At Broad Ripple, Smith was a legend, the first black coach to lead an integrated school to a state championship. Woodson was Smith’s first all-American; Smith was Woodson’s role model. In 2004, when Woodson was coaching the Atlanta Hawks, he hired Smith as a personal consultant. He asked Smith to periodically watch practice and games, and he trusted Smith’s evaluations and opinions.
The arrangement went on for all of Woodson’s six seasons with the Hawks, and the two have since kept in touch often. Now, with a with the Knicks, Woodson said Smith would again join him as an adviser.
“He brings fresh thoughts to me from a defensive standpoint, and I need that,” Woodson said. “I’m a coach that’s always willing to listen and learn.” With a chuckle, he added, “He’s got more knowledge than I do, put it that way.”
In high school, Woodson had Smith. Before that, Smith had Wilson.
Wilson was the reason Smith decided during his freshman year at Wood High School in Indianapolis that he would someday become a coach. And Wilson saved the dream he had inspired. After high school, Smith started working at a community center and the National Starch and Chemical plant, to help his mother support his four sisters and younger brother. Wilson arranged for Smith to be fired without his knowledge, then dragged him to Anderson College (now Anderson University) about 45 miles northeast of the city, three weeks after the deadline to enroll in classes.
“Four years later, I ended up with a degree,” Smith said. “I talk to him every other day, or once a week, too.”
A rough-around-the-edges city boy, Smith opened his eyes at the small Christian college.
“I needed to transition,” he said. “I needed to learn how to walk in the other man’s shoes.”
He played basketball and football and found Kleis, a logic and philosophy professor, in the classroom. Kleis spent time working with Smith on his grammar and writing. On the weekends, Kleis would drop Smith off in Indianapolis, and they would spend the drive talking about life and morality.
By 1972, at 29, with an Indiana State graduate degree added to his résumé, Smith took over as coach at Broad Ripple. In 1972, Woodson was a freshman on Smith’s team and his best friend, Jerry Cox, was a sophomore.
Smith had the same vision for Woodson, his star, and the rest of his players.
“Help these younger people understand how to be a man, and then how to mature; how to be a man’s man,” Smith said. “I’m trying to coach the total person. The mind. The heart. The body and the soul.”
Cox remembered Smith as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, but one whom his players wanted to please.
“He was a role model; he set the example,” Cox said. “He dressed professionally. He carried himself in a professional manner. And he was very intelligent and well-read. Those were the things that made us look up to him. Coming from our environment, we didn’t see role models like that.”
Smith said he had two rules that applied in basketball and in life: have self-discipline (“What are you doing when nobody’s watching?” he said) and have “situational-appropriate behavior and comments.”
“If you’re meeting with the president or with an employer for a job, I expect to hear: ‘I’m sorry. Excuse me. You’re welcome,’ ” Smith said. “And you look them in the eye.”
Smith taught history, which allowed him to keep an eye on his players, whom he held to higher standards than any of their peers. This was the coach who left Broad Ripple in 1986 because he thought he had shirked his responsibilities and had gone too easy on a team that went 26-1 but lost the regional championship game. This was the coach who then went to work “feeding the hungry and the poor; housing the homeless, ” Smith said, as a Center Township trustee, and as a principal of an alternative school helping wayward youngsters. This was the coach who said he returned to Broad Ripple in 1994 to help curb the academic decline that had started in his absence.
If you broke a rule on Smith’s team, you would not play. And if you did not defend and rebound, you would not play.
Smith spent plenty of time teaching players the proper defensive stance, crouched while staying on their toes, ready to move — the way he wanted them to approach life. He would drill them, directing them to slide across the court. If their feet crossed, they sprinted.
For all of Smith’s tough-but-fair coaching, Woodson never quit, never refused to finish a task.
“Coach Smith may have pushed him and demanded a lot from him,” Cox said. “But Mike was always receptive. That was probably what developed the relationship. He always did what Coach asked.”
By Woodson’s sophomore year, Cox said, Woodson held his own during summer pickup games featuring members of the Indiana Pacers. That season, Smith’s Broad Ripple team was one of the best in the state.
As Smith and Woodson prepare to reunite again, not much has changed. Woodson still listens to Smith, 69, who retired from coaching in 2004. Based on his evaluation of coaching the Knicks, Smith’s values have not changed.
“What I saw Wednesday night, I pray that it continues,” Smith said. “I saw an us-we-our mentality exhibited out on that floor. And that’s something I believe in, us-we-our. The ‘I’ and the ‘my’ and the ‘me’ are far from anything I’ve ever thought about.”
Howard Beck contributed reporting.