STRATFORD—Growing up in Bridgeport, Chris Smith knew all the greats.
Walt Luckett. Wes Mathews. John Bagley. Just to name a few.
From 1984 to 1988, Smith was a basketball standout at Kolbe Cathedral and was anointed the next great one to come out of the city.
He took his talents to the University of Connecticut and was a key part in building that program’s legendary status in college basketball.
This weekend, Smith, who now calls the Town of Stratford home, is one of five people being honored as a recipient of the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance’s Gold Key Award.
This year’s dinner, the 78th annual one held by the CSWA, is being held Sunday at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
“It means so much,” Smith said. “So many great players have come out of Connecticut and, to be honest, to be recognized with them is really special.”
One of the players Smith looked up to during his own playing days was John Bagley.
Bagley is also being honored this weekend along with St. Thomas More boys prep school basketball coach Jere Quinn, long time NFL assistant coach Chris Palmer and ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen.
“I used to look up to John Bagley,” Smith said. “I grew up with John. We used to play one-on-one basketball with each other.”
Nowadays, Smith joked, he has a vastly different relationship with the former basketball greats of his home city.
“Before I was the young one, with Walter, Wes and John. Now I play golf with them,” he quipped.
Smith might be a golfer these days but his basketball prowess still holds a lot of water in this state.
Smith graduated from Kolbe Cathedral in 1988, leading the Cougars to the 1985 Class M state championship and a runner-up slot in 1987.
When it came time to pick a college, Smith was ready to head to Syracuse to play for the then-Orangemen.
“I was extremely close to going to Syracuse,” Smith admitted. “(Former Syracuse great) Billy Owens and I were really good friends back then. I was close and told my mother that’s where I wanted to go.”
His mother, in so many words, reminded Smith that she and his grandmother had seen every game he had ever played in. That wouldn’t happen if he made the trip to central New York.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to Syracuse,’” Smith said with a laugh.
Instead he went to UConn, where the Chris Smith Legend grew even more.
Playing under UConn coaching legend Jim Calhoun, Smith remains the Huskies’ all-time leading men’s basketball scorer with 2,145 points, averaging 16.9 points per game for his career.
As a sophomore in 1989-90, he was the Big East Tournament MVP, leading the Huskies to the Elite Eight. He was also a first-team All-Big East selection in 1992.
Also on his basketball resume are being a member of the U.S. national team that won a silver medal at the 1990 Goodwill Games and bronze at the FIBA World Championships the same year; being drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1992, and playing with them for three seasons, averaging 5.1 points and 2.8 assists per contest; and he played six more years professionally in the CBA and Europe before retiring in 2000. He was named to the UConn Basketball All-Century Team, as well.
After retiring as a player, Smith did try his hand in coaching, leading his alma mater at Kolbe for six years at one point.
A growing family—Smith has one son graduating college, an 18-year-old daughter and two children, ages 8 and 6—drew him away from the sidelines for a while.
“I’ve got five more years before I can retire,” Smith said, referring to his job as a probation officer. “Then I can see myself getting back into coaching.”
Growing up in neighboring Bridgeport is tough for some young athletes, but Smith’s family always made sure he stayed on the straight-and-narrow path.
His first love was football, but when his mother sent him to Kolbe—which didn’t have a football team—basketball became his number one sport.
“It was all my family to be honest with you,” he said. “I did horseback-riding when I was younger, believe it or not. We always had some type of culture in my family. It can be a tough area to grow up, but I always had my family supporting me.”
There’s no wonder why he returned home to the area—where he is also one of the voices for all of Sacred Heart University’s basketball broadcasts—and settled in Stratford.
“Oh, I love Stratford, man. The people are great,” Smith said. “I’m always down at Paradise Pizza. My kids love that place.”
He’s a Bridgeport legend who calls Stratford home.
On Sunday, as a Gold Key Winner, the state will be reminded just how legendary Chris Smith was during his career.