Call him Coach Smith|[10/24/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The man once referred to as Mr. Mean in the NBA is everything but in new post at St. Al

When St. Aloysius basketball player Alex Lanier found out about his new coach, he checked him out on the internet. What he found was:

* Larry Smith, a 13-year NBA veteran player with the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. Sixth all-time leading offensive rebounder in NBA history.

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* Another 13 years as a coach either in the NBA or its developmental league. The first 10 of those years were as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets, including 1994 and 1995 when the Rockets won the NBA championship.

* Three years ago, Smith was a coach with the Los Angeles Lakers, working for his former boss in Houston, Rudy Tomjanovich.

When Smith decided he would be interested in taking the job at the Vicksburg Catholic school, he listed Tomjanovich as one of his references.

“I looked at that name, Tomjo-whatever, and saw he was the head coach in Houston and Los Angeles, and thought, I don’t need to call him. That’s good enough for me,” St. Aloysius athletic director Jim Taylor said.

“I was looking online and I saw all this stuff on him, it was what like, ‘Wow!'” Lanier said before Monday’s practice. “It’s a cool thing to have him as our coach.”

The obvious questions to Smith, a native of Rolling Fork who starred at Alcorn State University before making it big in the NBA, was why? A high school job? St. Al?

“I like coaching and this is what I wanted to do,” Smith said in a soft, polite tone that belied the image he built as one of the toughest players in the NBA and earning the nickname “Mr. Mean.”

“If I get called back to the league (the NBA), terrific, but until then, I want to do what I like doing,” Smith added.

Back in late July and into August, Smith was the head coach of the D-League’s All-Star team called the Ambassadors. They were selected to play in a six-nation round-robin tournament in Macao, an island city off mainland China.

“It was a great experience to coach the Ambassadors. We only had a short time to prepare, but it was a lot of fun. We came in third place. We played the Chinese National team and it was difficult for us to play against a seasoned international team,” Smith said.

Leading the Chinese was Yi Jianlian, the sixth overall pick in last June’s NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Yao Ming, who Smith coached personally during his last two seasons with Houston, did not play because he had just gotten married.

Smith’s next game will be St. Al’s opener against the Richland Rangers on Nov. 10.

“I know coaching high school kids is going to be a learning experience for me, but at the same time, I have found that these are real good kids, and their progress has been tremendous,” Smith said.

Smith knows what it’s like to come into tough situations as a coach. St. Al needed a coach after a handful of other candidates turned the position down, and for the second straight year got a waiver from the Mississippi High School Activities Association to hire a para-professional. Para professionals are hired as coaches only. Most have other, full-time jobs.

In 2003, Smith had to take over the Rockets as the interim head coach when Tomjanovich battled bladder cancer. Smith coached Houston for the final six weeks of the regular season.

In 2004, Smith stepped into another difficult situation with the Lakers. Coach Phil Jackson had left after taking Los Angeles to the NBA finals that June when they lost to Detroit in five games. Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss then traded Shaquille O’Neal, arguably the league’s most dominating presence, to the Miami Heat.

That left Smith and Tomjanovich to deal with the fallout and one Kobe Bryant.

“I found Kobe to be tremendous to work with. He came to work every day. And the main thing about Kobe is he likes winning,” Smith said.

After the Lakers, Smith spent the last two seasons in the D-League, including a stint as the head coach of the Anaheim Arsenal.

“The D-League represented another opportunity. It was fun for me to be around guys who were hungry, who felt they deserved to be in the league. It was a great time,” Smith said.

And now he has the challenge of rebuilding a St. Aloysius program that is coming off two of its most successful seasons, including a 21-9 year which saw it win a division tournament title for the first time.

“It’s different. I’m going to have to start from scratch. In the NBA, the players pretty much knew certain things. Here it’s like Basketball 101,” Smith said.

St. Al’s players have responded well to Smith’s coaching so far.

“He’s good. He’s a lot nicer than I expected,” said St. Al senior Duffy Lowell. “He’s been running us a lot.”

Smith’s message to his new team is simple — play hard and do your best. That’s the same attitude Smith used during his college and pro career.

“I was not the most skilled player. When I was with the Warriors, we had Rick Barry, Purvis Short and Joe Barry Carroll. There weren’t enough balls to go around and shoot. But I wanted to play. I like playing. I knew I had to go to the boards, rebound and play defense,” Smith said.