Dwight Smith, a legendary player at WKU, will have his jersey retired next month.

Dwight Smith was one of the best basketball players I have ever seen.

Many might ask, “Who’s that?”

My candid response: “He would have become the pre-eminent guard in the NBA some 60 years ago. He would have been the Michael Jordan of professional basketball long before Michael Jordan appeared on the scene.

For those unfamiliar with that name, Dwight Smith is a basketball legend at Western Kentucky University. Sadly, he died in a freak car accident in 1967 — just days before he would finish his time at WKU after being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.

He had all the tools for greatness. He was deadly from long range. Playing before the three-point shot became a fixture in basketball, Dwight’s fall-away jumper from 25 feet out was indefensible. Twice he was the No. 1 rebounding guard in college basketball. His defense was tenacious, and he dribbled the basketball so well that the Harlem Globetrotters offered him a contract.

He has been recognized for his greatness before — he’s in the WKU Athletic Hall of Fame (Class of 1995), the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame (2016), the OVC 40th Anniversary Team (1988) and a member of the WKU Basketball All-Century Team named in 2018. Now comes another prestigious honor — on Feb. 4 his No. 35 jersey will be retired by Western Kentucky University. He’s only the 11th person in program history to have that distinction.

Growing up in my hometown of Princeton, Kentucky, I followed his career at Princeton Dotson, the town’s all-Black school that closed after his senior season when the school integrated into the Caldwell County school system.

Dwight played guard, and at 6-foot-4 he was taller than most guards in that era. But it wasn’t his height that defined his basketball skills. He was the consummate player — he could score inside or outside, was a fierce rebounder and tenacious defensive player.

He relished the role of being a team player.

He was the catalyst that took Dotson to the state tournament his senior season. During his three years of varsity play in high school, he averaged 23.3 points a game and scored 2,210 career points. It’s been rightly said that his high school career was one highlight after another. Oh, and he was the school’s valedictorian.

He had jaw-dropping numbers.

In his senior year he had 50 points on the night that his sister, Kay, was crowned Miss Dotson at halftime. He set the record for the Caldwell gym when he had 39 points and 28 rebounds against Todd County.

At Western, his skills were on display to a much-larger audience. In that time period, freshmen were not eligible to play at the varsity level. Dwight was All-OVC three times. He averaged a double-double for his career — 14.6 points and 11 rebounds a game. He was the top rebounding guard in the nation his sophomore and senior seasons and was regarded as one of the best defensive guards in the nation.

He was the 23rd overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft until that fateful Mother’s Day in 1967.

Dwight, his brother, Greg (also a starter on the WKU basketball team) and sister Kay — all students at Western — had gone to Princeton for the weekend in May 1967. Dwight had been invited to attend a press conference that weekend in Nashville to announce Western’s signing of Jim McDaniels. But Dwight believed it was more important to be a part of his church’s festivities and all three wanted to be home for Mother’s Day.

That terrible day

After Dwight and Greg were honored at church on Mother’s Day, the three siblings began the drive back to Bowling Green. The roadway was wet, causing their vehicle to hydroplane 10 miles south of Madisonville and overturn into a rain-swollen ditch. Passersby pulled the car out, but Dwight and Kay had drowned. Greg, although injured, was able to escape through a back door and witnesses were quoted as saying if the car had remained under water another three to four minutes, Greg would have died, too.

Their parents had an uneasy feeling that afternoon, sensing that “something’s not right.”

Their phone rang and a man asked, “Is this the Smith family?”

Henry put the receiver down, turned and looked at his wife, who then passed out. Henry picked up the receiver and was told that authorities believed Dwight and Kay had drowned.

He rushed to the scene, where a crowd had formed. “It was pandemonium,” Henry said. “It said in the papers that they would say, ‘Get up Dwight. Get up Dwight. Don’t be dead, Dwight.’ ”

Abundant tributes

Dwight was the first Black basketball player ever to sign with WKU. Soon, Clem Haskins followed suit. They were at the forefront of integrating college basketball in the southeast. They were often compared to Jackie Robinson and his influence on Major League Baseball.

“We kind of made a commitment to each other,” Haskins said. “We played in the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Game. Dwight had already signed to Western and at that time I signed to go to Louisville. We were good friends, and we made a bond (that) we would go to Western together, so that’s why I traded places.”

Legendary WKU Coach E.A. Diddle had nothing but praise for Dwight. “I followed his high school career closely and talked to everybody in Princeton about him before we signed Dwight. Not once in all those years of recruiting did I ever hear anything except something fine about Dwight. He was the same type at Western. He was articulate, intelligent, friendly and a great basketball player.”

Johnny Oldham, who succeeded Diddle as the head basketball coach going into Dwight’s junior season, said, “This was the saddest tragedy in my entire coaching career. It’s impossible to say enough good things about Dwight. He was the leader of the ballclub, and captain his junior and senior years. He was a tremendous player and I felt he had a great future in pro ranks.

“He was of tremendous character, great basketball ability and a wonderful personality. In my years of association, I’ve never known a finer young man.”

In a Nashville Banner story three months before Dwight’s death, Oldham said this: “Dwight is one of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen — he’s been the glue which has made our defense stick together. He’s one of the 110% guys. Always hustling. Always giving that little extra which divides the mediocre from the star. His aggressiveness is one of his greatest assets. He has as good a pair of hands as I’ve ever seen.”

Oldham provided an astute observation about Dwight’s skills. “Dwight probably was one of the greatest ballhandlers I’ve ever seen and I guarded (Boston Celtics guard) Bob Cousy about 10 times, and he is credited with being a great ballplayer. 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.”

The Courier-Journal wrote, “The death of Dwight Smith and his sister Kay stung a family that went to church together, prayed together and cheered every dribble and rebound at WKU the past four years.” The paper went on to say Dwight and Greg were “a basketball act second to none in the Ohio Valley Conference.”

Haskins, who played nine years in the NBA and was head coach at Minnesota for seven, praised Dwight. “He always ran No. 1 in sprints. I never beat him in one-on-one. He made it very difficult for me to score. He had tremendous ballhandling skills and I couldn’t stop him going to the basket. He could pull up and hit the jumper on the drive.

“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 10-second line against Dwight. It was the same thing with Speedy Duncan.”

While Haskins got most of the headlines during that era, he said of Dwight: “He’s an All-American. The papers or press might not say that, but he’s an All-American.”

Teammate Joe Mac Hill said, “I’ll always remember Dwight as someone to look up to. He was determined to help the other guy first instead of himself.”

The funeral was held in the Caldwell County High School gym, drawing more than 2,000 people — thought to be the largest crowd to ever attend a funeral in Princeton. Among those attending were Diddle, Oldham, Butch Beard and Wes Unseld. The WKU basketball players were pallbearers.

The amazing 1966-67 season

With Dwight at guard and Greg at forward, Western compiled a 25-3 record. But its final loss is one that still stings for WKU fans, especially those connected to the Smith brothers.

That was during the time that only the winners from the four NCAA regionals advanced to the Final Four. Western got so close — and it was a referee who ruined their dreams that year.

Hilltopper fans of that era refer to a late-game official making “the worst call in NCAA tournament history.” In the second-round game against Michigan, Western Kentucky, with a one-point lead, forced a jump ball with seconds left. Greg Smith was called for a foul during the jump and Michigan’s Cazzie Russell made two free throws to win the game by one point. Still pictures show Russell not jumping on the play and then leaning in to make contact with Smith. I’ve never seen a call like that made before or since.

Eastern Kentucky University Coach Jim Baechtold said, “I wondered all season if Western wasn’t the only team capable of toppling UCLA (eventual national champion),” he said, noting WKU’s “press, the way-out shooting and the quick, long passes that got downcourt before the defense.”

A fantastic family

The Smith family is highly esteemed in Princeton. Mention the names of Henry and Pearl Smith and all you heard were positive comments. While Dwight was a great player, brother Greg was quite gifted as well. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1968 draft and was a starting forward for the Bucks when they won the NBA championship in 1970-71. He later played for Houston and ended his career with the Portland Trail Blazers. In eight seasons, he played in 524 games, shooting 48.2% from the field. He amassed 3,249 rebounds. He scored 4,097 points while dishing out 969 assists.

A daughter, Sheila Smith Anderson, was former assistant superintendent of St. Louis (Mo.) Public Schools. She now owns an education consulting group in Paducah.

The youngest son, Tony, moved to Chicago, Ill.

One of Henry Smith’s jobs involved him working in the Caldwell County school system, where he was an inspiration to the students, so much so that when he retired the school superintendent started an annual award in recognition of the impact he had on students.

My wife, Karen, was privileged to get to know Henry and Pearl Smith in a very personal way. In her job as a home health R.N., she went into their home to care for them on a regular basis, and as a result, was considered to be part of their family. Pearl would often say that Karen had “the healing touch.” Henry passed away in 2008 and Pearl in 2011.

Prior to their deaths, Greg and his wife would visit every year from Portland, and I always made a point to interview him for our newspaper. He and I shared the same sentiment on retirement. After his professional basketball career ended, he worked for the Salem Radio Network. He retired, but soon went back to the Salem organization on a part-time basis. He told me, “You can only play so much golf and do so much yard work.”

Kudos to Western Kentucky University for retiring Dwight’s jersey next month. It will be a constant reminder of one of the nation’s best players that the rest of the world didn’t get to see.