gift that keeps giving.

Start with the memories. Marching into Rome's Stadio Olimpico behind the American flag during the opening ceremonies. "The goose bumps came up all over you," said Smith, a starting guard on Adolph Rupp's 1958 NCAA championship team.

Meeting another Kentuckian representing his country in the Olympics — a teen-aged boxer then named Cassius Clay.

Seeing perhaps the world's most famous face, that belonging to Elizabeth Taylor. "She was absolutely gorgeous," Smith said.

Most lasting of all, there was stepping onto the podium to have the Olympic gold medal placed around his neck.

"As much as playing at Kentucky and winning a national championship at Kentucky meant to me, that was the highlight of my basketball," the 73-year-old Smith said Monday. "That was winning for your country."

Friday night in Springfield, Mass., the 1960 Olympic team will provide another signature moment in the life of Adrian Smith. The '60 U.S. hoops squad, which was led by Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas, will be inducted as a team into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In all of Kentucky's rich basketball history, there are few stories more unlikely or more successful than Adrian Smith's.

"You know how in the movie, Forrest Gump, Forrest is presented with all these unimaginable opportunities and takes advantage of them?" says Tyler Smith, Adrian's son. "That's sort of the story of my dad's life."

A ball made of socks

Adrian Smith began his education in a three-room schoolhouse in rural Graves County. The fifth of Oury and Ruth Smith's six children learned to shoot with a "basketball" his mother made from rolling up his dad's socks.

"We didn't have the money for a ball," Smith said.

By the time Adrian made it to Farmington High School, he burned to play basketball for the school but feared he could not. "I had no way to get home after practices," Smith said.

In a decision by an educator that changed a person's life, Smith said his high school principal promised that he would drive him home each night after practice.

By the time the 5-foot-101/2, 135-pound Smith was a senior, he was the school's star player. Yet only one college, nearby Murray State, offered him a scholarship.

Smith did not immediately accept. When he finally tried to, Murray had withdrawn the offer.

A rival high school coach recommended Smith to a junior-college coach from Mississippi.

By his sophomore year at Northeast Mississippi, Smith had grown to 6-1, some 170 pounds. He was also lighting up the Mississippi junior college circuit as a scorer. Southeastern Conference schools such as Mississippi State and Ole Miss offered scholarships.

Northeast Mississippi head coach Bonner Arnold had his heart set on his star playing for Kentucky. Arnold called UK and asked to speak to Rupp.

He couldn't get to the Baron.

Smith doesn't know who at Kentucky Arnold spoke to, but heard the conversation end with his junior college coach exclaiming, "Well, if you won't take him, this kid will go to Ole Miss or Mississippi State and he'll beat you."

Not easily dissuaded, Arnold soon tried again to get Rupp on the phone. This time he succeeded and convinced the Kentucky coach to send a scout to see Smith.

UK offered a scholarship.

In Lexington, Smith barely played early in his junior year. Once conference play began during the 1956-57 season, Kentucky's star guard, Vernon Hatton, had an appendectomy.

For seven games, Smith got to fill in. He averaged 16.3 points in those contests and earned Rupp's trust.

The next season, on what became Rupp's fourth and final NCAA championship team, Smith started and averaged 12.4 points. Led by homegrown stars Vernon Hatton and Johnny Cox, the "Fiddlin' Five" beat Seattle and the great Elgin Baylor to win it all.

Smith — whose boyhood nickname was "Odie" — averaged just under 14 points in UK's four NCAA tourney wins.

"At Kentucky, Odie played in the shadows of Vernon Hatton," says Ed Beck, UK's 1958 starting center. "Vernon got all the accolades and the publicity. Odie was a big part of our winning it. But it was really after he left Kentucky that Odie's career really blossomed."

The road to Rome

A 15th-round pick in the 1958 NBA Draft by the old Cincinnati Royals, Smith left UK with a business degree but no firm career plan.

Ultimately, he joined the Army.

During this peace-time period, the Army sent Smith from Fort Knox to San Francisco so he could play on the Army's All-Star basketball team.

From that launching point, Smith made the gold medal-winning 1959 U.S. Pan American team. That experience almost certainly helped him in making the 1960 Olympic squad.

Before professional players began representing the U.S. in international play, that 1960 team was considered the best American Olympic team ever.

Along with Robertson, West and Lucas, the team included such hoops notables as Walt Bellamy, Bob Boozer and Terry Dischinger.

The Americans obliterated the 1960 Olympic tournament field, winning their eight games by an average of 42.4 points. Five U.S. players scored in double figures in the Olympics. Robertson and Lucas averaged 17 each, West 13.8 and Dischinger 11.8.

The fifth-leading scorer was Adrian Smith at 10.9.

"That was just a great, great team," Smith said. "If we had taken that team into the NBA, I think we would have won multiple championships."

His success with the Olympic team caught the attention of the NBA.

The Cincinnati Royals eventually brought him onto a roster that already included his old Olympic teammates Robertson and Lucas.

"Playing with the Big O was perfect for Odie," Hatton said of Robertson. "Odie could shoot the ball. Oscar would draw the defense and kick it. Odie made teams pay."

Smith played 10 years in the NBA. His best season came in 1965-66, when he averaged 18.4 points a game for Cincinnati and was selected to the All-Star Game. After he scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out three assists, he was chosen All-Star Game MVP.

To this day, he is the only former Kentucky Wildcat to win that award. Smith still has the blue Ford Galaxy that was awarded to the 1966 All-Star MVP.

In our state's basketball history, Smith has long been undervalued. After Friday night, the longtime Cincinnati-area banker will have the following basketball résumé:

■ Starter on NCAA championship team at Kentucky.

■ Member of Pan-American Games gold-medal team.

■ Member of Olympics gold-medal team.

■ NBA All-Star Game MVP.

■ Member of team enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Said Adrian Smith: "It's hard to put into words. I've been blessed beyond my wildest dreams."

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