Photo by Bill Roseberry
Larry Smith raises his hand to acknowledge applause from fans as Alton assistant athletic director Joe Hook presents him with a plaque commemorating his induction into the Alton Athletic Hall of Fame on Nov 25.
When the name Larry Smith is mentioned, thoughts immediately spark of Alton High basketball.
Smith is a polarizing individual on the local hoops front. He’s arguably the most polished basketball player to come out of AHS and his time as a player at the University of Illinois helped cement that. Smith was a part of the ‘88-89 Illinois team — the “Flyin’ Illini” — which reached the Final Four.
Demons haunted Smith in his post-basketball career. A professional career never came to fruition. Instead there were a couple of arrests, including one in 1995 for unlawful possession of a controlled substance, unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. He was sentenced to four years, but only spent seven months behind bars before being released into a work program in Urbana.
Since then Smith has worked to pick up the broken pieces and put his life back together. He’s worked in the steel industry and now helps out with Alton Housing Authority and enjoys giving back through his youth basketball organization, Future All-Stars.
His work in the community has displayed his commitment to a better life. That was augmented on Nov. 25 when he was honored where it all started, entering the Alton Athletic Hall of Fame. It was the fifth induction class for the prodigious club.
Then, on Dec. 4, Smith got another major distinction. He was named as part of the 2016 Hall of Fame class for the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA). He’s only the third Alton player to garner that honor, joining George Terry and Cathy Snipes.
It was a whirlwind for Smith, an ‘86 Alton grad, during the HOF ceremonies at AHS.
“I’m 47; time flies,” Smith said, chuckling.
It felt like he had come full circle, returning to the city where it all started. He reminisced about all the successes and the what-could-have-beens with friends, family, fans and the community that embraced him then and now.
“Alton is very rich in basketball and growing up in a basketball family I saw it firsthand,” Smith said. “This is really a basketball crazy town for being so small, and the community backs their teams up. Coming up, that’s all I dreamed of from being like 4 or 5. I used to go to all the games when I was little and I couldn’t wait until I got up there to perform at West Gymnasium. Once I got there, I tried to put on the best show possible for the fans and my family.”
Like many Redbird greats, he career started long before reaching West Gymnasium. He learned on the training grounds at Salu Park, battling older, more polished players in street games.
“I go back to when I was 6 or 7 and we lived down the street from Salu Park, guys like Leroy Stampley, Lafayette Collins, Kenny ‘Jet’ Ramsey, these are just street guys, but I went and watched those guys,” Smith said. “As I got older and I played against them, it really sped up my learning curve as far as basketball. I credit most of my game to those guys.
“I grew up with a lot of great guys that people don’t even know of that could really play, and that’s how I became good. A guy named Paul Dread — may he rest in peace — if it wasn’t for me guarding him every day, that’s where I learned to dribble. If you didn’t know how to dribble, he was going to Mookie Blaylock you and steal it.”
He had his talented older brothers to study and learn from, too. John “Main” Smith and Ron Caldwell are both among the top 10 scorers in Alton’s history. John graduated in 1980 and sits third on the all-time list with 1,393 career points. Caldwell, a ‘71 grad, collected 1,180 career points, good for seventh. Larry sits fifth with 1,324 points.
Two other family members, John’s son, Marlon Crawford (1997), and Ron’s son Kevin Caldwell (1990), are in the top 10 scoring. Kevin Caldwell is second with 1,489 points and Crawford is fourth with 1,340.
So to say basketball is a family tradition is an understatement.
“I picked up a lot playing with the older guys; from that I learned how to compete and playing with my family, a basketball family, that didn’t hurt at all,” Smith said.
Due to the success of his brothers and the hype surrounding him, by the time he got to the Redbirds, Smith’s status as a star looked to be cemented, but it wasn’t immediate.
Smith admits he owes much of his success to his Alton coach, Stan McAfoos. McAfoos led the Birds from 1977-94 and is the program’s all-time winningest coach with 209 victories.
“He was a tough guy, he stayed on you,” Smith said of McAfoos. “I owe my success to him also, because he stayed on me early when I first came as a freshman. He could have brought me up to the varsity level, but I wasn’t mature enough and I wasn’t strong enough and it probably was the best decision at that time. My sophomore year I got moved to the JV level and I was still kind of immature, so he held me back and I think that made me hungry.”
McAfoos said of Smith, “Of course everybody knows he was an outstanding player, but when he was young and coming through the program he really worked hard to develop the skills he had. Of course his long arms, long legs and jumping ability just fit right in and he really had the desire to succeed and he certainly did that.”
Smith said his time at AHS helped polish his game. He averaged 24.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 4.1 steals per game in his senior season in ‘85-86. The Birds were 21-6 that year.
“I played with some great guys,” Smith said. “I only started two years and back then we didn’t play as many games as those guys that are ahead of me on the scoring list — just kidding. But Bobby Collins, Tim Simmons, Doug Brooks, even the upperclassmen Craig Bealon, Darold Randol, Brad Collier; I played with those guys and it prepared me for when I became a junior and senior at the varsity level. Once I got there I took it to another level because I was able to do so many things on a basketball court.”
His success on the court as a senior created a buzz around him. He was named the Co-News Gazette Player of the Year with his future U of I teammate Nick Anderson, who later went on to fruitful NBA career.
McAfoos thought it was his versatility and ability to defend that got him recognized. He was an outstanding passer and though his brother John was a prolific shooter and his nephew Kevin was a fantastic scorer, it was Larry’s overall ability that made him sought after.
“He could really play defense, he handled the ball extremely well, he rebounded really well and he was very much a team player,” McAfoos said. “He challenged everybody to come out and play their best.”
In a 1998 story in the News Gazette, former Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy said of Smith, “Larry Smith was the best high school guard I’ve ever seen, and I don’t just say that because I recruited him. He had size, he had strength, he was an unbelievable passer. He just overpowered very good guards in high school. I mean, made ‘em look like babies.”
So now it was time for Smith’s next chapter on the basketball court with the Illini. He may cherish that time more than anything. His junior year in ‘88-89, the team was coined “Flyin’ Illini” for their athletic prowess. Smith didn’t start, but he contributed greatly.
“That was a great experience,” Smith said. “Those three or four years playing with guys like Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, we were all superb athletes and could play multiple positions and could do multiple things on the court. Really we all competed defensively, we could suffocate you defensively and that’s how we took it to another level.
“When you’ve got everybody on the same page defensively and then you add our offensive skills to that, we became a monster that one year in ‘88-89.”
Smith started 9 games that season and played in all 36. He led the Illini in assists with 4.4 per game. As a team they averaged 86.4 points per game and compiled a 27-4 record and 14-4 Big Ten mark before entering the NCAA Tournament.
Their run to the Final Four was highly touted. They entered the tournament ranked No. 3 in the nation but ran into a roadblock in Michigan. After besting Michigan twice during the regular season, the Wolverines topped U of I 83-81 on a late score, denying the Illini a spot in the national title game. They finished 31-5 overall.
“A very talented team,” Smith said of the ‘88-89 Michigan Wolverines. “They may have had as much talent as we did and they were bigger. Loy Vaught, Rumeal Robinson, Glen Rice, Sean Higgins, Mark Hughes, Terry Mills, those guys, man. They were playing good ball at the right time. A lot of people don’t remember, but we beat them in the last game of the regular season at their place, but they got on a little run and we caught them at the wrong time. But as you see, they still only beat us on a last-second tip-in.”
Smith redshirted the ‘89-90 season but returned to lead the Illini in ‘90-91 as a senior. He was named co-captain and started 29 of 31 games, averaging 13.6 points and a team-best 4.96 assists per game. As a team, Illinois was 21-10 and 11-7 in the Big Ten.
He was named co-MVP on the team and was a second-team All-Big Ten pick.
“Being in a program for a while, coaches know what to expect from you and you know what you’re supposed to do,” Smith said. “Kendall and Steve (Bardo) were gone, Marcus left early for the pros, so I came back that last year and they passed the baton to me and I took it after a few years in the system and passed it down to the younger guys. We surprised people; we were third in the Big Ten and we were projected to finish 9th or 10th. I’d like to take a lot of credit for that because of my leadership.”
Aspirations of a professional career loomed once his tenure with the Illini was over. The flashy NBA contracts weren’t there like they were for U of I teammates Gill and Anderson. Smith was the 100th pick in the ‘91 CBA Draft and went into camp with the Sacramento Kings, but was ultimately cut.
Smith never did catch on anywhere. That was a head scratcher for some of his former Illini teammates.
“I’m surprised Larry’s not in the NBA right now,” Gill said in a that ‘98 News Gazette feature. “Because if he was there right now, he’d be an All-Star. He had freaky talent, man.”
Instead his life spiraled into crime and his ultimate drug arrest. Chalk it up to a need for money and running with the wrong crowd.
The gregarious Smith has never met an enemy. His laid-back, inviting personality makes it easy to form relationships with lots of different people — sometimes the wrong people.
“That’s the whole thing about Larry; you watched him play and develop and everything and you knew what kind of kid he really was and it’s unfortunate that he got involved in some things he shouldn’t have, but he was able to recover and get back into gear and that’s the kind of kid he was,” McAfoos said.
That’s been his focus, getting his life back on track. His work in the community is a major reason why both the AHS and IBCA HOFs decided this was a good year to honor him. He’s paid his dues and it’s time to recognize him for an illustrious career.
“I’m just giving back,” Smith said. “I worked in the steel industry for some years and now I’m doing community work with the Future All-Stars; that’s my basketball program through Alton Housing Authority and 100 Black Men, ran by Andy Hightower, and actually he’s at Madison County now. We continue to do what we’ve been doing with the kids.
“We deal with low-income kids, disadvantaged children and try to use basketball as a tool to help them get to where they want to be in life. It feels very rewarding. You don’t get anywhere without someone helping you, or learning from someone. That’s what happened with me, so now I just try to help the kids because I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I let them know they can come talk to me about anything and I think you get a better response from them when you do that.”
Nov. 25 felt like an affirmation for his work at fixing his life, his great career — just a cap to it all. When his accolades echoed from the speakers and the applause erupted from the fans at center court that night at AHS, he was Alton’s Mr. Basketball one more time.
“I feel pretty good and to be honest (the Alton HOF) tops it all off for me,” Smith said. “I’m not done; I’m sure the Lord has things left he wants to use me for and I’m going to let him use me.”
All-time AHS scoring list
1. Kavon Lacey, 1,499 points, (2007 graduate)
2. Kevin Caldwell, 1,489, (1990)*
3. John "Main" Smith, 1,393, (1980)*
4. Marlon Crawford, 1,340, (1997)*
5. Larry Smith, 1,324, (1986)*
6. Mike Jeffries, 1,277, (1969)
7. Ron Caldwell, 1,180, (1971)*
8. Gene Velloff, 1,177, (1956)
9. DeMarko "Book" Snipes, 1,170 (2000)
10. Jared Ramsey, 1,167, (1997)
*Denotes all five players are from the same family.
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