In the winter of 1965-66, the old Cincinnati Royals of the National Basketball Association persuaded the Ford Motor Co. to donate an automobile as the MVP prize for the league's 16th annual All-Star Game, to be played Jan. 11 in the Cincinnati Gardens. Good public relations, the Royals suggested. And Ford agreed with them.
Royals General Manager Pepper Wilson suggested a Mustang, but somebody at Ford thought that All-Stars the size and stature of Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Bill Russell rated wheels not just good, but grand. So Ford offered a car as sleek and as powerful as the players the NBA would be showcasing—a seven-liter Galaxie 500 convertible with a 428-cubic-inch engine. The car retailed for nearly $4,000, which, allowing for inflation, would be just about $12,000 today. But forget about matching it; Ford hasn't made a car as powerful since.
It was the first time a prize of such value was offered in an All-Star Game, and there was some criticism around the league that the Royals were subverting the true team purpose of the sport and promoting individual play for personal gain. But the Royals ignored the criticism and plunged ahead, convinced that Wilt or Willis or Bill would enjoy this tribute to his playing skill. However, Chamberlain didn't win the car. Nor did Reed, nor Russell. Nor did Nate Thurmond, nor Oscar Robertson nor Jerry Lucas, nor John Havlicek, nor Rick Barry. Adrian Smith won it.
And he still has it, tucked away in a Cincinnati garage, looking just as it did the day Ford delivered it. Everything on it is cherry except the tires, and it has been driven only 44,000 miles in the last 16 years.
Smith was a sharpshooting guard who had been one of Adolph Rupp's famous "Fiddlin' Five" at Kentucky and was Robertson's backcourt mate with the Royals for most of his 11-season pro career. The only time he played in an All-Star Game was in 1966, and if bets had been placed on who would be named MVP, he would have been the longest of long shots. Smith's East teammates included Robertson, Hal Greer of Philadelphia and Sam Jones of Boston as the other guards, Havlicek as a swing man, and the Royals' Lucas, Philadelphia's Chet Walker, New York's Reed, Philadelphia's Chamberlain and Boston's Russell. There was speculation before game time that East Coach Red Auerbach would play Russell as a forward and Chamberlain at center, putting the two dominant big men of their day into the game at the same time.
Smith was confident he wouldn't play early or much. The East was expected to win and had, in fact, won the last three East-West contests. But, for him, the game took an unexpected turn. When Jerry West, perhaps the West's most important player, went out early with an eye injury, Auerbach let everyone on his squad have as much playing time as possible. Smith got his chance much earlier than expected, and he made the most of it.
There was a partisan crowd of 13,658 in the Gardens that night. Playing part of the first quarter and all of the second, Smith scored 12 points in the first half, mostly on long jump shots. He added 12 points in 10 minutes of the second half, finishing with a team-high 24 on 9-of-18 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line. He had three assists and an amazing eight rebounds, only two fewer than Russell and one fewer than Chamberlain in almost the same playing time.
The final score was 137-94 in favor of the East, the most one-sided NBA All-Star Game in history. The MVP voting was the same kind of runaway—37‚Öì votes for Smith as against 3‚Öì for the first runner-up, Chamberlain.
"Lordy," said Smith, a self-styled country boy, "I can't believe it's happened to me."
Given his choice of colors for the Galaxie, Smith picked a combination of silver blue with a dark blue top and navy blue upholstery. For a while, he and his wife used the convertible as their regular car, but as smaller cars gained popularity, it drew more attention than either of the Smiths wanted, so into the garage it went. Now, it comes out only occasionally when Smith and his family go visiting, or on Sunday drives. "I don't even like taking it out in the rain," Smith says.
"My son Tyler was only six months old when I won it. One of the reasons I kept it was because I thought it might be a good thing for him to have later on." Tyler is now 17, but like his mother and father, he only drives the car once in a while.
Smith has always been impressed by its power. "I had to pick up my wife and son in Mayfield, Kentucky once," he says, "and I just let it out on the turnpike to see what it would do. It got past 120 in no time. It was so fast I got scared."
Smith, now a sales and contract representative for Cincinnati's Central Trust Bank, has often thought about selling the Galaxie, but always concluded he didn't need the money badly enough to part with what the car stood for.
"I guess maybe some guys who made more money would have sold it in a week," says Smith. "But playing basketball was all I ever wanted to do. I'd like to play today. I've wanted to be a kid all my life, and I'm not going to change. The car is an important part of that feeling. I have pride in it. I know I'll never have an opportunity to win something like that again."