Ron "Itchy" Smith played guard for Camden High School, graduating in 1960. He scored 1,276 points over three seasons and led Camden to consecutive Group 4 basketball titles in 1959 and '60. The Purple Avalanche, coached by Tony Alfano, constructed a 47-game winning streak behind him and teammates Golden "Sonny" Sunkett and Lenny Hall. The 6-1 guard is widely regarded as South Jersey's best all-time player, a deadly shooter with tremendous skills off the dribble. He starred for four years at Tennessee State and returned to Camden, where he still resides.
Camden High School Purple & Gold Yearbook - 1960
Front: Charles Maddox
- Thomas Ashley - Steven Schley
Camden Courier-Post * October 21, 2006
Camden legend Ron 'Itchy' Smith enters County Hall of Fame
By CELESTE E.
Ron "Itchy" Smith is a basketball legend in Camden. Just don't tell him that.
There are old-timers who still call him the best player in South Jersey history.
Stories of the feats Smith accomplished on the court are still being recounted at reunions, in barber shops, at get-togethers and parties more than 40 years later as if they happened yesterday.
"He could do everything," said Golden "Sonny" Sunkett, Smith's best friend and former Camden teammate. "As great as those guys were at Camden, there has never been a player as good as Itchy."
Smith, 65, has always been a reluctant star who shies away from the spotlight. In fact, he declined to be photographed for this story.
But Camden's shy superstar will receive another honor tonight. Smith, along with 14 others, will be inducted into the Camden County Hall of Fame at the Woodbine Inn in Pennsauken.
To Smith, trophies, plaques and other accolades are appreciated, but not necessary.
Smith, a divorced father, talks more easily about the fact that he'd display the trophies and certificates of the neighborhood kids in his family's store in Camden than he does about any of his honors.
"We're not looking for fame or a claim to anything, but being good people. We were guys that took advantage of being young and having people behind us," said the tall, slim, bespectacled Smith.
Imagine that, an athlete who doesn't want or need the fame. Smith can't remember the last time he attended a basketball game at Camden.
"He was devoid of ego," said Lewis Katz, 64, the former owner and managing partner of the New Jersey Nets who graduated from Camden a year before Smith. "When an athlete like that is devoid of ego, he doesn't showcase himself. He was the most unselfish player on that team. But he was just a good guy with extraordinarily limited ambition and no ego. He's happy living above his candy store. On the court, there was nobody that could get close to him." All-around athlete
Dhamiri Abayomi (who was Donald Council during his Camden days) grew up in Centerville with Smith and Sunkett and played football and ran track with Smith and remembers him as a great all-around athlete.
"There was nobody like him," said Abayomi, who was a year ahead of Smith and Sunkett in school and is in Temple University's Athletic Hall of Fame. "Very humble. He would always just amaze you. You could be playing him and he would do something so fast and so quick, you would say, "Did he really do that?' "
Away from the athletic courts and fields, Smith always stuck close to his friends. When Sunkett's sons Jeremy and Jason were younger and had baseball games, Smith went to every one of them. He's been to every important event in Sunkett's life, his wedding, his induction into Seton Hall's Hall of Fame, you name it. The pair talk on the phone each day.
They grew up in the Centerville section of Camden, some 25 yards away from one another.
Smith and his friends were guided by men like Charles "Doc" Brimm; Aaron Thompson, the former Camden mayor and the uncle of former Camden star Billy Thompson who will also be inducted tonight; Walter Gordon, the former Hatch Junior High principal whose son Bruce is the president of the NAACP; boxer "Jersey Joe" Walcott (whose real name was Arnold Cream, Sr.); Al Bass, who ran a local basketball league; Donald "Ducky" Birts, a former Camden High player; Tony Alfano, their basketball coach at Camden; and Joe Papiano, their football coach at Camden. They were mentors and idols. Bass will also be inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight.
"They kept us so clean," said Smith. "It goes beyond sports. They built character in us. The men are not stepping up today."
On a recent evening at Ponzio's Restaurant in Cherry Hill, Sunkett and Smith sat down and reminisced about their lives. It's a story about a great friendship. A story about a once great neighborhood. A story about great mentors. A story about a man that apparently had so much creativity on the court that he was before his time. The legends
Oh, the stories. There's the one about Smith hurting his hand and the team -- which went undefeated in 1959 and 1960 and won state titles both years -- not expecting him to play in the championship game his senior year when the starters were Sunkett, Smith, Ralph Heath, Sam Fisher and Reggie Hammond. Smith played and shot 14-for-17 that day. After the game, a sportswriter overheard them talking about Smith's hand being hurt.
"The guy said, "He was hurt?' Charlie (Maddox) said, "He hurt his hand,' " Sunkett recalled. "The reporter said "He didn't have any problem with his hand.' Charlie said, "Itchy's right-handed. He played the whole game left-handed.' "
Maddox, 63, a former basketball and football teammate, can attest to Smith's greatness.
"He made about 10 straight jump shots that day," Maddox recalled. "It didn't matter with him. He could use either hand. This guy was amazing. He was centuries ahead of himself." The talent
The talent was seemingly always there. Smith and Sunkett were playing in a game at Hatch Junior High one day. They were running down court on a 2-on-3 fast break. Smith split two of the three defenders with a crossover move, they knocked into one another and knocked each other out, he tossed the ball behind his back up in the air to Sunkett, who tossed a no-look pass right back to Smith on the other side for the easy score.
"The referee said, "Holy (Cow), did you see that play?' " Sunkett said. "I had never seen a guy do that at 14 years old. They would vie to get our games."
Years later Sunkett was a member of the Seton Hall basketball team, one of eight seniors from his high school squad who earned a full scholarship to college. As a freshman, he was tapped to guard the team's best player at practice one day.
He shut him down. The coach asked him how he'd had so much success and his reply was, "You guard Itchy Smith all day long, this is a piece of cake." A comparison
Camden has produced some basketball greats. Everybody from Billy Thompson to Milt Wagner and his son Dajuan Wagner to Kevin Walls.
But the only modern day player Sunkett would compare Smith to is a future NBA Hall of Famer.
"The only player that I saw that had Itchy's ability, and I watch the game, is Michael Jordan," Sunkett said. "Itchy was doing stuff Jordan did years ago."
"Will you stop talking about me," Smith said to Sunkett playfully.
"I go around the country," Katz said. "They say, "Oh, you're from Camden, Itchy Smith.' They don't say Milt Wagner or Wagner's kid (Dajuan) or (Billy) Thompson. I think many people believe that he single-handedly was the greatest athlete to ever come out of Camden. I bet you soaking wet he didn't weigh 160, 170 pounds. His speed was blinding."
You wonder how someone who was so great, such a showman, so creative and inventive on the court, could be so reclusive off the court. But his friends say he's always been that way.
"This is not new," said Sunkett, who resides in Marlton. "This guy hasn't changed since he was 7. Never been pretentious. Itchy made way for guys who were sitting on the bench so when they were younger, they got playing time. Most of our games, we were ahead 30 points going into the third quarter." Unselfish player
Sunkett talks of times when Smith, a 6-foot-1 guard, would have 20 points in the first quarter and tell the coach to take him out of the game. Smith scored 1,301 points in three seasons, but probably could've scored a lot more.
"Coach Alfano said, "This guy is about the most unselfish guy I ever coached and the best player I ever coached,' " Sunkett said.
Said Smith: "When I finished playing in a game my family never said, "You played a great game.' They always said "You guys really played a good game.'
"I got four other people over there." Ties that bind
A strong tie to Camden is no doubt the reason that after Smith graduated from Tennessee State in 1965 with a degree in business administration he returned to the city where he still resides.
He went to school on a basketball scholarship and made All-Midwestern Conference his junior and senior years. He worked in code enforcement for the city for five or six years and then helped run the family's B&E Variety Store.
Sunkett, who practiced law for years and now works for the South Jersey Transportation Authority as a regulatory specialist, doesn't tire of telling stories about his best friend.
"We had about as good a life as anybody could have," Sunkett said. "We were at the right time, in the right neighborhood and with the right people. We were blessed."
Said Smith: "Life's been good. I don't have no complaints. I'm not rich but..."
Oh, but Ron "Itchy" Smith is rich, all right.
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