Dwight Smith is pushing 90 years old and is blind in one eye but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a gold-medal-winning basketball player.
Dwight Smith is an 88-year-old national gold medal basketball champ and although he is blind in one eye, he has a deadly three-point shot and a clear understanding that slam dunks can happen both on and off the court.
“He is an avid player and a sharp shooter. He can shoot from any position,” says friend, Bob Brumberger, 78. “But his sportsmanship is what really stands out. Off the court he is very modest and a gentleman through and through. And you find that on the court, too. He is beloved by all of those who play with him or against him.”
Brumberger is a member of the “Lunch Bunch,” a group of about 30 older men who play basketball from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Spectrum Fitness Club on Monterrey Boulevard. They split into two groups and play half-court ball, the 70 and 80 year olds on one end and the 40, 50 and 60 year olds on the other. While Brumberger is a decade younger than his friend, Smith, who he nicknamed “D,” he is an equal rival on the court.
“He developed a passion for the game as a young player and has really perfected the game in his later years,” says Brumberger. “He caught a finger in his eye awhile back when he was being guarded by someone who accidentally poked him in the eye. He lost sight in it, but that didn’t slow him down. With one eye and a guy who is pushing 90 years old, he can hold his own in a group with guys nearly half his age.”
Smith was born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His basketball career began and ended in high school, when he won the state championship, graduated and married his high school sweetheart, Ivonia, who everyone called “Tootsie.” She was a
baton-twirling majorette and he was the star of his basketball team; both were voted most popular.
“His nickname was ‘Speedy’ in high school because he was so good at basketball,” says daughter, Karen Arbour. “For my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, we had a surprise party and had a baton made for my mom and gave him a jersey with ‘Speedy’ on it.”
When Smith and Ivonia graduated high school, they immediately started a family. Their son Terry was born when they were 19 and Karen was born seven years later. Smith worked construction and traveled throughout the Southwest to build his career and provide for his young family. The grind left little time for ball.
“The years go fast when you’re working and raising a family,” says Smith. “You forget about basketball when you’re trying to put food on the table.”
In 1957, Smith moved his family to Baton Rouge and continued to work in the construction industry. Ten years later, he opened Industrial Enterprises, which specializes in building roads in subdivisions, airports and cities. During that time, his friend Joseph Easley started Superior Steel. They stayed in touch as they grew their companies and Smith and his wife finished raising their children.
In 1993, when Easley and Smith were both playing racquetball at Spectrum, Easley invited his friend to play basketball with him.
“I had kept inviting him to play and he kept saying no,” says Easley, 81. “And I told him, ‘Play one time and if you don’t like it, don’t come back.’” Smith was 63 years old and had not held a basketball or set foot on a court since he was 18 years old.
“One day it was raining and I had nothing to do so I decided to go and watch, and sure enough there were a bunch of old men on the basketball court,” Smith says. “I couldn’t dribble and I couldn’t shoot but I could still play defense.”
Smith began playing every day, understanding that he had to practice to relearn all of the skills.
“I remembered the rhythm of it,” he says. “But you know how people say you never forget how to ride a bicycle? Well if you haven’t ridden a bike for 43 years, you’re not going to ride it again like you did 43 years earlier.” So he practiced every day, taking shot after shot, perfecting his skills.
“He pushed harder than all of us and he has been playing ever since,” says Easley. “He is gifted and in good health—and very determined.”
“He is an avid player and a sharp shooter. But his sportsmanship is what really stands out. Off the court he is very modest and a gentleman through and through. And you find that on the court, too.”
—Bob Brumberger, on his friend and teammate Dwight Smith
Eventually Easley introduced him to the Senior Olympics basketball team, which Smith has been playing for ever since. During his career, he played against teams with members his own age and often against younger teams, and faced some adversity, including losing vision in his left eye. Despite near perfect vision in his right eye, the eye injury impacted his peripheral vision but did not bench the player.
“It set him back about six weeks,” says Easley. “But after that, he was back out there, shooting those three-pointers again. Basketball is about shooting. And he practices that shooting.”
Smith has won bronze and silver medals during his career with the National Senior Olympics, which plays games in different cities across the country every two years. In June, he won his first gold medal in Birmingham in the 85 and older age group with his team the LARKS. The team name represents both Louisiana (LA) and Arkansas (ARK), where its members live. Smith is from Baton Rouge, team member Don Wynn is from Natchitoches and the other two team members are from Arkansas.
Basketball has also bonded Smith and his son Terry, who now plays with his dad and competes in the younger age group of the Senior Olympics.
“We were the first father-son combo to play in the National Senior Olympics,” says Smith. “I worked so much and all of a sudden my children were grown so I feel like the Lord gave us a second chance to get to know each other.”
Terry, who also works with his father, cherishes their time both on and off the court.
“I get to see him all the time,” he says. “What a gift. He is an incredible dad. So relaxed and laid back because of this eternal perspective he has on life. He has always used his talents, gifts and abilities for good, and he is such a peaceful person because he knows and believes in what the future holds.”
Last year, Smith’s wife of nearly 70 years passed away. Smith spends most days working at Industrial Enterprises with his children, Terry and Karen, and three of his five grandchildren. Three days per week, he goes to the gym during the day, lifts weights and plays basketball with his Lunch Bunch friends. He is tall and lean, with long arms and a warm smile. He speaks softly and smiles often, and friends and family says he is gracious, calm and kind.
“There are no titles in this office,” says Pat Wheat, who has worked for Smith since 1979. “He is so genuine and sincere and humble. He is professionally and personally an inspiration to me.”
His office is filled with handprint school art from his great-grandchildren, framed photos of his family and funny and insightful poems from basketball buddy and writer, Brumberger.
Titled “Honored Teammate,” “Diamond Found” and “Dwight Smith Tribute,” the poems speak of Smith’s talent and integrity both on and off the court.
The second stanza of the “Dwight Smith Tribute” reads:
“His sportsmanship can write the book,
Letting those who foul off the hook.
One shot of his is known to hurt,
Leaving defenders in the dirt.”