The recruitment of Charles Smith is a part of Georgetown basketball legend: the 6-0 guard was told by John Thompson that he was recruited strictly for defense and he shouldn't expect to start during his career.
For the first 60 games of his career at Georgetown, the script was true to form. Smith averaged eight minutes and three points during the 1985-86 season, with a season high of 11 against Seton Hall. In 1986-87, he started two non-conference games, scored a total of seven points, and was sent back to the bench for what appeared to be the duration of the Hoyas' impressive 25-4 regular season. Smith averaged five points a game, with some promising games in relief but not enough to challenge starters Dwayne Bryant and Mark Tillmon, a pair of high school All-Americans who would likely hold the starting rotation throughout Smith's remaining years at Georgetown.
One game changed everything.
On March 15, 1987, the top seeded and #4-ranked Georgetown Hoyas met Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Southeast Regional. Ohio State was a formidable opponent, led by all-American Dennis Hopson and coming off a 91-77 throttling of Kentucky in the opening round. And a repeat performance looked to be in store, as the Buckeyes were running all over the favored Hoyas in this one. Georgetown trailed by eleven by 11 at the half, and the deficit ballooned to 15 within the first minute of the second half. When Bryant picked up his fourth foul early in the half, Thompson brought Charles Smith in as a last resort. What followed was a stunner.
The five point a game player simply took off. He scored from outside, from inside. A player who most of the Buckeyes had never heard of and whom coach Gary Williams didn't even expect to see play rallied the Hoyas from a 15 point deficit with a amazing 22 point effort.
"You could feel it happening," wrote columnist Dave Kindred in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As good as Ohio State had been - very good, with star forward Dennis Hopson marvelous - you yet saw it happening. Georgetown would win. You saw Ohio State growing smaller, disappearing in the heat. You saw Georgetown dance in the flame, lifted higher by the heat." And Smith was the spark.
In the waning moments of the game, a nervous Thompson told Smith not to shoot. Smith got open and risked life, limb, and maybe his future at Georgetown, but hit the basket that gave the Hoyas the lead for good, 82-79. In the seventh double-digit comeback of a season known as "Reggie & The Miracles", Charles Smith had arrived.
In the off-season, Smith toured with a Big East all-star team in Australia to further develop his skills. The results were better than anticipated--he returned not only as a better player, but the all-star team's leader in scoring, assists and steals. Suddenly, people came to believe in the 160 pound guard.
Smith opened 1987-88 promisingly, with six double figures in his first nine. On Jan. 2, 1988, as the Hoyas fell behind at Miami, Smith picked up the Hoyas and carried them to victory via a 22 point, 8 for 12 shooting effort. For the next year and nine days--34 straight games over two seasons-- Smith scored in double figures.
He seem to save his best games for the road: 20 at DePaul, 21 at Boston College, 28 at Seton Hall. In late January, the Hoyas battled from nine down to take the lead on Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, only to see Washington high school product Sherman Douglas hit a basket with nine seconds to play. The Hoyas were out of time outs and could not set up a play.
As if on cue, CBS' Billy Packer remarked: "Charles Smith will take it all the way!" Smith got the ball in the backcourt, weaved right through an entire Syracuse defense, and proceeded to deposit a finger roll into the basket at the buzzer, 69-68.
Six weeks later, tied in the final seconds versus LSU in the first round of the NCAA's, Smith did it again. He got the inbounds play with three seconds left but couldn't find a teammate with an open look to the basket. He then launched a 30 footer that banked off the glass and gave Georgetown the win, 66-63. For the season, Smith averaged 15.7 points, with 75 assists and 71 steals--all this from a guard who had seen two starts in his first 63 games.
Smith joined Coach Thompson on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, where the team's bitter loss in the semifinals to a Soviet professional team ended the era of U.S. amateurs competing in basketball. Returning to Georgetown six weeks after class had started in the fall of 1988, Smith not only had to catch up in the classroom to graduate in May, but recharge his batteries for the upcoming college season. He accomplished both.
On a team that featured five future NBA players, Charles Smith was nothing less than the dominant scorer for the 1988-89 Hoyas. After returning from the Hoyas' perfunctory Hawaii games, Smith proceeded to score 117 points in a five game Capital Centre homestand. He continued the torrid pace into the thick of the schedule: 35 at Providence, 32 at LSU, 22 at Pitt. In three games of the 1989 Big East tournament, he averaged 22 points a game, shooting 61% from the field and 52% from three point range.
Named Big East Player of the Year and tournament MVP, Smith had led the Hoyas to a 26-4 mark and #2 in the polls, a freight train heading into the 1989 NCAA tournament. At this point, nothing could seem to stop Smith and the Hoyas, but of course, it did.
The Princeton Tigers derailed the mighty express in the first round of the NCAA's in a 50-49 near upset, with Smith held to 2 for 12 shooting in the nightmarish game. Smith recovered with a 34 point effort to get the shell-shocked Hoyas past Notre Dame, 81-74, but injured his ankle and was ineffective in the regional semifinal versus N.C. State. Thompson joked that putting the injured Smith on the court was not unlike like strapping the legendary El Cid to his horse, rallying the troops for one more battle.
The miracles that had blossomed two years ago had run its course in the regional final, where despite Smith's 21 points, Duke built a lead and never relinquished it. Like passing ships, the Duke program was about to assert its place in the NCAA history books, while Georgetown had unknowingly seen its decade of dominance begin to close.
Named a consensus second team All-America, Smith went undrafted by the NBA, but was signed as a free agent by the Boston Celtics in the fall of 1989. Following the fifth game of his second season with the Celtics, Smith was involved in a vehicular homicide when his car struck two Boston University students walking across Commonwealth Avenue late at night. Though judged an tragic accident, the prosecution sought a jail term, and Smith served two and a half years in state prison.
A brief contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves followed in 1996, but his NBA career was over. In the 18 years since Smith joined the NBA, only one other Hoya guard (Allen Iverson) has played in the league since.
Charles Smith's college basketball career took off in ways few could have ever imagined when he sat on the bench in the opening moments of that 1987 NCAA game with Ohio State. The "defensive specialist" who would never expected to start had more than earned himself a place among the all-time greats at Georgetown.