On the day, pitchers and catchers reported, you’d think that I’d have something interesting to say about the events in Glendale, AZ yesterday, but sometimes fate intervenes.
I was working at San Francisco Airport last night, and I stepped out into the general public area and who do I see? One of my best friends that I grew up with, my Strat-O-Matic buddy, baseball/basketball/football whatever sport was in season pal from all those years ago...about to step on an escalator heading to his flight.
“Mike, what the heck are you doing here?” I yelled in excitement. “Who are you?” he said. (Yeah, I’ve put on some lbs). “It’s me, Evan,” I answered. He had this look of bewilderment. I mean, after all, I was in full uniform, badge, gun and all. He’d never seen me in all my law enforcement officer glory. Plus, it has been about 13 years since we saw each other. But then you could see it in his eyes, the recognition kicked in. “Evan! Wow, what are the odds you’d pop up right here at this exact moment?”
|Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith, Clipper Pre-Game Show at Fox Sports|
I have to admit, the coincidence was quite amazing. The fact that I randomly picked that precise moment to walk out onto the main airport concourse, in that particular spot in a very large airport. Well the chances of running into him were about a million to one. Literally. But then again, now that I think about it, 15 years ago at this very same airport, I ran into his brother Clark too, so maybe its time to admit these run-ins as fate and not luck.
“Isn’t it amazing how much we look like our dads now?” he said. He was right, though I’d have to admit, he’s quite the dapper guy. Mike has actually kept his age very well and he’s looking pretty good for a guy in his late 40s. But I wasn’t going to argue that he's better looking than me. “You’ve got that right Mike,” I said. “What are you doing in town?” I should have known the answer, but I just don’t follow the NBA like I used to. “Well I was calling the Clipper game last night,” he said.
Yes, my buddy, the one from so many years ago when we were Little league age. Well he kinda made it big. At least big compared to me I should say. When I say big, I mean 6’ 10” big, National Male High School Athlete of the Year 3 Sports Star big, NCAA All American big, NBA first round pick (13th player selected) big, Boston Celtic big, European Spanish League Scoring Title Big, and finally Los Angeles Clipper Broadcaster for 8 years (Ralph Lawler’s partner of 4 years) big. And I’ll take ALL the credit too. Ask his mom, Marie...she told me so a few years back, that I got him into sports at a young age. I have a hard time believing that, knowing how competitive he and his older brother Clark were, but if she says so, who am I to argue?
A few months back I wanted to write this article. I wanted to tell the story of two boys that grew up eating, drinking, breathing all things sports. And how one of them made it big and the other got to be fairly good in his work softball league. One of them, (that would be me), just sat back and enjoyed watching his buddy from a distance as he gained fame and excelled in the game. I used to bring a transistor radio in to work and listen to his college basketball games that I could pick it up up on scratchy frequencies from the desert border outpost I worked at in the late 80‘s. I’d watch Sportscenter for glimpses of him in NBA games, even if it would be just a brief view of him sitting on the bench. His career has been watched by me from afar for years. Now I get to see him in action from the announcer's chair.
Though Mike and I haven’t remained in contact, our friendship remains after all these years. I believe if I had reached out and tried to remain in constant communication, it would have happened, but I never thought it was my place to bother a very busy guy. “He certainly deserved his space,” I thought.
|Mike Smith in his BYU days |
A few months ago, a reader of this blog named Jedd Parkinson, saw that I mentioned in a post that I follow BYU sports and he fired off an email to me. It turns out that he writes for a BYU Sports publication (Total Blue Sports) and the was kind enough to comp me a subscription. I gave him permission to use my Al Davis/Dodgers Connections article that I posted a few months back. I mentioned that BYU All American Basketball sensation from the 80s, Mike Smith and I knew each other from way back and I told him that perhaps one day I’d write a story about our friendship. At the time I thought it would be a good read, but I needed to seek out Mike first and get his permission to write such a piece. So, with that urging, I found time to write him a few months ago and I fired an email off to Mike because I wanted permission to tell this story.
I hoped that the email address was still good after 10+ years. And guess what? It was and he quickly answered back. He's still the same guy. No changes as far as I could tell. He cherishes that childhood we shared just as much as I. Mike told me to go ahead and write about our experiences. Then he reminisced about our days as kids, giving me even more ideas for material, even mentioning stuff I had forgotten about, such as: breaking down in my brother’s old triumph sports car on our way back from a Dodger game in El Monte near Legg Lake on the Pomona Freeway, briefly meeting Walter O’Malley at the Sunset entrance to Dodger Stadium, his strange Strat-O-Matic baseball strategies and our replacing “split cards” with a spinning wheel (a precursor to “Wheel of Fortune”) in the game. Which is something that only an experienced “Strat” player would understand. I put the idea of the post on the back burner. Waited for the appropriate moment. I told him it would be neat if we could meet up when the Clippers came to the Bay Area to play the Warriors...Oops, I kind of forgot about that mini commitment until last night.
When we were young, baseball was such a big part of our lives. Summers were spent basking in the sun on playing fields. And we had competitive games. None of this little pansy stuff. We went all out. Good old country hardball. Mike was three years younger, but he played with my age group, and he was better than us by far. We developed a ball made out of contact paper tape that worked just perfect for our back yard. The size and weight was hardball size. If you made contact and hit a window, the tape ball would rarely penetrate through glass. (We only broke one window in all those years, and it was a real wallop too). If you got plunked by a fastball, you had a nice bruise and would be black and blue. We played tape ball in my back yard for years and we had absolute wars back there. Beanball wars, base stealing, pick off plays, legit homers. It was a great fun, very competitive there’s no doubt. Since we’d fill the ball with rolls of paper and contact paper backing, there were times if you really hit it good, it would breaking into a bunch of pieces, making the intrigue of tape ball even more interesting.
When our families went together on vacation. The girls attended this music camp (violin), that Mike’s mom would teach. The boys and dads. Well we went out and played a week straight of over-the-line and good old country hardball. I think we all developed our cat like reflexes from playing ball at close distances and fielding absolute shots from less than 40-50 feet away. We experienced baseball nirvana for a week at a time on those vacations in San Diego or Lake Elsinore. And then when we’d return to our campsite where we had all pitched tents, we made a makeshift baseball diamond there too. We couldn’t get enough of it. The Stat-O-Matic baseball board game was a big part of our lives, I addressed it in a previous post back in October. LINKED HERE
Dodger games were a part of that childhood and that meant frequenting the Left Field Pavilion where it was $1.75 for kids admittance. My older brother Taylor would take us as he had just received his driver’s license. We’d rush in when the gates opened and run up and down the rows picking up batting practice home run balls. We’d lean over the bullpen wall and talk to the likes of Jim Brewer and Charlie Hough, but Mike Marshall wouldn’t acknowledge our existence. We devoured Dodger Dogs, listened intently to Vin Scully and meticulously watched every pitch of every game. We visited with Francis Freidman out in left center field where she told us stories of Dodger lore from seasons past. Heck, she was famous to us. She was a regular on Bud Furillo’s Dodger Talk on KABC. Those were special times and 1974 was a season we’d never forget as the Dodgers won the pennant.
I always sensed that Mike would make it to the highest level in sports. As he grew into adolescence, there was no doubt that he would rise to prominence. As a kid he had always made All- Star teams in every league he participated in. Basketball was the game he really excelled at, and with his enormous size and incredible shooting touch, he was recruited by all the big names: Bobby Knight, Coach K., Dean Smith. He could have written his ticket to almost any school in the nation, and they wanted him desperately. He was by far the most sought after prep athlete in Southern California in 1983.
While Mike was quarterbacking Los Altos High School to the CIF championship, he broke a lot of CIF records with that pass happy ofense. He threw 8 TD passes in one game, setting what were then CIF records for passing yardage, attempts, touchdown passes, and completions, breaking Pat Haden’s marks. And football wasn’t even his best sport. Mike had this golden arm and I’m fairly certain, had he gone the baseball route, he would have been a Randy Johnson type of pitcher. They certainly couldn’t touch him in Little League. But he steered away from baseball and basketball was the natural route for him, with his height and dominance. He always could shoot. Heck he led the NCAA in free throw percentage his senior year. An amazing volleyball player, I have no doubt that he could have made the Olympic team in that sport with his size, strength and touch.
I always felt that he Mike didn’t get a fair shake in the NBA. There are politics involved in all fields and Mike isn’t the type of guy that will make excuses, but I’ll say it. The press gave him some unjust labels in Boston when he was with the Celtics, and he got an unfair shake in the process. I don’t think he went into Boston fully understanding the rabid fan base and ruthless nature of the local media there. He decided that he needed to bulk up his slender frame with some additional weight and muscle before his first NBA campaign. That turned out to be a big mistake as Mike had difficulty adjusting to his new body size. Injuries resulted and he got off to a poor start. The press labeled him as lazy when the reality of the situation was he was just the opposite. He over did it in the weight room from too much preparation and it forced him to sit and heal at the beginning during training camp. Some reporters took his inactivity during the healing process and reported him to have a poor work ethic. By mid season though, his injuries began to subside and he got some playing time. They played him for a good stretch in his rookie year, he started in 7 consecutive games in February in March where he scored 16, 24, 21,12,16, and 11. It was a good run but coaching changes occurred and the stigma of the slow start stayed with him. Within three years he was cut and out of the NBA. So Mike took off to Europe, where he absolutely dominated the Spanish League.
|Years ago, I actually lucked out and pulled Mike's only basketball card out of the first pack I bought. As I opened the pack, the first card displayed was Michael Jordan, and the second card was Mike's. Another moment of fate? What were the odds of that happening?|
I’ll never forget watching him play for the Celtics, coming in to L.A., to take on Magic and the Lakers. Mike, who grew up a Laker fan, was now wearing the hated green shamrocks on his trunks. You talk about mixed feelings. I was rooting for the Lakers, but when Mike came in...I was rooting for him to do well. He didn’t see much playing time, just two minutes in fact, but at the end of the third quarter, he was inserted into the game. As seconds dwindled down at the end of the quarter, he lofted a jumper over the outstretched hand of Magic Johnson and the buzzer sounded, “swish.” Feb. 28, 1990. “Mike had really made it to the big time,” I thought. I was living my dream through him.
During that basketball off-season, my brother Taylor set up a reunion for us all at the Left Field Pavilion. I was living in San Diego at the time, so after getting off work and packing up my young kids, we drove up to L.A. and arrived later than I wanted (which would be when the gates opened), but met up with my brother and his family and Mike too. He kind of stood out. Easy to spot the near 7 footer, sitting there in the outfield seats. We told stories, laughed a lot, remembered some of the heckling we used to do of opposing players like in the old days. (i.e. "Hey Luzinski, mix in a salad now and then!). Mike even told me that when he entered through the turnstile, the ticket taker said to him, “Wow, you’re a tall one, you outta play for the Lakers.” Little did she know she was talking to a Celtic.
He told us stories of how life was in the the NBA. What it was like to have Larry Bird as a teammate. How he still was a Laker fan, even playing for the hated Celts. It was a fantastic day, and the last time I really got to sit down and chat with Mike, until I had 15 minutes with him today as he waited for his plane to be boarded. Having law enforcement privileges at the airport, I was able to accompany him all the way to his gate, just like we all used to do in the old days. It took a while for him to get through TSA, where they really put him through the ringer and confiscated his Old Spice.
We sat down and chatted. We talked about friends, our family, our parents, our kids, work, life in general. There wasn’t enough time. I told him about the Dodger Blogger tournament and mentioned some of the participants on our team, many of whom he knew. He seemed to enjoy that. I mentioned that I get a kick out of seeing him on Fox Sports all the time and that his work is great...and I really mean it. He works hard, does his homework and you can tell that he puts time into his craft.
We mentioned the hardships we had each endured in life. The unexpected turns that our years on earth take us. What it is like to grow old. His plane was boarding, and I knew he had to go. I pulled out my I-Phone and we posed for a picture. He said something funny right at that moment and I laughed, making my face a contorted mess as I snapped the photo (Oh, well).
I said, “well, I guess we’ll run into each other in another 15 years.”
“I hope it’s sooner than that Evan,” he answered.
We shook hands and I waved goodbye to my childhood friend, the kid I had spent so many hours pitching batting practice to. “I hope so too,” I thought, as I turned and went back to the terminal. I had to get back to work.