By Randy York
Nebraska basketball fans remember Dave Hoppen and Brian Carr, Eric Williams and Stan Cloudy, Bill Jackman and Anthony White. They remember Curtis Moore and more players who competed on NIT teams in 1983-84 and 1984-85. One name, however, will emerge Saturday from that same fleet of players when Nebraska sophomore Terran Petteway pays a special tribute to the memory of Ronnie Smith, a 6-foot-10 center from Galveston, Texas, by way of Henderson County Junior College in Athens, Texas.
The Huskers unveiled throwback uniforms for Legends Weekend that will honor the 1911-12 unbeaten Husker team that won the Missouri Valley Conference with an 8-0 record. Petteway is switching from his usual No. 5 to No. 44 to pay homage to Smith, who was killed as a law enforcement officer on Dec. 17, 2011, while responding to a fight call.
Smith played for Moe Iba at Nebraska on two teams that qualified for the National Invitation Tournament. The ’83-84 Husker team beat Creighton in Omaha in the NIT, then lost to Xavier, 58-57, in a game I remember covering in Cincinnati because Nebraska basketball fans were still mourning the death of Jack Moore, the Huskers’ legendary guard.
Ronnie Smith: Basketball Player, Family Man, Role Model
Ronnie Smith was not a star player at Nebraska but he was a superstar human being. Read this obituary and you’ll understand why Petteway, the Big Ten Conference’s leading scorer and a native of Texas himself, wanted to do something special for a former Husker who went on to play 15 years of professional basketball in South America and Europe.
I want to thank Shamus McKnight, Nebraska’s associate media relations director for men’s basketball, for sharpening my memory of Ronnie Smith, a player that Iba could not find one summer after recruiting him. Projected to be the Huskers’ starting power forward, Smith was not AWOL. But he was somewhat of a missing person through no fault of his own.
I remember writing a column in the Lincoln Journal-Star about Smith becoming a longshoreman. He was loading ships on the wharfs when Hurricane Alicia hit his hometown of Galveston, which also happens to be the hometown of Petteway, who found his way to Lincoln three decades later.
Former Husker Forward Survived on a Deserted Island
“It was like being on a deserted island struggling for survival,” the late Ronnie Smith told me about his hurricane experience. “All the telephone lines were down. They weren’t letting anyone on or off the island. There were no lights, no electricity. Windows were broken out. If you were on the streets after 8 o’clock, the National Guard threw you in jail. They didn’t want any vandalism or loitering. It was unbelievable.”
Smith’s disappearance was equally frustrating for Iba, who wondered if his recruit and family were okay. Most people didn’t communicate for a week-and-a-half. Iba wired Smith a letter, but he didn’t receive it until three days after the storm. Two days later, Smith found a working telephone to relay the good news that he was fine, his family was fine and he’d be in Lincoln right on time.
I offer up an interesting footnote to the man that Petteway will honor Saturday against Northwestern. Actually, it’s more like a “You’re not going to believe this” kind of story. Ronnie Smith is, perhaps. the most unusual recruiting story I’ve ever written. Why? Because he did not play on an organized basketball team during his junior and senior years at Ball High School in Galveston. He did not play his first year out of high school either.
Petteway’s Parents Requested Way to Honor a Friend
But an amazing thing happened on Smith’s way to obscurity. He grew 4½ inches after someone handed him his high school diploma. Someone also talked him off the courts of neighborhood playgrounds and into a junior college basketball scholarship. Iba discovered Smith, recruited him and then coached him at Nebraska. When Nebraska’s head couldn’t could not find his recruit that summer, imagine what Galveston prep coaches were thinking. They never did find him because they never knew he was around.
We finish with the most interesting twist about the No. 44 jersey that Petteway will wear Saturday afternoon at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The late Ronnie Smith was a long-time family friend of Terran’s parents, Terry and Joetta. Petteway’s family asked Ronnie’s widow if Terran could honor the former Husker by wearing his jersey during Legends Weekend. Because Petteway will wear No. 44, junior teammate Kye Kurkowski will switch to No. 55 for Saturday’s game.
Now you know the rest of the story.
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Voices from Husker Nation
What an awesome idea. One of the great tragedies of my law enforcement career was losing a fellow officer in the line of duty. Even more so, the world lost a good man. I was the chief deputy of the Sheriff’s office where Ronnie Smith worked, and I will never forget the events of that dreadful night. Ever since that night I have kept close ties on his wife and daughters. They are very special to me and always will be. I have always looked for ways to honor Ronnie’s memory and someone wearing his number is an awesome idea. I can tell you that the day of this game, I will be wearing number 44 on my uniform. Way to go Nebraska! What a class act!! What a team!!! Larry Mooney, McDonough, Georgia
I’m Ronnie Smith’s older sister, and I just want to thank Nebraska’s basketball team and Terran Petteway for thinking of my brother. I wish the Cornhuskers the very best of luck on Saturday in the game against Northwestern. It will mean so much to us to see the video and the photos that honor Ronnie in such a special way. God bless you all. Yvonne Thomas, Galveston, Texas
I want to thank everyone for this special tribute to one of the most talented and very special people I have ever known. I have known Ronnie for 50 years, and he was a very beautiful person. I taught him almost every basketball move he had and taught him to fight for everything he wanted. Together, two-on-two, we never lost a basketball game. I was two years older than Ronnie. I was his best friend and sometimes his dad. As his older brother, I will always keep Ronnie alive in my heart. Love you guys and thank you, Terran Petteway, for this wonderful moment. God bless. Neal Smith, Houston, Texas
I’m a former Butts County Sheriff’s Deputy, and Ronnie Smith was my friend. His call sign was 643. Mine was 610. His Georgia license tag was 610, plain and simple, because he was 6 feet and 10 inches tall. When Ronnie was getting ready to graduate from training academy, I was mortified that I could lose my call sign to him. I shouldn’t have been worried because he got 643, but every time we greeted each other, it was a boisterous 610 for both of us. I will never forget what happened to Ronnie before his death on that particular call that took his life. A few months earlier, he survived a rollover fire/car/patrol car accident. It’s still a wonder how Ronnie was able to get out of his patrol car before it was engulfed in flames. I miss you, Ronnie, 610!! Rest in Peace, Brother. Clark H. Darden, Lafollette, Tennessee
When Ronnie left Texas to play basketball at Nebraska, he came to our house several times with Harvey Marshall, his teammate and good friend. We were very close to Harvey and thought Ronnie was a great guy, too. Ronnie became a family favorite. He was very funny, and our family still tells Ronnie Smith stories at almost all of our gatherings. Alan Domina, Lincoln, Nebraska