A Timekeeper's Legacy
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Dennis Smith cuts a unique profile for an NBA timekeeper. He is 74-years-old, has worked for the same franchise for 40 years, won 509 games as a high school basketball coach, became a successful athletic director and has a gym named after him.
Then there’s this: In May, Smith -- friends call him “Denny” -- will be inducted into the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. “I never thought it would happen,” he says. “It’s exciting.”
Smith is a Spurs original, a Silver and Black lifer who has held a variety of positions since 1973 -- TV truck assistant, statistician, scoreboard and shot clock operator -- and followed his father to press row.
Bob Smith was the Spurs first timekeeper. “He did it until he died in 1981,” Denny says. “I would come down with him and hang out.”
Bob did not coach like Denny. But the elder Smith made a living in sports, umpiring baseball games in the Mexico League, Texas League, West Texas-New Mexico League and International League. “Dad also officiated high school and college football, baseball and basketball games.”
Fifteen years after Bob passed away, Denny assumed his father’s role as Spurs’ timekeeper.
The son might have started sooner except for a conflict. Denny coached the McCollum High School basketball team from 1966 until 1996.
Games and practices often precluded him from keeping stats or working the clock for the Spurs. So he filled in when he could. Denny was the timer for the Spurs’ highest scoring game, a 171-166 triple overtime victory over Milwaukee on March 6, 1982. He remembers George Gervin dropping 50 on the Bucks and a dispute with Coach Stan Albeck, an exchange that wound up in the San Antonio Express-News.
“Stan sent two subs in and only one player left the floor,” Denny says. “This got the team a technical. Stan was upset and hollered at me. Afterward, me and Stan forgot about it and we get along fine.”
His favorite memory: Sean Elliott tip-toeing the line, lofting a high-arching, three-point shot over Rasheed Wallace. the ball falling through, the Spurs defeating Portland in Game 2 of the 1999 Western Conference Finals at the Alamodome. “The Memorial Day Miracle,” Denny says, “put us over the hump.”
He was there for the most heartbreaking moment in Spurs history. But fans should know: Denny wasn’t working the clock when the Lakers’ Derek Fisher swished a three with 0.4 seconds left to win Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals. “I was in the back row,” he says. “Nowadays, we don’t get to keep time at our home games in the playoffs.”
So Denny gets to travel, working the clock for other teams during the playoffs. Last season, he kept time in two postseason contests in Boston. “Between games, I got to go to Fenway Park,” he says, recalling a game between the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. “That was a great three days.”
The man has stories. He once coached a kid who was drafted by the Spurs. Billy Bailey starred as a sharpshooting guard for Denny at McCollum High, played at San Antonio College, impressed at UT-Pan American and became the Spurs’ eighth-round pick in the 1980 draft.
“Bob Bass’s son, Kelly, was an assistant coach at Pan American,” Denny says. “I think that might have been the connection to get him in here. Billy was a little over 6-feet. He shot a beautiful jump shot from way out.”
Bailey did not make it with the Spurs. But his career continued long after. “He made a living for many years playing professional basketball in Mexico,” Denny says.
At McCollum, Bailey averaged 26 points a game as a senior. “Coach Smith was like a father to all the guys on the team,” says Bailey, 54. “He could be strict at times. But he let us have a good time. He joked around with the players. But when it got down to business, he made sure we didn’t fool around.”
The gym at McCollum High was named after Denny in 2002 when he retired as athletic director for girls in the Harlandale Independent School District. Ten years later, after a push from several former players, a dedication ceremony was held and Denny’s name was placed on the front of the building.
The Cowboys now play basketball in the Dennis R. Smith Gymnasium. “It’s probably a little bit overdue, considering everything he’s done,” McCollum coach Luke MacKay told the San Antonio Express-News. “His reach extends far beyond this gym.”
Dozens of former players, current McCollum athletes and community members attended the ceremony, just days before Christmas. Included in the crowd were his wife of 55 years, Nancy, three children and several grandchildren. The snapshot is telling.
One son, David Smith, coaches baseball at Steele High. A grandson, Brett Jewasko, is an assistant basketball coach at Holmes. Another grandson, wide receiver Austin Hays, could not attend because he was preparing for a bowl game with Oklahoma State.
The timekeeper lets go of a smile that reaches across four generations. The hair has turned silver. The family legacy is gold.