KIERAN SHANNON: KING OF CORK AND COURT

Ray Smith recently returned to the city where he became a Neptune legend all of 25 years ago. Though he’d started his career in the US and ended it in Spain, fate sent him to a place in between where he had previously never heard of — but it’s a place he won’t forget in a hurry.

TV team: “You must have some great memories of here.”

Older man: “Oh, yes, I saw some battles here. [Ghost dashes past]. It’s as if the place remembers. So many people have great memories here. Sometimes you just get a sense of them. Never did know how to explain it though.” — Heineken Cup ad

HE used to own this house. Or if not quite own it, rock it anyhow.

He was the Smith in Strickland and Smith, as in Terry and Ray, the greatest on-court partnership Irish basketball has ever seen. Smith himself was probably the most awesome athlete operating in Irish domestic sport at the time. He was 6’7” and 220lbs of muscle, an NBA body and player in a country where our top rugby players at the time thought a six-pack was something you broke out rather than built up after a game.

To this day the debate still rages, who was better, Ray Smith or Jasper McElroy, just like in the States they argue over whether Bird or Magic was the best ’80s player over there.

Three years he played here and all three years Neptune won the league. He ruled and loved it over here but then Spain called. Even his sugar daddy over here, Jackie Solan, the man who sponsored Burgerland Neptune and pampered his Americans, gave him his blessing to go but had a sinking feeling while doing so. “I’ll never see you again, Ray,” he said solemnly and while Smith scoffed him for being both overly-sentimental and unrealistic, it seemed Jackie would be right. Until very recently.

A few months ago Ray Smith stepped foot in the Neptune Stadium again. He’d revived contact with a few Neptune team-mates a few years back soon after the publication of Hanging from the Rafters which he adorns the cover, slamming it down the day this arena opened. So back in November he agreed to come over to coach at a basketball camp Jim Nugent, Tom O’Sullivan and their old American coach Ken Black were running for kids.

It had been 25 years, literally half a lifetime, since he had last walked through those doors. The old place had changed. Where once there had been a balcony stand behind one of the baskets, there was now a gym and a meeting room; a couple of years after he had left so had the crowds and eventually the club decided it was better to make practical use of the space rather than have an empty stand as a depressing relic and reminder of the times Strickland and Smith used to routinely pack it out.

Old faces had changed too. Ken and Tom now had generous flecks of grey hair. Others now had no hair at all. Smith himself had lost some of that bulk he used to strut in here with, the consequence of a couple of surgeries on his back, but after the initial delayed recognition, he noticed the smiles were still the same. The memories and the affection came at him in waves, nearly overwhelming him. ‘Do you remember when we...?!’ ‘God, it’s good to see you!’ ‘How the hell have you been?’ ‘How has Spain treated you?’

There was a lot to fill them in on and a lot that he never could. Like how he would go on to be the top scorer and MVP in the entire Spanish league, the best league outside the NBA, would turn down playing for Real Madrid, would go head-to-head with Arvydas Sabonis, probably the best non-American player of the 20th century, and hang out with him in his pad, drinking vodka and playing poker, starting at $3,000.

Not that Smith was starstruck. This, after all, was a man who had played in college with Charles Barkley, been the top scorer and rebounder in all of college basketball and been drafted by the Seattle Supersonics before he ever came here and join Terry to go up against the likes of Jasper McElroy and Kelvin Troy. He’s lived quite a life, and to appreciate how it would end up in Spain, it’s best maybe to go back to how it started in the USA.

“I grew up in Greer, South Carolina. Greer was a tough town – but great for basketball. But you had to physically fight to play, there were so many people in the park.

“Things started changing when I was about 14. Up to then football was my first choice. I was very good at it – played tight end. But then one day I was playing basketball in the park and tried to dunk it and I dunked it. And a guy comes up to me and says ‘You’re wasting your time playing football’. After my first year in high school my daddy told me the same. ‘You need to pick one, you can’t do two and study at the same time.’ So I chose basketball. And he bought me a basketball. No one in my neighbourhood had their own basketball. After that I didn’t have to fight to play anymore.

“One summer my dad sent me to Clemson University for six weeks to learn the game. Before that all I could do was jump. After those six weeks I could play. Daddy was good for me that way. He was always away driving that tractor trailer, an 18-wheeler, to places like Atlanta and Wisconsin but I never wanted for anything. I had a very good relationship with my mother. I was adopted when I was three months old and she always told me that but she will always be my only mom to me.

“I’ll never forget one day when I was 11. A lady came to the house and asked my mother could she speak to me. She was from the adoption agency and she had an obligation to tell me that if I wanted to meet my ‘real’ parents, I could.

“I told her, ‘No, I don’t want to meet them’. And I never did. The next time I saw that woman was the day my mother died, in 1988. She came back to the house, told me the same as she did when I was just a kid but I told her the same – my only parents are Charlie and Annie Ruth Smith.

“By the time I was 17 I was the player of the year in the state of South Carolina. I was just so strong. My high school coach gave me the keys to the gym and I’d just live there. All kinds of college teams wanted to recruit me but in the end I opted for Auburn in Alabama. Their coach Sonny Smith came to my house and you just didn’t say no to a legend like Sonny Smith.

“Charles Barkley was the other freshman on our team. But my grades weren’t good and I was very young, not even 18, a year behind everyone else so after a few months I left to play for a junior college in Pensacola, Florida. I could have stayed [at Auburn] and red-shirted for the year but Sonny told me that if it worked out in Penascola and my grades got better, I could come back to Auburn. But Alabama was so racist back then. We’d encountered racism in South Carolina before; I remember when I first got a car, these white kids cut my tyres but my daddy just said, ‘No problem, we’ll just get new tyres, rise above them’. In Alabama that was impossible. On campus they still had white and black restrooms. Around town there were restaurants black people weren’t allowed in. This was in 1978, man! I’d meet Charles again. The time of the Dream Team and the Barcelona Olympics, I was playing just down the road for Andorra. I knew the manager of the stadium well so after one of their games he brought me into their locker room, introduced me to them all – Magic, Michael, and Charles. I said to him, ‘Charles, you probably don’t know me but I was in Auburn’. And he stepped back and said, ‘Damn, you’re that boy from South Carolina!’ Then he asked what I was doing over here, I told him I played nearby, so he asked did I know what nightclubs they could go to. Then Karl [Malone] said ‘Hey, I want to go out too!’ I called over to their hotel, had a few beers with them there, then they hopped into my car. I’d just got a big contract, bought myself a brand-specking new Mercedes Benz 500e, absolute gold. I told them the clubs in Spain only started around 1, went on ’til 7. Charles said ‘Hell, I might only play 15 minutes tomorrow anyway – what difference is it going to make?’ It wasn’t like as if they were going to lose. We had a great night, man. It would have been fun to have played more with him in college. But it wasn’t to be.

“I went to Pensacola instead. Big mistake! I fell in love with this girl! And when she went to study in Armstrong State in Georgia, I transferred there too. They were only a Division 2 school but it was where she was at and they handed me $1000 up front. But then she left to work in New Orleans. And I was still in Armstrong State! Man! But I still led the nation in scoring and rebounding there and the Seattle Supersonics drafted me.

“I played very well in rookie camp, was kept on to play with the veterans. I played in all the preseason games, averaged 16 points a game. One night our [All Star guard] Gus Williams brought me over to his house for dinner and said, ‘Ray, I think you’ll make this team’. He dropped me off at the hotel I was staying in and across the road there was a car dealership. There was this Nissan 300 ZX and I called my mom that night and said, ‘Mom, I’ve just seen the car I’m going to buy you. There’s no way they can cut me after tonight!’ But the night before the season started they did. Their two other rookies were both first-round picks which meant they were on guaranteed contracts. I was in the shower when [Coach] Lenny Wilkens called me over and said, ‘Ray, if I had one more spot I’d sign you. Go down to the [farm league] CBA, play and if something opens up we’ll look at you again’. So I went to the CBA. Played in Albuquerque. That’s the damn worst place I’ve been in my life! ! I played in this gym where the windows were broken and the snow was falling on the floor. They didn’t even have mops to dry the floor. We players had to get the towels out of our own bags. !! I called my mother and she said ‘Let me get you a plane ticket’. I said ‘Mom, just get me a train ticket. Right now a train would be luxury. I just couldn’t stay there,’ I told her. But to be honest, it was missing the NBA that crushed me.

“I was playing summer league in Greenville, in a place like the Parochial Hall, maybe 2,000 people in the stands, when one of them, this little guy called Ken Black, came up after this game. ‘What you doing these days?’ And I told him I was basically doing nothing. All I was making was from hustling at pool on Friday nights. He said ‘Well, I’m about to coach this team in Ireland. You want to go with me?’ And the first thing I said to him was ‘Where the hell is Ireland?’

He told me it was in Europe. And I asked ‘Where’s Europe?’ We didn’t study Europe in school; might have heard about France and Italy but that was it. So I said ‘Okay, I’ll go but you need to give me a round-trip ticket for seven days and if I don’t like it, I’m coming back’. So a few days later I go over with Terry Strickland, who Ken had coached in college. I saw Jackie Solan at the airport and we get into his car and he starts driving on the wrong side of these little bitty roads. I told Terry ‘I don’t like this situation, man.’ Terry tells me ‘It’s cool.’ So when we get to Cork we go for a bit to eat and this waitress asks me if I’d take her out that night. I asked Terry what’s with that? He told me, girls like American basketball players, man. So after that I said ‘Damn, this might not be too bad after all!’ Those first few months were still very difficult for me. I used to write letters to my mother every day and cry up there in our house every day. But I’d put on my game face when it came to games because basketball was what had brought me over here.

“I’d end up loving Cork. I’d play for a lot of teams and there’d be some teams where some of your team-mates wouldn’t even say hello in the morning. The Neptune guys were the best team-mates I would ever have. We were all kind of poor and when you’re from here – the ground – you remember where you came from. They were like my brothers. They’d invite you over to their house for dinner, have roast beef, cauliflower, potato. You’d meet all their family. We’d go out together after every game. We’d hardly have to pay for a drink. I won’t lie to you, we Americans were treated like gods.

“I didn’t really mix with opposing Americans. Jasper [McElroy] and Terry were buddies but when Jasper would come up to the house to watch a video with Terry, I’d go up to my room. I didn’t want to be in the same room hanging with Jasper. I didn’t need to be his friend. I wanted to be the best here and let everybody see that I was the best. That was my goal from day one.

“I’d like to think I achieved that. Three years I played here and three years we won the league. But then at the end of that third season I got that phone call.”

It was from Mike Smith, in Spain. Ray and Mike hadn’t known each other growing up even though they were both from the Carolinas but Ken Black did and when Neptune would need a third American to play in a couple of international tournaments like the Roy Curtis, they’d plump for Mike. He only played one season in Ireland, in 1985-’86, and though his Yoplait Marian side would be relegated, Smith was signed by a Spanish second division team in Malaga. Towards the end of the 1987 season their second American got himself suspended for four games and they needed a replacement. And so just a few days after scoring 47 points for Burgerland in the end-of-season Neptune international tournament final, Ray Smith was scoring 47 against Valencia in front of 6,500.

“I hadn’t seen anything like it since I’d left the United States. We had these crazy big showers, buses with three or four television screens which you could watch game tape. I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is what basketball is all about’.”

RAY would stay and in the space of 18 months turn the team from a bottom-of-the-table Division 2 team to a first division side. To this day they are as fondly remembered as a tandem there as Smith and Strickland are in Ireland.

Mike went on to win leagues with Real Madrid, Euroleagues with Badalona, and be dubbed ‘the Spanish Jordan’, even playing for the national team at European championships after he qualified for a native passport.

Ray would later join Malaga where he would top the entire Spanish league in scoring and be voted its most valuable player. While the Americans in Ireland had been particularly good, in Spain they were even bigger and stronger. At the time the league boasted former NBA pros like Stanley Roberts and international stars like Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic. Both of them would play for Real Madrid before entering the NBA. Smith had the chance to join Madrid too – but declined.

“That was when [later NBA coach] George Karl was over them. I was stupid. I should have gone. Twice I was league MVP and twice I was leading scorer but I never won a championship. But I just loved the lifestyle in Malaga. I lived on the beach and it was hot all year round.”

It would take Tenerife for him to forsake Malaga. Again he relished it, making banana shakes from the orchard he’d raid next door and swimming daily on the sea in front of his house. His first contract there was over $285,000. That was more than the Atlantic Hawks could guarantee him so he turned them down just as he would Madrid. Does he regret it? Not really. He met his wife there and though they would later divorce the marriage would give him two of his three beautiful daughters. He would later replace Sabonis at Valladolid for $375,000 but a back injury would then curtail him. He’d spent three months in Atlanta in an athletic performance centre but what felt like jail to him, and though it would help earn him another big contract, a second back surgery was coming down the tracks.

He would play basketball right up until he was 41, playing in the Euroleague in another stint with Malaga and then with Strasbourg in France. He’d have played for longer if he could.

“I didn’t know what to do after basketball. For so long it had been my life. I kind of got depressed because I was stuck in the house, didn’t know what to do. I told my wife that it was best if we separate, that while I had never messed around on her, I couldn’t function without basketball and I didn’t want us to have any problems. She told me she respected me so much for being that honest and clear-cut and it’s why we have such a good relationship today.”

He would later run a supermarket which was doing well until the 2008 crash came. He coached basketball for a bit but then when his disability allowance came through from the Spanish government, that prevented him from continuing that. He now lives in Seville to be close to his daughters. In the days he plays dominos and enjoys fiesta; then at night he’ll take in a game on the box, eat fish late into the night like the locals do.

He wants some of the Neptune guys to come over to him soon. July or August might be too warm but any other time they’re more than welcome. After all they welcomed him all those years ago, and then just those few months ago again. Coco’s and Tin Pan Louie’s were no longer there but for one it was like they were still kings of Cork city.

“We lost contact for years,” he says as we walk out of the Neptune Stadium, “but we didn’t lose our friendship or love for one another. If it wasn’t for Ireland, I’d never have played or lived in Spain. They were three of the best years of my life.”

Picture: Ray Smith coaching at last year’s Big Stuff basketball camp at Neptune Stadium with participants Caoimhe Twomey, Sophie Koster, Eva Heelan and Edel O’Raw, Tower. Picture: Denis Minihane


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