Charles Smith, who starred at the power forward/center position for the Clippers during his first four NBA seasons, almost never suited up for Los Angeles.
Though he did break in with the club as a rookie in 1988, on draft day the former Big East Player of the Year and bronze medal winner with the 1988 Men’s Olympic Team initially wore a Philadelphia 76ers hat on stage after the Sixers made him the third selection in that summer’s NBA Draft. But a draft day trade quickly brought the talented scorer (Smith still owns the Clippers franchise record for most points in a game with 52) and solid rebounder to Los Angeles, and over the course of his first three seasons Smith averaged 16.3 points, 21.1 points and 20.0 points, respectively. In his fourth season, Smith contributed to a Clippers squad that qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the team changed from the Buffalo Braves to the Clippers.
Smith, who resides in New Jersey, still remains active in basketball and in the NBA.
Clippers.com: You played four seasons in Los Angeles with the Clippers. How do you now reflect back upon that time in your career?
Charles Smith: It was the start of my career and the first thing that comes to my mind is that I had a fabulous time being apart of the organization. We went to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years and I have a lot of fond, fond memories. I share stories now with ex-Clippers players, coaches and staffers all over the league in my travels in my current position. It was a youthful time in my career. I was young hitting Los Angeles and if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q: Statistically your first three seasons were the best three seasons of your nine-year NBA career. How prepared were you to enter the NBA at age 23?
CS: I was very prepared. I came off the Olympics where I played against NBA players and that gave me a lot of confidence. I knew my abilities but sometimes guys go to teams and that club is a little restrictive on what you can do. With the Clippers my first coach was Gene Shue and he talked to me about still trying to pass the ball when a play broke down. I remember one time when he called a timeout and asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Coach, I am just trying to make the pass.’ He said, ‘When the play breaks down, SHOOT THE BALL.’ That is all he had to tell me.
Q: You are from the East Coast originally. What was it like for you to move out west and to Los Angeles/California in particular?
CS: It was different with the constant sunshine. I did miss the seasonal changes. I lived in Marina del Rey and I remember waking up one morning and -- living on the fifth, sixth floor -- there were no birds. That was how I used to wake up. Things like that made me miss the East Coast. The nightlife in L.A. closes up a little earlier than in New York, and there is a different energy.
Q: Before your pro career you represented the U.S. at the Olympics in 1988. Are you a proponent of the current system which allows NBA stars to participate in the Games, or do you like it better with college players?
CS: We were the last group of college players before the NBA guys. In the early 1980s, there were a lot of coaches taking international flights and giving clinics and teaching the game of basketball. Over a period of time, we taught so many Europeans how to play the game better. I still believe to this day, that if Hersey Hawkins did not go down to injury, and we still had that three-point threat, we would have won that Gold Medal game. But the fact that we lost did bring the emergence of the NBA players. We are still the best in the world.
Q: Prior to joining the NBA, you helped put the basketball program at the University of Pittsburgh back on the map. Do you look back at that time with any regrets?
CS: No. It was looked at as a football school but I was sold on it being in the Big East. I could let my talents flourish there. There were no restrictions put on me. I could run up and down the floor and that really helped me showcase all my talents. I loved playing that style of basketball and I loved the city of Pittsburgh.
Q: You played in more than 500 career NBA games. How do you define your NBA career now in retrospect?
CS: If I could do my career over, I would not change the teams I played for. But if an experienced, former All-Star player came to me and said, ‘Young fella, I am going to look after you during your whole career so you don’t step on the landmines that I stepped on,’ I would have jumped at it. Or maybe I wouldn’t have because I did not have the knowledge then to jump on it. If I had my career back it would have been different. I would have worked out differently during the summer and I would not have been involved in as many business opportunities that came my way. I would have focused on the game more. I would have taken care of my legs and my body more. In the position I am in now, I can instill that information into the young guys today.
Q: While with the Knicks you and that club had some epic battles with the Bulls, including beating them one year in the postseason en route to an appearance in the NBA Finals against Houston. What was it like for you and your New York club during those days?
CS: At that time, and you are in it the midst of it, you don’t appreciate it as much as when it is over. Those days featured games and teams now that you realize how much excitement that brought to the NBA and to fans all over the world. We had serious battles, epic battles, and people still talk about it today. It really stamps a time in one’s life you don’t forget. They were great games.
Q: You were fortunate enough to play in 66 career playoffs games including five games with the Clippers in 1991-92. How different is a playoff game compared to a regular season contest?
CS: It’s night and day. What fans don’t realize is that during the season you catch teams on tough nights in terms of their schedule and travel. Their game plan is really to get to the fourth quarter with just a chance to win. The rivalry games are going to be intense during the regular season but in the playoffs it is a whole other ballgame. The games are intense and you must minimize your errors and mistakes. Everything is so magnified.
Q: That 1991-92 Clippers season was the campaign that saw you limited to 49 games after averaging nearly 75 games played the previous three seasons. How frustrating was it not to be able to contribute more to a Clippers team that was very talented?
CS: I had knee surgery during that time. It was ailing me that whole year and then I had to get back to the playoffs after surgery and that was tough. We had a talented ballclub. I just wasn’t playing that much. I was constantly trying to get back into shape. It was nagging injuries that resulted in surgery.
Q: As a center-power forward yourself, what was it like to play alongside other quality front court players like Danny Manning, Loy Vaught, Olden Polynice and James Edwards?
CS: I miss the Clippers and the organization. I haven’t been to a Clipper game in Los Angeles in a long time. I can still see some of the fans and their faces in my mind. We had some die-hard fans. On the roster, I still get to run into some of my old teammates. I still keep in touch with Danny and I hear about guys through James Edwards. Just the other day I talked to Gary Grant. You don’t lose those relationships. You spend so much time together. You can always reflect on the good and the bad times.
Q: December 1, 1990. You scored a Clippers-record 52 points in one game at Denver on that date. What stands out today to you about that performance from nearly 20 years ago?
CS: The one thing I remember the most about that that night is that nobody told me what the record was. There were three minutes left and our PR person was yelling at me to shoot the ball. I didn’t know why he was saying that. I wished I knew because those times don’t come very often. I would have tried to have gotten 60 that night.
Q: You currently serve as the executive director for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Can you talk about your role in that organization?
CS: In short, we are the only company that has been tasked with the goal to assist former players with their future endeavors. I have been in this position since December of 2008 and we do a lot of programs and we provide a lot of services. That is our role. It has been a labor of love. It reconnects me to a lot of guys. The bottom line is we are building a business and I serve our membership. Things are going well.
Q: You are also very in community initiatives and specifically ones that relate to higher education, including the decision you made to go back to college to earn your Masters Degree. Who instilled these values in you?
CS: From the education standpoint, my father was a police officer. He would take us to his night college classes and we would sit in class with him and help him with his homework. That was me and my two sisters. On the community service side, I have always enjoyed giving back. I would give someone the shirt off my back if I could and, at times, I literally have. My wife will tell you some good stories about that. I believe we are put on this earth to give back and we have the means and the ability to do so. I am about service and I love to do that. I don’t ask for anything in return – I just love to see people excel.