Back in 1971, the NBA Draft was sort of like an Ironman contest for general managers. Essentially, teams would draft players until they got tired of drafting, or just ran out of names that they knew. Think a two round draft can take some time? Try a 19 rounder.
Of course, most of the players taken so late in these drafts weren't expected to ever set foot in an NBA arena unless they had a ticket stub in their hand. In the rare chance a guy made a roster, he wasn't expected to actually contribute.
And certainly, without any doubt, a guy taken that late was never expected to become a star.
Randy Smith was just supposed to be another guy.
Smith faced some obvious obstacles right from the start of his career. Although he could excel solely with his athleticism in college, Smith needed more skill to succeed on the pro level. Basically, Smith had everything you couldn't teach (athleticism, work ethic), but not a lot of what you could.
That would all change after the Braves hired Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay. Ramsay would utilize Smith's athletic ability like any smart coach would, but he also made it a daily focus to have Smith improve his skills - sometimes by providing a handicap like making Smith play entire practices left-handed
"He gradually became skilled at using his left hand and became a more versatile player," said Ramsay, in an interview for the book, Buffalo: Home of the Braves. "He was a great athlete who became a great ballplayer."
As Smith improved, so did the Braves. After going 21-61 in Smith's second year, the team jumped to 42-40 the next season and produced the first winning campaign and playoff berth for the expansion franchise. At the heart of it all was the soft-spoken local kid that managed to simultaneously accept his role and reject it at the same time. Smith accepted that Ernie DiGregorio was the team's point guard and moved off the ball seamlessly, but he never accepted that being a complimentary player was his ultimate fate. And so Smith worked and worked, and quite literally never took a day off. Smith played in an incredible 909 straight games over his career, an NBA record that stood for two decades.
"He played hurt, gave it 100 percent and took pride in that," said Durie Burns, a college teammate of Smith's at Buffalo State, in an interview with ESPN.
Smith's relentlessness and desire to get better quickly catapulted him among the league's elite. In 1976, just five years into his career, Smith was named an All-Star. Two years later, he'd win the All-Star Game MVP over the likes of Julius Erving and Moses Malone.
Always a good distributor and smart shot taker, Smith's successes weren't just of the individual variety either - the Braves made three straight playoff appearances, battling the mighty (and eventual champion) Boston Celtics in the playoffs as well as anyone did.
After the three playoff runs, Smith was one of the few players who would follow the Braves from their move to Buffalo to San Diego in the 1978-79 season. Although he'd only play with the team for one more season, Smith is still the Braves/Clippers franchise leader for games and minutes played.
That was just one of the many records he racked up for the franchise. To this day, Smith still leads the franchise in field goals, points, assists and steals. Of course, the numbers don't even tell the whole story about how great Smith truly was. Career averages of 16.7 points, 4.6 assists and 1.7 steals on 47 percent shooting are excellent, but it was Smith's defensive play that's remembered by most.
Knicks guard Walt Frazier, one of the greatest players of his era, once told Ramsay, "I hate playing against that guy."
As much as opponents hated to see him on the court every night, his teammates and coaches adored him.
"He was so fun to be around," Ramsay said in an interview with ESPN.com. "There was not a bad day in Randy's life."
Sadly Smith's life would end in 2009 at the age of 60, but there's no doubting he made the most of every day. With a tireless work ethic and devotion to his craft, Smith made himself a star even though he wasn't supposed to be one. He may not have been dealt the best hand, but he sure knew how to play it.