Few great players come from as much seeming ignominy as Randy Smith. He was from eastern Long Island. He went to college at little-heralded Buffalo State. He was taken 107th overall in the 1971 draft by the Buffalo Braves who were just in their 2nd season of existence. Why not take a flier on the local basketball product to get a little fan buzz and attention during the summer and exhibition season? If he makes the team, that’s just gravy and he can warm up the bench.
As it turns out the local product would arguably become the greatest Buffalo Brave in the team’s brief history.
Now make no mistake, Bob McAdoo is the greatest player to put on a Braves uniform, but Smith spent seven seasons with the Braves. He was there before and after McAdoo reigned supreme as MVP and has a tight claim on being the greatest Buffalo Brave.
When it comes to Braves players, Smith ranks 1st in games played (568) and minutes played (20,018) by wide margins. He’s 1st in field goals made and 2nd in free throws made. At 6’3″, the guard is 3rd in total rebounds. He almost doubles up second-place Ernie DiGregorio in assists with 2911 to Ernie D’s 1457. To finish things up he’s 1st in steals with over two-times as many as 2nd-place Gar Heard and is 1st in points scored.
Yep, he’s Mr. Buffalo Brave.
And just for kicks… when it comes to the greater history of the Braves/Clippers franchise, Smith still reigns supreme thanks to his two years of service with the San Diego Clippers, as well. He’s 1st in games, minutes, field goals, assists, steals, and points for the franchise that’s now over 40 years old and who he last played for 30 years ago.
So, how did Smith go from bottom of the draft barrel to the top of the litter? He was a spectacular and outstanding athlete who was tireless and unbreakable. The man set an NBA record of 906 straight games played. He didn’t miss a single contest from 1972 to 1982.
He worked on and greatly improved his jumper from his rookie season. He could leap out the gym and was noted for his springboard dunks. He was a lockdown defender on the ball. He was lightning quick and loved to push the offensive tempo and score before defenses could get set.
His best season came in 1978, the last one the Braves played in Buffalo. Randy averaged nearly 25 points a game and dazzled the league in winning the All-Star Game MVP that February with 27 points on 11-14 shooting.
Unfortunately, playing your best years and nearly your whole career for a team that no longer exists doesn’t do well for your legacy. Especially when that team has morphed into the Clippers. Still, Randy Smith was a terrific player whose memory deserves better. Within these digital walls, Smith’s place in basketball history will be as ironclad and secure as he was during his magnificent 12-year career. That he missed just eight games during his whole career is amazing since he was such a zealous breakneck player.
The footage of Smith cooking on the court starts at 1m15s. Also, for more on his career, please read The Lowdown: Randy Smith.
Years Played: 1971 – 1983
All-NBA 2nd Team (1976)
2x All-Star (1976, 1978)
All-Star Game MVP (1978)
NBA – 976 Games
16.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 47.0% FG, 78.1% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1971-72 through 1982-83 season)
5th FGs Made, 15th FTs Made
1st Steals, 12th SPG
3rd Assists, 19th APG
2nd Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played
The final years of the Buffalo Braves were a despondent set of circumstances. Abysmal ticket sales and a perilous financial situation enveloped the franchise. A concurrent fire sale of Hall of Fame and All-NBA talent was also taking place. From 1976 through 1978, Buffalo discarded Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Adrian Dantley, and Moses Malone. Whether the chicken of financial peril caused the egg of this revolving door of trades or the other way around may never truly be known. But the death of the Braves was sealed when their owner John Y. Brown conducted the most important trade in franchise history by actually trading his franchise with Celtics owner Irv Levin. Brown took off for Beantown, while Levin took off as well, not for western New York, though. He quickly absconded to his native southern California and rechristened the Buffalo Braves the San Diego Clippers.
The 1st order of the Clippers was to conduct yet another trade with the Celtics, one that would drastically makeover both clubs. The Clippers sent Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and a draft pick that would become Danny Ainge to Boston for center Kevin Kunnert, forwards Kermit Washington and Sidney Wicks, and swingman Freeman Williams.
In Kunnert the Clippers received a backup center who could mix it up on the boards in tandem or in relief of their starter Swen Nater. The Dutchman Nater was coming off a spectacular final season in Buffalo where he produced 15.5 points and 13 rebounds a game. Standing beside both these men would be the magnificent Kermit Washington, a burly and gritty power forward who was perhaps the most tenacious, if not best, rebounder at that position in the league.
Filling out the forward spots would be veteran Nick Weatherspoon and the newly acquired Wicks. Both men approaching their final years in the NBA, but Weatherspoon had always been a journeyman scrounging out a living as a backup, while Wicks was a former Rookie of the Year and one of the most astounding players of the early 1970s. By decade’s end, though, he’d fallen into the role of reserve after disgruntled years in Portland and his dispassionate stay in Boston.
In the backcourt, San Diego could rely on the Iron Man of the NBA, the venerable Randy Smith. Between 1972 and 1982, Smith set a record of 906 consecutive games played. Although pushing 30, the guard was still quick, explosive and athletic. He was also the last link to the franchise’s glory years in the mid-1970s.
“… San Diego finds itself in a bracket in which every team – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Golden State, Seattle and Portland – had winning seasons last year.
‘That’s major problem – the unbelievable competition.'”
Shue nonetheless promised an uptempo, enjoyable brand of basketball for the San Diego fans, while also believing that the key to Clipper success was Sidney Wicks returning to his all-star form and also on finding backcout help for Randy Smith and rookie Freeman Williams. In Wicks, an all-star form would not return, but the backcourt help would arrive…
Years Active: 1983 – 2000 Career Stats: 1183 games, 28.7 mpg
16.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.5 bpg, 48.4% FG, 70.6% FT Postseason Stats: 110 games, 26.9 mpg
15.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.6 bpg, 50.2% FG, 70.6% FT Accolades: 1983 Rookie of the Year, 2x All-Star (1985, 1989), All-NBA 2nd Team (1985), All-NBA 3rd Team (1989), All-Rookie 1st Team (1983)
The 1982 draft was a loaded class. Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Fat Lever, Clark Kellogg, Ricky Pierce and Sleepy Floyd are the highlight players, but the man who walked away with the Rookie of the Year crown was Terry Cummings. T.C. was a lithe combination of power and speed that initially toiled on the moribund San Diego Clippers.
Mercifully, he would be traded into the good graces of perennial powerhouse Milwaukee and when that situation began to go south, Cummings again would be bailed out with a trade to the San Antonio Spurs, sparking the greatest turnaround in NBA history until the 2008 Celtics.
Terry’s good fortune ran out soon after that as a devastating knee injury robbed him of his explosiveness. Nevertheless he soldiered on for another decade as a reserve forward. But when he was at his best, few in the NBA could match his presence, his grace, his strength.
Years Active: 1974 – 1984 Regular Season Stats: 722 games, 28.7 mpg
12.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.6 bpg, 0.5 spg,, 53.5% FG, 74.8% FT Postseason Stats: 30 games, 19.7 mpg
8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.4 bpg, 51.2% FG, 63.9% FT Accolades: ABA Rookie of the Year (1974), 2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1974-75), ABA Rookie 1st Team (1974), 2x ABA All-Star (1974-75)
“I was going to America to be a cowboy,” [Nater] recalled. “I wanted to be just like Roy Rogers. I thought everybody in the U.S. was a cowboy. I went from an orphanage to a Beverly Hills hotel in 22 hours. I had room service. I didn’t see any cowboys, though.”
The journey of center Swen Nater to professional basketball is unlike any other. Born in the Netherlands, his mother departed Holland for the United States when he was 3-years old with Swen’s stepfather and one son. Swen, along with a sister, was left behind at an orphanage, waiting for the day their parents saved enough money to send for them. 6 years passed until finally an American television show, It Could Be You, organized the reunion of the Nater family.
“Swen is the best center I’ve played against all year.”
The praise heaped on Nater by Walton and Coach John Wooden encouraged the Milwaukee Bucks to select Nater 14th overall in the 1973 NBA draft making him the first player ever taken in the 1st round who’d never started a college basketball game. Except there was one problem for Nater. Milwaukee had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and would undoubtedly use Nater as a backup or trade bait. Swen, while appreciative and happy with his time as Walton’s backup, was ready to showcase what he could do and wasn’t excited about being dangled about for a trade, either. Instead of signing with Milwaukee, he opted for the Virginia Squires who held his ABA rights.
His tenure in Virginia lasted only 17 games before the cash-strapped Squires sold him to the San Antonio Spurs. Finally finding stability and a healthy amount of playing time, Swen blossomed into a rebounding terror and one of the finest ABA centers. By season’s end he averaged 14 points and 12.5 rebounds while leading the ABA in field goal percentage (55%). The ultimate showcase for Nater that season was the All-Star game in Norfolk where he uncorked 29 points and 22 rebounds.
Surprisingly, Artis Gilmore (18 pts, 14 rebs) took home the MVP award for the game. Nater however ran away with the Rookie of the Year award for 1973-74 while also making the All-Rookie 1st Team and All-ABA 2nd Team. For Swen, the whirlwind of success and recognition was refreshing, “like taking a chain off.”
Nater gave an encore performance in 1974-75. His scoring inched up to 15 while his rebounding surged to a career high 16.4, good enough to lead the ABA, and his FG% held at .540. Again he made the All-Star team and All-ABA 2nd Team. Curiously, the Spurs were about to send Nater back into the wilderness.
Suffering early playoff exits in both of Swen’s seasons, the Spurs in the summer of 1975 traded Nater to the New York Nets for Billy Paultz. Battling nagging injuries, Nater struggled with the Nets and midway through the 1975-76 season he was traded back to the Virginia Squires. His stay there lasted only through the end of that season as the Squires folded and the ABA merged with the NBA. Feeling back at full-strength, Nater finally signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, but would have to battle Elmore Smith for minutes. A battle he initially lost.
“Rebounding is what I’m supposed to do and this was just one of those nights.”
The upper-hand had been gained by Swen and Elmore Smith would be traded later in the season, but Nater himself lasted in Milwaukee barely into the summer of ’77. Having secured the 1st overall pick in the draft, the Bucks were thrilled to select center Kent Benson and had no need, so they thought, for Nater. The veteran center was traded to the Buffalo Braves. for a 1st round pick. Luckily for the Bucks, the Braves’ first rounder turned out to be Marques Johnson, otherwise it would have been a complete disaster. Benson was lackluster and gone in 1.5 seasons.
Nater meanwhile completely regained his San Antonio form with the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers franchise during the next four seasons, culminating, somewhat ironically, in 1979-80. Ironically because the Clippers had signed Nater’s old Bruin teammate Bill Walton. It appeared that Swen would either be traded to Portland as compensation or a repeat of the UCLA days was in order with Nater as Walton’s backup. Swen didn’t sound too excited about these prospects:
“I’ll probably get depressed for over a month… This compensation stuff is a lot worse than being traded,” he said. “What they’re saying, really, is ‘Here’s Bill Walton and you’re one-fourth of him. You’re one of the four players to go for him.’ I think it’s degrading.”
His worries were for naught. He wasn’t shipped to Portland and Walton’s notorious foot problems limited him to only 14 games that year and forced him out entirely for the 1980-81 and ’81-82 seasons. Had Walton been around Swen surely wouldn’t have produced his 13.5 point and 15 rebound averages that year. His rebounds were good enough to lead the NBA and he again topped off at 55% shooting.
Sadly, like Walton, Swent Nater’s body betrayed him. Injuring his kneecap in the early part of the 1981-82 season, Swen played a grand total of 28 games that season and 1982-83 combined. In his final season, 1984, Nater fulfilled the role he was apparently destined for… being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s backup.
In the post-Wilt Chamberlain era of professional basketball (1974 and beyond), Nater has the 3rd-highest rebounding percentage with 21.4%. That means when he was on the court, Nater grabbed a little better than 1 out of every 5 rebounds available. Only Kevin Love (22.2%) and Dennis Rodman (23.4%) have been better. When it comes to just defensive rebounds, no one has done it better. His 30.7% is just ahead of Rodman and Bill Walton. He was the first foreign-born player to take home a major award (the 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year) and is the only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding average for a single season. And his bevy of well-aimed hook shots resulted in a 53.5% shooting for his career.
He may never have been a cowboy, but he still had a good shot.