Milligan Royalty: Basketball dignitaries Smith, Harris return for school’s homecoming weekend
Del Harris was looking at a old photograph of a familiar face wearing a number 46 Milligan unform in the late 1950s.
“Looks like I might’ve even been in shape,” Harris said.
Peeking inside the room, Sonny Smith quipped, “Don’t count on that!”
It was one of many laughs the friends of over 50 years and former Milligan College men’s basketball teammates shared on Saturday as they spoke for the school’s current men’s and women’s basketball teams and coaches as part of the weekend’s homecoming celebration.
Long before Harris began a legendary professional coaching career, including head coaching stints with the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, and before the Roan Mountain-native Smith fielded NCAA Tournament teams at Auburn and Virginia Commonwealth, the two roamed the court as wings and led the Buffs on the hardwood.
Harris came to Milligan from Indiana and graduated in 1959 as the school’s leading scorer, averaging 18 points per game.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, however, the sharp-shooter was joined by a Cloudland Highlander who had been given a chance by coach Duard Walker after two years at Holmes Junior College in Mississippi.
“It’s funny. He and I probably had the least in common of any of the guys,” said Harris, who coached several basketball hall of famers in his 51 years as a coach. “I was from Indiana, he was from the hills of Tennessee. We seemed to be, on the surface, different. Underneath, our personalities were pretty much the same. He was just funnier than I was.”
The homecoming celebration was a big day for the two. Aside from their discussion alongside former Milligan men’s coach Phil Worrell and ex-Buffs star/ Carson-Newman coach Dale Clayton, the two were set to help honor their coach, Duard Walker, during a Saturday evening reception.
Harris also held a signing for his new book “On Point” as part of the school’s Celebrating Milligan Authors event.
For the present Milligan basketball teams, it was a rare opportunity learn about the foundation of basketball at Milligan.
“They were linked together when they were players here,” said Milligan men’s basketball coach Bill Robinson. “It was always Sonny and Del. When you look at old annuals, their pictures were together. To see them both here today was amazing. When we first knew that Del was going to be here, we just asked if he could come and address the team. He’s the one that said, ‘Hey, Sonny’s going to be in town too. How about him?’ We said absolutely. Even at their age now after all of these years, they’re still linked together.”
Harris recalled the first time he met Smith, who tried out for the team in a series of pick-up games.
“He was the best pick-and-roll guy I’d ever played with,” said Harris. “I was a wing player who could play in the back court. My height in those days, I was one of the tallest guys on the team and I played up front. Up until I was a senior in high school I played guard, so I was comfortable in general with the ball.
“He and I played together and came and set a pick and made the roll and, holy cow, nobody knew how to do it. His timing was great. We just never got a chance to use it in games as much because we played wings. He was on the right and I played on the left. We had never talked about that, but that was the first impression I had of him and I was hoping he would come here.”
It was a life-changing decision for Smith. He met his wife, Jan, at the school and earned his degree in education, which would later lead to his coaching career.
“Milligan gave me an opportunity when I really didn’t have any,” Smith said. “I only had one scholarship offer. I had none out of high school except to a junior college in Mississippi. Milligan gave me a shot.
“A man named Steve Lacy helped pay my way. I didn’t have enough money to go to school and wasn’t real well off in Roan Mountain. I got my wife, Jan, out of Milligan. She was a student here. My son went to Milligan and his wife went to Milligan. It has done everything for us. Anytime I can come back or do anything for Milligan, I do because it’s meant so much to me and my family.”
From those early pick-up games, Smith also gained a friend in Harris, and vice versa. They were in each other’s wedding and communicated regularly over the years, working in clinics and spending time together when an opportunity presented itself.
“It’s just one of those things,” Harris said. “You’re fortunate to have friends for 30 or 40 years, but he and I have been friends for 50 years. It’s very special.”
The two players were all-conference after the 1957-58 season, when Smith was a senior and Harris was a junior, taking two of the three wing spots away from Lincoln Memorial University after a big road win that saw the duo upset the fourth-ranked foe.
The key to the game, Smith and Harris combined for all of Milligan’s points except eight in the 76-74 victory, Harris says, or six according to Smith.
“I remember all the way up there,” said Harris. “We always went in cars and he and I always sat in the backseat of the car and I’d tell him how good he is and he’d tell me how good I was.
“We pumped each other up. When we went up there, we were ready to do business. It was great.”
Entering the game, LMU had not lost a home game for two years and their two forwards, including small school All-American Roger Lundy, had taken postseason accolades with Harris.
“On the all-conference team they always pick three guards, three forwards and two centers,” Harris said. “The year before Burton, Lundy and I were allconference when I was a sophomore. The next year, my junior and Sonny’s senior year, Lundy and Burton were still there and I knew only three of us could make it. We wanted to make it. Sonny and Lundy and I made it because we took care of business.”
The game was a big highlight for Smith, but also playing with Harris whom he called a “great, great shooter.”
“The thing that stood out for me was the night we played LMU at LMU and won,” Smith said. “Del and I scored all of the points but six. You can always talk about things you’ve done, but to score all of the points but six in a league game that was one thing.
“The other thing was getting to play with Del. Del was such a smart basketball player and we were running the pick-and-roll with one another before the pick-and-roll was in place. We both could pass the basketball and we became really good friends.”
Both Harris and Smith spoke fondly of their coach, Walker, and the influence he had on them as a coach.
For Harris, it was Walker’s passion and respect for players on the court that stood out.
“As far as the effect as anybody’s going to have on someone as a coach, it’s really not about the X’s and O’s,” said Harris, who won over 500 games as an NBA head coach. “Coach Walker was not a guy that was going to write books about basketball, but he was a guy that would give you the real base it would take to be a good coach, which was the willingess and ability to care about others and show it. He was a real good team builder in that regard and showed us how you should be to others. That’s the real heart of coaching.”
Smith agreed, adding that Walker’s conditioning was an instrumental facet in his collegiate coaching.
“The thing he did for me that helped me as a coach later on, he believed in conditioning first,” Smith said. “He was unbelievable in conditioning athletes. You could run all day if you played for him because he’d run you to death.
“I took that on in my coaching career. I always played seven or eight guys. You can’t play seven or eight guys unless you’ve got great conditioning. I learned that from Coach Walker — you get your players conditioned physically and mentally.
“The mental thing was love for his players. He had that for sure. I don’t think I ever had a player be disrespectful in practice or use a bad word because they had so much respect for Coach Walker. That was a learning thing for me.”
One little known fact about Harris and Smith, it was at Milligan where the two really got their first coaching experience at the collegiate level.
“When I came here we started up a JV team when Sonny was a senior and I was a junior, and coach made us the coaches,” Harris recalled. “We would go and coach the JV in the preliminary game, then play in the varsity games. Sonny and I started our coaching right here at Milligan College.”
Harris, looking to become a pastor, made the decision to go to graduate school once he graduated from Milligan, and through his connections locally landed a job at King Springs Elementary School — where he became basketball coach.
“I came down and we had this teriffic team,” Harris said. “We scored over 100 points four different times in six-minute quarters. That would be like an NBA team scoring 100 at halftime. And with no three-point line. We beat everybody around here and even ended up playing one game against a freshman team and against a junior varsity team. We lost both of them, but we competed.”
Harris’ team played a preliminary game before an East Tennessee State contest on Brooks Gymnasium, and had its games reported in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.
“It was a big deal,” said Harris. “We were the only elementary school that ever got written up.”
From there, Harris coached high school hoops in Indiana and landed the head coaching job at Earlham College, where he capped his record with three consecutive conference championships.
From there it was an opportunity coaching summer ball in Puerto Rico alongside several professional coaches. That, along with his knowledge in the game as evidenced by magazine articles and books, led to an offer with the ABA’s Utah Stars and into the NBA, where in 1980-81 — his second season as head coach — he took the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals.
After coaching Houston, Milwaukee and the Lakers, Harris capped his professional career as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets.
He was voted Top Assistant Coach in the NBA three of four years on the bench by the league’s general managers while in Dallas.
He has coached everyone from Moses Malone to Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — over a dozen players who have been or will be enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Today he serves as general manager of Mavericks’ NBDL squad Texas Legends.
For Smith, a high school teaching and coaching career followed Milligan with stints in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky.
He later took college assistant jobs at William & Mary, Pepperdine and Louisville before becoming Don DeVoe’s righthand man at Virginia Tech.
After the Hokies earned an NCAA Tournament berth in 1976, Smith became head coach at East Tennessee State and was offered the position at Auburn after guiding the Bucs to a co-Ohio Valley Conference championship.
At Auburn, he won an SEC Championship in 1985 and coached the likes of NBA stars Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. From there it was a run at Virginia Commonwealth, where he led the Rams to an NCAA Tournament berth in 1996.
Now Smith, retired, works as a television and radio analyst throughout the Southeast.
In November, Smith will be part of the first class inducted into the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame. “I’ve always felt a lot of affection for my home area,” Smith said. “Somebody called the other day. I’m in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, been all over the world. Someone told me I was going to be in the Carter County Hall of Fame. I told whomever I talked to, this is one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received even though I’m in two or three state hall of fames.
“That meant so much to me because people in my home area have recognized me. That was a big thing for me. I can’t be here because I’m doing an ESPN basketball game that night. That made me sick right there.”
Smith hasn’t forgotten about Roan Mountain and calls the honor of having Cloudland High School’s gymnasium named after him one of the biggest thrills in his life.
“I’ve had a lot of thrills in coaching,” Smith said. “One of the first ones, as an assistant coach (at Virginia Tech), I was standing in Madison Square Garden on midcourt and my team had just won the NIT. I thought, this is really something for a guy from Roan Mountain to be able to do. On St. Patrick’s Day, we beat Notre Dame.
“The other one, I had been here awhile and they put me in the Northeast Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. That was another big one. I always wanted the local people to feel good about me. Then, coaching at East Tennessee State. I would’ve never left East Tennessee State had it not been for an SEC coaching job.
“The other thing was when they named the gym after me in Roan Mountain. They had a lot of people they could have done that for, because they’d had coaches that had won big. That was one of the biggest thrills.”
Smith credited his younger brother, Jim, for his help at home with his parents, allowing him to travel the country and work as a coach.
“One thing that helped me get to where I wanted to go was my brother Jim,” Smith added. “He’s given up everything to stay home and take care of my mother and father while I was traveling all around the country and working. My brother had a lot to do with that. He sacrificed everything and stayed there for my mother, who was real sick, and my dad, who later was. I’m always thankful for that.”
Smith was also appreciative of Milligan and what the school has meant to him. Without Milligan, his life would be much different.
“Milligan is special,” he added. “You don’t go here and not take a life molding situation away from here. It was a great thing for Milligan to find me or me find Milligan.”
On Saturday, it was great for Milligan to rediscover Sonny and Del.
NOTE: For more information on Harris’ new book “On Point,” visit its website online at www.On-PointLifeTeam.com.
MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs. To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.