The boundary lines of a basketball court can't contain the influence of a great high school coach. The players are too young, their issues too numerous and the opportunities too great.
That's why Bill Smith, the former Broad Ripple coach who died at age 72 on Nov. 30, qualifies as one of the great ones. Forget all those winning records throughout his 23 seasons there. Forget, even, the state championship in 1980, when the Rockets pulled off the rare feat of an IPS school winning the title in the single-class system and he became the first black coach to lead an integrated team all the way.
He should be remembered the way George Hill and Mike Woodson remember him. They were the greatest of his players, career bookends who went on to have successful NBA careers. Woodson played for Smith early in his coaching career, Hill at the very end of it. They don't remember him as a coach. He was much more than that to them.
“He kind of made me who I am today,” Hill said. “He gave me the fire, he gave me the strength to believe in myself.”
Said Woodson: “He came into my life at a certain time when I really needed somebody.”
Players are supposed to say nice things about their coaches when they pass away, particularly when those players are public figures such as Hill and Woodson. But their sincerity runs deep, because both made sacrifices to attend Thursday's two-hour memorial service in Broad Ripple High School's auditorium.
Woodson, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, stayed behind in Indianapolis following Wednesday's game against the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and will fly out Friday morning to rejoin the Clippers in Washington D.C. Hill received permission to skip the Pacers' flight to Toronto on Thursday afternoon in advance of Friday's game.
Those are the kind of things you do only for a coach who meant something to you beyond basketball.
Smith left his players with classic bromides that were recalled by many at Wednesday's service. Such as, “If you aim low, don't go,” as a reminder to set high goals. Or, “Books and ball, that's all,” as a warning not to be distracted by the girls in school. And, most of all, “Will you dare to be great?”
Woodson and Hill took him up on that one.
Former Broad Ripple star Mike Woodson before the memorial service for his coach and mentor, Bill Smith. (Photo: Mark Montieth)
Woodson, who graduated from Broad Ripple in 1976, went on to play at Indiana University and with six NBA teams over 11 seasons. He was a freshman during Smith's first season as Broad Ripple's coach, and Smith made it a point to get to know this promising new player. Woodson was receptive, having lost his father just a few months prior to that.
“He became this mentor,” Woodson said. “I had two older brothers and they were there for me, but Smitty was different. He was my History teacher, so I got to know him in that regard, and once I started playing for him, he was that disciplinarian.
“He was tough. He was very demanding, he really pushed guys to do things the right way, especially off the court. You had to go to class, you couldn't be late for anything, you had to dress well. And he stayed consistent throughout his life.”
Woodson called on Smith after he became the Atlanta Hawks head coach in 2004. He called Smith and offered a job as an adviser. Not as a favor, though. “I did it because he could flat-(out) coach,” Woodson said Wednesday.
Woodson asked Smith if he thought he could learn the NBA game. Smith thought about it for a couple of days, then accepted. He made frequent trips to Atlanta and followed them on television from afar for all six of Woodson's season with the Hawks. It took a couple of seasons, Woodson said, but he caught on to NBA coaching strategies and began contributing to practice and game plans.
They reunited in 2012 when Woodson became New York's head coach, and were together for most of his 2 ½ seasons there. Smith had only been a high school coach, and was old enough to be the players' grandfather, but he earned their respect. He had a knack for communicating with players, Woodson said. The players in Atlanta loved him, and so did the players in New York. Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, for one, dubbed him Big Honey.
“We never fell out of touch,” Woodson said. “We were buddies all the way through.”
George Hill speaks with local media about his high school coach, Bill Smith. (Photo: Mark Montieth)
Same goes for Hill, who was a senior on Smith's last team at Broad Ripple in the 2003-04 season. Hill played for Smith on the varsity team as a freshman. Sparingly, anyway. He recalled Wednesday that he averaged all of .07 of a point that season. Smith recognized Hill's potential, though, and wasn't going to let him take short cuts that led nowhere. Smith challenged him in every practice, sometimes assigning two or three players to guard him so that he couldn't get away with dominating lesser talent.
“He brought out the best in me,” Hill said. “Every night, he challenged me to be better.
“He was the type of coach who wasn't scared to treat you like his own child, to snatch you up if you were doing the wrong thing. From Day One, he was like a father figure.”
Hill recalled a game in which he made a careless turnover. Smith called timeout and grabbed him by the jersey with the big right hand that was missing a pinky finger and pulled him close.
“He said if I ever played that terrible again, I wouldn't be playing for him ever again,” Hill said. “I didn't pout about it or cry about it. What I took from that was that he really cared about me being a special basketball player.”
Smith didn't let Hill slack in the summer, either. Hill was always in search of a pickup game, and sometimes wound up at Washington Park. Smith sometimes drove over there, picked him up, and took him to an indoor gym to put him through an individual workout that would be of greater benefit.
“He always told me that he saw something special in me and that I could accomplish something if I wanted to do it,” Hill said.
Hill went on to play at IUPUI, turning down scholarships from more established programs such as Tennessee, Temple and Florida State. From there, to San Antonio, which made him a first-round draft pick, and then to the Pacers, the two talked on a near-weekly basis.
Smith, Woodson and Hill all came together in a special Ripple reunion at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013. Woodson was coaching the Knicks. Smith was sitting behind their bench in his advisory capacity. Hill was playing for the Pacers.
Hill recalled one game at The Fieldhouse when he went up for a jump shot in front of the Knicks' bench, and missed. Suddenly, a gravelly voice rang out from behind him.
“Straight up, straight down!”
It was Smith, offering shooting tips.
A coach for a lifetime.
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