Bobby “Bingo” Smith was born in Memphis, TN and attended Tulsa University. When Smith first joined the team in 1965, the team had three Bobbys and confused coach Len Morton pulled the name Bingo out of the air and from that day on Robert Smith became “Bingo” Smith. Smith would go on to score over 10,000 career points at Tulsa, winning the Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year award on the way to a 19-8 record.
“Bingo” was the sixth overall selection in the 1969 draft by the San Diego Rockets, who would eventually relocate to Houston four seasons later. The Rockets opted to leave Smith unprotected in the 1970 expansion draft and Cleveland Cavaliers’ Coach Bill Fitch plucked the 6’5″ shooting guard / small forward off of the San Diego Clippers roster. Fitch knew what he was doing, as Smith averaged over 15 points per game four of the next five seasons. Unfortunately for the Cavs it didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the team posted a 15-67 record it’s first season.
The silver lining to playing on a team that is the doormat of the league is that you received plenty of high draft choices. Especially in the days prior to when the NBA’s draft lottery system was implemented. The Cavs added high caliber talent, much the same as they have done recently, after the defection of LeBron James to the Miami Heat. Draft choices Austin Carr, Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Dick Snyder, combined with a trade for Akron, OH native and Hall of Fame Center Nate Thurmond, brought the Cavs to respectability in 1975. That year the under dog Cavs went 49–33 record and won their very first Central Division title. Fitch received the league’s Coach of the Year award for transforming a 15 win team into a division winner in just four seasons.
This is where the real story just begins. In 1975 there was a magical presence that hung over the Richfield Coliseum and the team. Late in the season, as the Cavs were battling to edge the Washington Bullets for the division crown, fans were becoming obsessed with the team. They were showing up hours before the game and staying in the coliseum bar to well after midnight, toasting the team’s success after all of those hard years. Coming down the stretch, Smith and other Cavs, seemed unbeatable as they would pull games out, often on the last shot of the game. To the frustration of the Bullets, the Cavs would win the division on the last night of the season by a one game margin.
The Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Washington Bullets, was to be start at the Capital Centre in Maryland. It promised to be a battle to the death, as the Bullets were already angry and embarrassed that they had lost the division to this “expansion team”. The Cavs lost game one, and they were down by a single point in Game 2 with just two seconds left. “Bingo” Smith squared up from 27 feet and launched one of his patented rainbows from Heaven. The net curled back up towards the rim as the shot swished at the buzzer to secure the 80-79 victory, giving him 17 points for the game. The miracle Cavs had tied the series and were returning to Richfield where a throng of rabid Cavs fans would lend their energy and support.
This was one of the most important shots in franchise history as it captured the very first playoff victory for the franchise. The last second heroics swung the momentum and propelled the Cavaliers past the Bullets in a toughly fought seven game series, as Smith made one pressure shot after another. During the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, the team lost Center Jim Chones to a broken foot and eventually lost in six games. Announcer Joe Tait, who has seen it all, as far as the Cavs are concerned, has repeatedly said that had Chones not been injured, the Cavs would have gone all the way.
Smith helped guide the Cavaliers to the playoffs two more times as Cleveland won 43 games in both of the 1976–77 and 1977–78 but would suffer an early exit in the playoffs. After a 30–52 season in 1978–79, Fitch resigned as head coach. The following year, the team traded “Bingo” back to San Diego, this time to finish his career with the San Diego Clippers. Interestingly, this was the season that the league introduced the three point line to the game. Had this been done sooner, it would have added hundreds of points to “Bingo’s” final tally. Regardless, Smith’s 10 year Cavs’ career ended with him ranking 4th in points scored, 11th in assists, 7th in rebounds, and 3rd in games played, as well as ranking in the top ten for FG’s made, FG’s attempted, games played and minutes played. He finishes his Cavs tenure averaging 12.6 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per gam and, 2.0 assists per game.
“Bingo” will be remembered for his shooting range which began a couple giant steps inside mid-court, and he his fearlessness about taking the big shot. My most lasting memories of this original Cavs member was that of Hall of Fame announcer Joe Tait punctuating Smith’s long scores vocally, “Bing-goooo!” Bingo Smith was recognized by the Cavaliers organization by retiring his number 7 on December 4th, 1979. It is just one of only six players in team history to have his uniform hanging from the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena. In 2010, he was named to the Cavs 40th anniversary team by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Smith was also enshrined into the Tulsa University Hall of Fame in 1984.