Elmore Smith was forever in the shadow of the Big Threes, but his place in the history books is secure. He was so close to being at the top of his game, but he was never able to get his career to the next level. He’s one of the greatest to never win a ring, but he also deserves credit for being the greatest to never get close. This is Elmore Smith’s story, his greatness, and his failure.
Elmore Smith was a tenacious and successful sports agent. In his 40 years in that profession, he represented hundreds of professional athletes, from the biggest names in the National Football League to the minor leagues. In addition to his negotiating skills, Smith also had a passion for cooking—and for the people who loved the foods he cooked.
Elmore Smith was a guard for the Dallas Mavericks from 1969-1975. During his 11 year NBA career, he played on some of the most dominant teams of all time. He was a first team All-NBA guard twice, a third team All-NBA guard on another three occasions, and led the league in assists twice. Smith had a reputation as a great leader. He was a plucky underdog on a team of stars, and a tough competitor on a team of cowards.
If Elmore Smith was just the player that held the Los Angeles Lakers’ glamour position between Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it would be notable. It would also be an interesting story if his path took him from a solid NBA career to a fan favorite due to his culinary abilities. When you combine those two tales, it starts to take on epic proportions.
But, as it turns out, those two factors barely scrape the surface of Smith’s meteoric ascent from a 5-foot-11 high school freshman to a 7-foot junior going out for the first time in basketball.
How does a late bloomer become the link between two of the NBA’s most famous power forwards? It all began with a gentle prodding from a high school official.
Elmore Smith began his professional career in the most modest of circumstances.
Elmore Smith was persuaded to try out for the basketball team at Ballard-Hudson High School after a couple of growth spurts pushed him from 5-foot-11 to 7-feet. If Smith didn’t try out for the team, the principal threatened to expel him from school. Smith believed his appearance was more about the performance than anything else, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
“I didn’t know how to dribble, and it wasn’t because I was clumsy or anything; it was simply because I’d never done it before. They kept me around because I looked decent on the layup line.”
Smith attempted three times in high school to join in the military to get away from his family. Smith ended up at Kentucky State University after being threatened with prison time (he wasn’t a candidate since he was above the height restriction). He averaged 20 and 20 during his career while guiding the team to back-to-back NAIA national championships. Yes, across three seasons, he averaged 20.6 points and 22.2 rebounds. In 1970–71, he set the all-divisions national record with 799 total rebounds.
Smith placed himself on the map, despite the fact that the school was off the usual route.
Before embarking on a career as “the next man,” Smith will go to Buffalo.
Elmore Smith (3) of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks over Milwaukee Bucks’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) for a slam dunk. Smith was dealt to the Bucks for Abdul-Jabbar after replacing the great Wilt Chamberlain as the Lakers’ center. | Getty Images/Focus on Sport
In their first season, the Buffalo Braves won only 22 games. They selected small-college star Elmore Smith with the third selection in the 1971 NBA Draft. Despite the significant increase in competition, the 22-year-old handled himself well as a rookie, averaging 17.3 points and 15.2 rebounds per game. In the Rookie of the Year vote, he came in second behind Portland’s Sidney Wicks.
Smith was traded to the Lakers in September 1973. He ended up replacing Wilt in the center instead of teaming with Chamberlain as a big power forward. Chamberlain joined the ABA, Jerry West was sick, and a Laker powerhouse was on the verge of collapsing.
In his first season in Los Angeles, the NBA began tracking blocked shots. Smith raised the bar high in a game against Portland on Oct. 28, 1973. That night, he had 17 blocks. After almost 50 years, the record has remained unbroken.
Smith was a part of one of the most important NBA transactions ever two years after coming in Los Angeles. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was pushed out of Milwaukee, and Smith was hired by the Bucks to take his position. Smith remembers Kareem having the same issue with the Lakers as he had.
“On the Laker squad, I didn’t have the talent that I had in Milwaukee. That’s why we reached the playoffs in Milwaukee that first year, and Kareem had to adjust to the players I was playing with, so they didn’t make it that year.”
Smith’s career was cut short due to knee problems. He, on the other hand, became a Cleveland institution.
Elmore Smith figured the how to make the perfect sauce.
Smith ended his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being traded to them in 1977. He referred to it as his “greatest NBA experience” and decided to retire there. While still playing, he began distributing his unique barbecue sauce to pals. They urged him to reach out to a wider audience.
In 2006, he started selling his sauce online and at Elmore Smith’s Smokehouse Restaurant inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. According to Ex-NBA, the formula has been in the works for decades. Withholding the vinegar made all the difference.
“I’ve been creating barbecue sauce since I was 16 years old,” says the author. For years, I only prepared it for family and friends, but so many people raved about it that I decided to share it with the rest of the world.
“I’m telling you, it’s a huge hit with the public. Every game, they clear us out, and you wouldn’t believe how many people remark, ‘This isn’t stadium food.’
In September 2021, Elmore Smith will return to Kentucky for his induction into the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame. Another flavor to add to a wonderful journey’s sauce.
Basketball Reference provided the statistics.
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