Ken Hayes, the old basketball coach at the University of Tulsa, taught hundreds of players over his 42 years. "Who was the best you ever coached?" people in Oklahoma often ask.
There's a story Hayes likes to tell.
"They were having a track meet at the University of Tulsa one afternoon," he starts in, his voice a screechy southern cackle. "Bobby had been playing basketball in sweats all afternoon. He goes over, just in his tennis shoes and his sweats, and high jumps 6-8. Just to jump over it! He just backed up and jumped over a 6-8 bar!
"I can't tell you the best basketball player," Coach Hayes will say, "but there's no doubt the best athlete I was ever, ever associated with was Bobby 'Bingo' Smith."
If you can track down his unlisted number in Akron, and you can get someone to answer the phone, chances are good that the Original Cavalier will be taking a nap.
"He's asleep," Bingo's daughter Monique will say.
Or if you arrive on the porch of their tattered Akron two-story, Monique will disappear downstairs. That's where Bingo's couch and TV are. She will rouse him like a mother does her boy for school, and Bingo will emerge slowly -- khakis, a baggy T-shirt, sleep still stuck in his gaze.
You can hardly blame him. Forty years ago, he was the pride of Memphis, entertaining offers to play pro baseball and college football. Twenty-five years ago, they hung his Cavaliers jersey in the old Richfield Coliseum. But since 1999, Bingo has nearly died twice, once from a failing heart and once from a stroke. Both ailments left him in comas for days. Both times his family began making funeral arrangements.
There are other reasons he's down there on that couch. Hell, it's winter -- that's one good reason. You can't golf in the winter, and anyone who knows Bingo -- even the new, tired Bingo -- knows that if you want to find him, the golf course is a safe place to start.
He's also been out of work for years. And after a divorce from his high school sweetheart, some failed business ventures, and years of piling medical bills, he's not sitting on former-sports-star dollars.
So he naps downstairs at his daughter's place. It's a gray house with a big porch on a crowded block of South Balch Street, the part that reaches between the nice and not-so-nice parts of Akron. He's only lived there six months or so. Before that, Bingo lived with his son, Andre -- a former hoops star at Firestone High and Xavier University. Bingo says Andre could have played professionally, maybe in Europe. But after college, he came back to care for his dad.
Andre is facing murder charges now. They say he killed his friend, a Russian teenager who lived in his apartment complex. The guy's mom found her son slumped in his living-room chair, his face destroyed. Police eventually pinned Andre.
"He ain't done nothing," Bingo says, sitting at the edge of a worn-out gray couch. His black, curly locks try to outmuscle some stray strands of gray. His freckled skin is still smooth.
Doctors have installed a pacemaker for his rehabbed heart. He has learned to walk and talk again. He takes a handful of pills each day. He is trying to be young.
But after an almost-deadly stroke, his words still run together in a mess. He shuffles his feet slowly when he comes to put your tiny hand in his. He looks a good decade older than his 59 years.
When you were once as young as Bingo Smith was, aging backwards is a hell of a bar to leap.
He arrived at training camp a little soft, a little round -- golf shape isn't NBA shape. It was the summer of 1970, and a businessman named Nick Mileti had recently started a professional basketball team in Cleveland. That May, the new team had a chance to pluck players from the rest of the NBA rosters. Teams around the league were forced to leave a handful of their players unprotected -- available for the new Cavs to draft.
Cleveland picked 11 of them. The Original Cavaliers.
Bingo was on the golf course when he heard the bad news. After Tulsa, he had signed with the San Diego Rockets and played his rookie season there. He and his high school sweetheart, Mary, bought a house. In San Diego, you could play golf all year, and Bingo was set to be a starter in his second season with the Rockets. It was going to be a very good year.
Mary called the golf course, and Bingo rushed home to phone the team. "We took a gamble," the Rockets told him, "and we lost." San Diego didn't think the Cavaliers would draft Bingo, but they did. He and Mary were moving to Cleveland.
Bingo came to camp a little soft because he was always a little soft. He wasn't lazy. He would bust ass up and down the floor, in games and in practice. In college, he could play pickup for hours. But he didn't retreat to the weight room or go back to his apartment to do sit-ups on the family room floor. "I can remember him having a little belly," Ron Carson, his old teammate at Tulsa, says.
Nobody really saw the Cavaliers play that first year, and praise Naismith for that. Those who did go out to the old Cleveland Arena on Euclid -- there were usually only a couple thousand or so -- saw a miserable lot. The team started the 1970 season with 15 straight losses.
But the fans who went saw Bingo. Six-foot-six, a puffy Afro, an easy, quiet smile. They saw a man capable of flying high, a Dr. J.-like glider who chose not to glide, preferring to hoist up jumpers from any plot of shiny hardwood he could find.
Fifteen points a game that year, and again the next. A few years later, he scored 16 points a game, mostly from those floating jump shots. It could have been more. Says Bill Nichols, the now-retired Plain Dealer reporter who covered the Cavs back then: "If he would have had gone to the hoop more often, he could have scored 20."
1975 started the same as the years before. Bingo dropped in jumpers, and the Cavs fumbled toward yet another losing season. But then they made a trade, brought in an old veteran, a winner: Nate Thurmond. The Miracle of Richfield was born there.
Thurmond was the boss, the ringleader. Jim Chones and Campy Russell got to the hoop, scoring 15 a game each. And Bingo kept hoisting, quiet and smooth. He was the Original Cavalier, the only one left. But he was never one to tell people what to do. "Bingo's not a leader," Nichols says.
Nobody cared. By late in the season, the fans were showing up at the Coliseum hours before tipoff. They packed Richfield, lingering in the arena bars until after midnight on game nights, drinking to their city's first winner. Man they loved those Cavs -- especially Bingo, the one guy who stuck with Cleveland through all those miserable seasons.
They loved him all the way into the playoffs that year, all the way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Then he reminded them why. It was Game 2 of a series with the Washington Bullets, at the Capital Centre in Maryland. The Cavs would win this series, but on that April night, they had already lost Game 1, and they were down a point in Game 2. Bingo squared up from 27 feet. Two seconds left.
It was the kind of predicament, the kind of shot, that landed Bobby Smith his nickname at Tulsa. The play-by-play announcer there would watch those shots fall gracefully from the heavens, and when they squeezed through the net, he would holler Bin-go!
On this night, his knees were tired and aching; the pain that Miracle season had at times been unbearable. But he had waited five years to go to the playoffs and wasn't going to rest now. He took the ball at the top of the key, pounded a couple of dribbles, and flung it toward the hoop.
It was, Nichols says, "one of the biggest shots in the history of the franchise."
When they tell Bingo stories, they rarely have anything to do with basketball. Golf, track, baseball -- almost always about sports. Almost never about basketball.
Reggie Rucker's is a football story. He was a receiver for the Browns in 1981, the year of the frozen playoff game against the Raiders. Rucker and the rest of the Kardiac Kids tried to pull off yet another miracle, but their season melted away when a last-minute pass -- "Red Right 88" was the now-famous call -- was intercepted in the end zone.
Rucker met Bingo through Austin Carr, another Cavalier, and had scored Bingo tickets to the game. Tickets to one of Cleveland's most infamous sports moments.
They found each other after the game, and Rucker asked how the seats were.
"Hey bro," Bingo told him, flashing that easy smile, "it got too cold for me. I just went out and sat in the car and listened to the game."
Rucker laughs hard when he tells that story, or when he tells any tale from his best days with Bingo. In the late 1970s and through the '80s, Rucker, Carr, and Bingo were like best friends at recess -- always together, always smiling. Bingo taught both of them to golf, and when football and basketball season were over, it's all they did.
They played twice a day when they could, and took trips to golf havens like Pinehurst and Hilton Head. Rucker and Carr refined their games, while Bingo's handicap kept diving. At his best, he says, he carried a two handicap, aided by the fact that he could hammer the ball for miles.
"He'd be smoking a cigarette," Rucker remembers. "He would always be talking as he played. He would just say, 'See there, bro, I'm gonna line this up on the heel, and I'm gonna line it up at the middle of the cup, and if I stroke it, it's going in.'"
It was in those years, after he retired in 1980, that Bingo invested in an airport car-rental business that went broke. A woman in Erie sued him, saying Bingo was the father of her daughter. She said they had an affair years before, during a Cavs trip to Buffalo. Bingo went to jail for not paying child support. He and Mary split up.
But none of those things kept Bingo, Carr, and Rucker from the golf course or from each other.
"When he moved down to Akron and got away from us, it was different," Rucker says of Bingo. "It wasn't for me to question it, but it took a part of us away."
Forty years ago, in the projects of Memphis, if you knew anything about sports, you knew everything about Bobby Smith. He played them all for Melrose High, an all-black school, and he dominated them all.
Ralph Wiley, the late Sports Illustrated writer, once wrote that as a kid he "was hooked on Friday nights, watching Bobby Smith play." He was talking about football, but he could have been talking about anything.
By the end of his senior year, Bingo was a state champ in track and field, was drafted to play baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, received an offer to play football at UCLA, and spurned it all to go play basketball for Coach Hayes.
He didn't know the first damn thing about Tulsa. But all the calls from all the coaches were starting to seriously stress Bingo's mom, so he told her he would just sign with the next guy who called. Soon after, Hayes rang from a Memphis hotel. That night, he took a cab into the ghetto when race riots were beginning to brew across the country. That was enough for the Smith family.
Another man who remembers watching Bingo play is Fred Lester. He now lives in Akron, where he's a reverend at the Akron Bible Church. He was at the church in June of 2000 when he received a call from the church's head pastor.
"I need you to come down here," the pastor told Lester. "There's a guy dying. He used to play for the Cavs. Bingo Smith."
"Man, what?" Lester said. "Bingo Smith?"
Bingo's health had been failing for two years. Bingo has said that years of playing basketball enlarged his heart. Years of drinking and smoking didn't help.
People who know him say Bingo wasn't a hard partyer. In the early years, reporter Nichols used to rely on Bingo for stories on off days. A steadfast husband and dad, he was always home at dinnertime.
But through all of his health troubles, Bingo never quit smoking or drinking. In 1998, his heart failed. Bingo struggled to keep his life together. He couldn't work.
Near the end of his career, Bingo earned about $200,000 a season -- plenty of money, but not set-for-life dollars. Players of his era built a modest pension, but after they retired, most needed jobs.
Bingo wanted to work in basketball, but he didn't have a college degree, so coaching jobs were tough to come by. He broadcasted Cleveland State games for a while, but there's not a lot of coin in calling games no one listens to.
He wound up working in Hudson, at a facility for youth offenders. He was a counselor, and he didn't have much trouble getting the kids' attention. Part of it was his bulky frame; part of it was having the NBA on his résumé.
But mostly they were drawn to stories of Bingo's own troubled adolescence. At 15, he did a short stint in a Memphis detention center for what he calls teenage "gang stuff." He straightened up when a jailhouse counselor told him how good he could be at basketball. He straightened up when he met Mary, and especially during their senior year. That's when they raced down to Mississippi in a Volkswagen Bug and got married in a five-minute court ceremony.
Bingo worked some other jobs with teens after he left Hudson in the mid-'90s. But in 1998, his heart failed, putting him out of work. A year later, he felt ill, so he checked himself into the hospital with pneumonia and more heart problems. He fell into a coma for six days. When he woke, his head kept failing him. His memory would hide and the world was a blur. He lost his driver's license and couldn't even follow a basketball game.
Still, he was alive. Bingo called it his "second chance." A newspaper story called his slow recovery a "true-life buzzer-beater." And in April of 2000, he even made it out to the Cavs' 30th anniversary celebration.
But two months later, a stroke. Another coma. This time for three weeks.
With Bingo near death again, Lester and Reverend Howard Duma, then the Bible Church's head pastor, rushed to Akron City Hospital. When they got there, they found Bingo lifeless and alone. His family had been there; there were greeting cards on the bedside table. The pastors read the cards aloud and prayed. They put their hands on Bingo's giant, quiet body. "It was almost like last rites," Duma remembers. "They had arrangements for a funeral."
After several minutes, they told Bingo goodbye and got ready to leave. They were at the door when they heard a noise coming from the bed. "We turned around," Lester says, "and he woke up." The pastors rushed back to Bingo.
"He didn't know where he was," Duma says. "Was he in heaven or what?"
Bingo couldn't talk -- his voice could push out words, but they were tangled and impossible to decipher. He could write though. There was a piece of paper on the table. He asked the men who they were.
"You have a new doctor," they told him. "Doctor Jesus."
Bingo smiled -- he liked his new doctor. The pastors prayed over him again, and they said their second goodbyes. When they reached the hospital room door, they heard another noise. But this time, they understood what they heard.
"Tomorrow," Bingo said.
The pastors told Bingo they would return the next day, and they would be sure to bring his new doctor with them.
After rising from his nap, Bingo had sunk comfortably into his daughter's couch to talk about the Original Cavs.
But now, as the February sunlight fades, he has moved to the edge, as if he is getting ready to go somewhere. He is there for three reasons:
First, his granddaughter is home. Bingo has four daughters, one son, and five grandchildren, including two-year-old Nicole, who says a lot, but not a lot you can understand. "Come here," he says when Nicole rumbles through the door. Bingo is in the market for a hug. "Lemme see you."
Second, he has a toothache. The medicine is wearing off, and the thing hurts like hell, so he wants to go back down to the basement and his TV.
Third, he does not like the questions that are starting to come. The ones about Andre.
Until Bingo moved in with Monique last year, he and Andre lived together in an apartment on Akron's North Portage Path, a street lined with red brick apartment buildings.
It was in this apartment that Andre met Maxim Dudinov. Dudinov was 18, 11 years younger than his bulky new neighbor. Andre is as tall as his dad, but a thicker 260 pounds. That the two would become friends doesn't seem strange, says James Edwards, Dudinov's stepfather. The Russian teenager, who moved with his mother to the United States when he was four, was known to make fast friends with everyone from fellow teens to 90-year-old widows.
Plus, the men had something in common -- at least according to Andre. Last May, Dudinov split up with his pregnant girlfriend. Andre did not respond to multiple interview requests from Scene, but in December he told the Akron Beacon Journal that he, too, had ended a relationship.
In March of last year, Bingo called the police on a Saturday morning because Andre was talking about killing himself. According to Akron Police reports, Andre told his dad he was going to slash his wrists. When police arrived, they found him atop his five-story building, threatening to throw himself off. They managed to talk him down.
Two months later, on May 10, Andre and his neighbor were both nursing hurting hearts, so they went fishing to distract themselves, Andre claims. When they returned, they watched TV in Dudinov's apartment, then Andre went home.
A day later, when no one had heard from Dudinov, his mother went to check on him. She found him dead. He was sitting in his living room chair, police reports say. His face was a bloody mess, and, according to his stepdad, his favorite ring was missing.
Months passed without an arrest. In December, Edwards, an eye doctor, decided to put up a $25,000 reward. He told police he would include on the fliers a photo of his son's treasured diamond-studded gold ring, the one his parents bought him in Russia the year before.
Edwards says the ring was missing when Dudinov's body was found, so he figured it would be a valuable clue. But police told him not to bother. They already had the ring.
Three weeks later, they arrested Andre Smith. In January, he was indicted on charges of murder, aggravated murder, and tampering with evidence. Detectives and attorneys working the case declined interview requests from Scene. But in the indictment, prosecutors say Andre planned Dudinov's murder and later cleaned and hid the Russian survival knife he had used to bash in his neighbor's face.
Andre pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Kirk Migdal, says the day of the friends' fishing trip was the last time Andre saw Dudinov.
Bingo's old financial advisor, George Hoffman, former owner of the Cleveland Crunch soccer team, says he spoke with Bingo right after Andre went to jail. Even then, Hoffman says, Bingo sounded calm and resolved, as if it were no big deal. Justice would prevail.
But on the edge of the couch, Bingo can't help thinking that his son should be wearing an entirely different uniform than that of the Summit County Jail.
"He came back to take care of me," Bingo says, staring into his daughter's clunky TV set, which is playing Joe Dirt.
"He stayed here for me. He didn't get a chance to live his dream because he was taking care of me."
One of the nicest things about Monique's house is that it's close to the Balch Street gym. The gym, which looks like an old schoolhouse, is only a block up the street, so Bingo can walk to rehab.
This is important for his hands, especially his left one. The middle of it, near the knuckles, sinks in like a ladle, and he has trouble bending his fingers.
Fixing this, along with regaining strength in the rest of his body, is high among Bingo's priorities. For one, the bum hand makes hitting a golf ball a mighty proposition. Bingo began playing more regularly last summer and was shooting in the 80s and 90s. This is a remarkable improvement from the time Pastor Duma played with him, not long after Bingo awoke from his coma. "He went to swing and he couldn't hit the ball," Duma says. "It was really a strange thing."
But Bingo wants to be great again, back down in the low 70s, taking money from his cronies at the Tire Town Golf Club, showing off at all those charity tournaments around town. "It's gonna get there," he says. "I know it's coming."
The house's proximity to his gym is also important because Bingo still doesn't drive. He hopes to get his driver's license back soon. His old Cadillac is in the backyard, waiting for him to climb in.
When he gets that license -- that's when everything's going to change, he says. He'll drive to the course himself, instead of asking a buddy to pick him up or his daughter to drop him off. He'll get out and get a job too. "I was hoping I would get a call from the Cavs," he says.
He'd kill to work for his old team. Doing what? Doing anything. Community relations. Player development. Campy Russell runs camps for kids. Maybe Bingo could help with that. "Whatever they need," he says. "It don't matter."
"For a guy who has his uniform hanging in the rafters in Gund Arena, let's get this guy a chance," says Rucker. "He deserves it. He's never asked anyone for anything, and he's had some tough times."
They moved Bingo's old No. 7 from Richfield to Gund, where it now hangs with Thurmond and Carr and the others.
Bingo doesn't get out there much, not unless friends want to go, or if the Cavs ask him to walk out at halftime and wave to the crowd. He was there in January for Birth of a Franchise Night. He and some of the Originals put on saggy Cavs shirts and walked to half-court and back.
After the ceremony, the Original Cavs were shown through a tunnel, back to where the premium ticketholders get free beer and rack of lamb. Fans stopped them for autographs and pictures. As halftime neared its end, the other old Cavs were saying something about heading back to the hotel, when the sixth or seventh fan came up to Bingo.
"I was a senior in high school your first year in Cleveland," the fan said. "I still remember it."
"It's good to see you're all healthy," another fan told him.
Bingo signed a couple of autographs, but mostly he just shook hands and smiled an easy, quiet smile. He told one woman how soft her hands were. Another fan wanted to know if he still listened to tapes of those old games. He doesn't, he said. He gave them away years ago.
Another 10 minutes went by. The game was starting. The rest of the old players had long disappeared, shuffling down the tunnel and into the dark. But the Original Cavalier stuck around, just to make sure that everyone went home happy.