Dwight Smith......the name alone instantly rekindles a flood of memories for long-time Hilltopper fans. Not only for the unbelievable skills that he possessed on the basketball court, but for all of the unfulfilled promise that ended when his life was tragically cut short in an automobile accident in 1967.
A native of Princeton, Ky., Dwight, along with Campbellsville's Clem Haskins, became the first black athletes to integrate the legendary Hilltopper Basketball program in the Fall of 1963.
Coming out of Princeton's all-black Dotson High School, the 6' 4" Smith was a highly recruited athlete sought after by schools all across the nation. Kansas, Cincinnati, Ohio St., Louisville, Michigan and Western Kentucky were among the many suitors vying for Dwight's considerable talents. In the end however, it was E.A. Diddle and the Hilltoppers that won the recruiting battle. And one incident in particular that helped convince the Smith family that Western was the place for Dwight occurred after a Hilltopper game in the Winter of '63. Dwight's father, Henry Smith recalls, "We went up there for a game in the old Red Barn and I remember going in the dressing room, and there was Dwight sitting on Mr. Diddle's knee." Mr. Diddle told everyone, 'This is one of the players that is going to turn this program around."
Diddle's words would soon appear prophetic as Dwight, Clem, and Greg Smith (Dwight's younger brother) quickly catapulted the Hilltoppers back to the top of the college basketball world. From 1964-'67, the three varsity teams that Smith played on posted a combined record of 66-15 and participated in the NIT once ('65) and the NCAA twice ('66 & '67). And were it not for an horrendous and suspicious call in the 1966 NCAA Tournament game vs. Michigan, and a devastating wrist injury to First-Team All-American Clem Haskins in 1967, Dwight and his teammates could very easily have walked away with two NCAA titles.
During those three years, Dwight established himself as one of the finest all-around players in the nation, and perhaps THE finest rebounding guard anywhere. His ball-handling skills and defensive prowess were the stuff of legend. Hilltopper great John Oldham, who coached Dwight at Western stated, "Dwight probably was one of the greatest ball handlers I've ever seen and I guarded Bob Cousy about ten times, and he is credited with being a great ball player. But when we scrimmaged I would often put two players on Dwight, because he could whip one player in about two steps. So I scrimmaged five against six, two of them defending Dwight. He was that good.....it's like Jordan. That's the only time I ever did that in 12 years of coaching. He liked the idea. He liked the competition."
On Smith's defensive skills, former teammate and best friend Clem Haskins stated,"Murray State had a guy named Speedy Duncan, and Eastern had Bobby Washington. They were two of the quickest guards in basketball. Bobby came to Western averaging 22 points, and Dwight held him to two. Bobby couldn't get the ball over the ten-second line against Dwight. It was the same thing with Speedy Duncan."
A fierce competitor, Smith always strived for victory no matter what the circumstances. Haskins states, "He always ran number one in sprints, Wayne Chapman was two and I was three. I never beat him in one-on-one, and that's gospel. He made it very difficult for me to score. He had tremendous ball-handling skills and I couldn't stop him going to the basket. He could pull up and hit the jumper on the drive." Although Haskins got most of the headlines during those days at Western, he states, "Dwight Smith's an All-American. The papers or press might not say that, but he's an All-American. Dwight Smith was the catalyst of our team."
Naturally, being two of the first black players in the south, everything wasn't always easy for Smith and Haskins. "He needed me and I needed him. We leaned on each other's shoulders. We had a lot of wars to fight then with the barrier just broken," Haskins said, "The people will never know what we went through then. There were many nights where we cried ourselves to sleep." In reference to some of the trials they faced, Coach Oldham states, "A lot of times after a ball game we couldn't.......black and whites couldn't go into the same restaurant unless the black players would go in the back door, and I wouldn't do that. So I would have the trainer or manager buy us a hamburger and french fries and a piece of pie and a large drink, and we would put it on the bus on head back to Bowling Green. I never said anything about it, I never even discussed it with the players.......it was tough, we would go into some places and they would holler the "n" word. But our players......that never caused us a major problem. I mean I'm sure that it was embarrassing to a lot of the schools and administrators and things but we didn't make an issue out of it."
Despite his dynamic presence and showmanship on the court, off the court Dwight was a very different person. "He was ultra-quiet," Oldham states. "He was friendly, but he was a semi-loner. I'd say it was some shyness on his part." In fact, Henry Smith said it was a common occurrence around campus for girls to intentionally drop something in front of his son just to get him to stop and pick it up, in order to say a word to him.
Also a model
student, the former class valedictorian of his high school majored
in Physical Education and Sociology at Western and had plans
to enter the coaching profession after his playing days were
over. And his playing days on the Hill are hard for anyone to
forget. Hilltopper great Jim Pickens, who starred on the gridiron
for Western in the 1940's, and who was coaching baseball there
in the 1960's, grew up in Princeton with Henry Smith, and he
has no hesitation in stating that, "Dwight was just an all-around
super, super ballplayer. I don't put anybody at Western Kentucky
- I've been here since 1947 - talentwise, ahead of Dwight Smith."
Although Dwight sacrificed a high scoring average for the overall benefit of the teams he played on at Western, his career stats still hold a high place of distinction in the Hilltopper record books. His 1,142 career points (14.6ppg) is still good enough for 24th all-time. And even more impressive is his career rebound average of (11.0rpg) good enough for eighth all-time at WKU.....impressive in its own right, but even more so when you consider that he achieved those numbers playing from the guard position!!
only thing missing from Dwight's career at Western is the fact
that the Hilltoppers weren't able to bring the National Championship
Trophy home to the Hill. However, it proved to be no fault of
the team that this didn't occur. Following a remarkable 23-2
record in the 1965-66 regular season, a season in which the Toppers
outscored their opponents by an average margin of over 18 points
per game, they headed for the "Big Dance" with something
to prove. And after a 105-86 thrashing of #3 Loyola,(Ill.) in
the first round of the 1966 NCAA Tourney (in which Dwight led
Western with 29 points and five rebounds), the Toppers next faced
Big Ten Champion Michigan. The winner of the game would go on
to face adolph rupp and the kentucky wildcats in the Mideast
Regional Final. A proposition that was very desirable for Dwight,
Clem, and Greg....but especially Dwight. Coming out of high school,
uk had also offered Dwight a basketball scholarship, but upon
learning that Smith was black the entire offer was rescinded.
And even though Dwight, like Haskins, never had any interest
in attending kentucky, this incident always remained in the back
of his mind, hoping that one day the chance for payback would
Dwight, being the intense competitor that he was, let his emotions flow and reportedly cried all night after the Michigan game. However, like all winners in life, the Toppers would rebound to once again challenge for the title in 1967. After being upset in the first game of the 1966-'67 season, Dwight and his teammates reeled off 21 straight victories and held firmly to the #3 ranking in the national polls. However, a broken wrist on the shooting hand of Clem Haskins late in the season forced the All-American to miss considerable action. And upon his return, Haskins was forced to wear a cast on the wrist, which dramatically hampered his shooting ability and all but assured the Toppers of an uphill battle in their quest for the national championship.
Still, behind the strong play and leadership of Dwight, the Toppers managed to convincingly win six of their final seven regular season games to finish with a brilliant 23-2 record. But the Haskins injury proved to be too much for the team to overcome in the NCAAs.
Facing a strong Dayton team in the first round (a squad which Western had defeated (82-68) in the Mideast Regional consolation game in 1966), the Toppers let a large first half lead slip away as the Flyers caught up and sent the game into overtime before winning 69-67. Dayton then advanced all the way to the national championship game where they were defeated by the Lew Alcindor-led UCLA Bruins. Despite a valiant effort by Dwight and the entire team, Haskins could only manage to hit a small percentage of his shots with the cast on his shooting hand, and as a result the Topper's championship hopes were effectively ended.
Thus, the basketball career of Dwight Smith ended on the Hill....a magnificent career that despite all of the many great accomplishments, was left with much unfulfilled promise. Still, despite the frustrating defeat, Dwight had many great things to look forward to in life. He was soon to become the first person in his family to graduate from college and he was almost assuredly going to enjoy a long and prosperous professional basketball career.
By Mother's Day in May of 1967, both of these dreams were on the verge of becoming reality for Dwight. He had recently been drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers and already had plans to fly to L.A. to sign his contract as soon as school was over. But Dwight, Greg, and sister Kay had driven back home to celebrate Mother's Day with their family that weekend and to be honored at a covered-dish banquet in Princeton. Because of their need to study for finals however, the trio left for Western that night despite the extremely rainy conditions that had existed all weekend. After dropping a friend off in nearby Nortonville, Greg headed the car towards Bowling Green. What happened next proved to one of the most tragic moments in the history of Western Kentucky University.
Taking a route that he had never driven before, Greg approached a blind curve in the road, and without warning the car began to hydroplane out of control. It then ran directly into a puddle of water that was standing in the road before skidding into a bank and flipping over submerged in a water-filled ditch. Greg managed to find an air pocket and eventually escape. Dwight and sister Kay were not so fortunate however....both drowned in the car before rescuers could save them.
Henry Smith recalls that he and his wife, Pearl, were uncommonly nervous about their children's trip home that night. "My wife and I were running into each other in the house," he said. "It seemed like a premonition, and I said to myself, 'Something's not right.' "Then the phone rang, and I said, 'Oh, Lord.' I got scared. I went to the phone and the man said. 'Is this the Smith family?' "I put the receiver down, put it right down, turned around and looked at Pearl in the doorway. She passed out. She had an idea something was wrong. It was incredible. Incredible. I'll never forget it."
"So the phone rang again, and so I went back. It seemed like God gave me strength to go back to that phone and pick that receiver up. When I did, he said, 'Is this the Smith's residence?" "I said, 'Yes it is.' I said, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'Do you have two children, or three children?' I said 'Yes, I do.' He said, 'We believe that Dwight and Kay have drowned,' I said, 'Oh Lord, have mercy.'" Henry rushed to the scene, where a crowd had formed to try and save Dwight and Kay, and says that, "It was pandemonium. It said in the papers that they would say, 'Get up Dwight. Get up Dwight. Don't be dead, Dwight. It seems like yesterday."
The shocking news had yet to spread to Bowling Green and the Western campus, but Clem Haskins, who was in Hazard that day to witness high schooler Jim Rose sign with the Toppers, recalls driving back towards Bowling Green and hearing the news on a radio broadcast out of Louisville. "I drove around for the next hour, but I kind of blacked out. I was in a daze. I remember trying to find a phone. I called in Bowling Green and couldn't get anybody. I called Mr. Diddle's house but he hadn't heard. Neither had Coach Oldham. Finally I got a hold of Lloyd Gardner (a team manager). It was one of the saddest, darkest days of my life."
The outpouring of support from across the state, and particularly the Western community was enormous. Over 5,000 persons attended the services for Dwight and Kay in Princeton. Among those present were U of L stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard and members of Murray State's team. Picken's recalls the sad occasion, "I remember hugging Henry and tears flowing down both of our eyes and going up and looking at Dwight, and I just couldn't visualize that that had happened. We had lost a good one. We had lost a good one, one of the best."
Oldham states, "His death was a great loss to the university community. He was one of the most unselfish players I have ever seen - and one of the all-around finest too. Anytime I see a great athlete's life has been snuffed out, you can't help but recall."
Former teammate Butch Kaufmann:, "I feel myself reach out for him, even right now. And it's good to let somebody else know how good he was. He'll always be alive in my heart. And I know the other guys feel the same way."
E.A. Diddle: "Dwight was intelligent, friendly, a great basketball player.....and just a good boy."
Despite not being able to graduate from college, Western nonetheless awarded Dwight his degree. Vice-President for administrative affairs, Dero Downing, at the request of then-President Kelly Thompson, personally delivered and presented the diploma to Henry and Pearl Smith at their home in Princeton.
Greg Smith, who like his parents, still lives with a heavy heart, remembers Dwight with great love and respect, "You don't forget something like that. It's a haunting memory, and there's hardly a a day that goes by that you don't think about it. It's something I'll carry until the day I leave. It was one of those moments in life........my brother would have been an incredible Pro because he was twice the player I was. He would have been gone with the Lakers initially, and he would have played 10 or 12 years in the Pros, and he would probably be one of the most recognized coaches and recognized persons in this world......he was that type of a winner. He was dynamic......."
In 1995, Dwight Smith became a member of the fifth class to be inducted into the Western Kentucky University Hall of Fame.
Name: Dwight Smith