Farewell, Bandits Hero Billy Dee Smith

by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist

“Under the radar” might not be vivid enough to describe the news that Billy Dee Smith and the Buffalo Bandits have gone their separate ways.

The veteran defenseman became an unrestricted free agent on August 1. Smith announced on his Twitter feed shortly after the deadline that the Bandits had decided not to offer him a contract for the 2018 season. It’s not the type of news that would easily find its way into the media or on official team/league websites.

Here’s how the Tweets read, for the record:

 

General manager Steve Dietrich put the writing on the wall for Smith to some degree during an interview at the end of the last season. Dietrich said that in a league filled with talented young athletes, the status of all of the guys above the age of 30 had to be reviewed. The GM didn’t come out and say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” but you get the idea.

It might have been the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come with a little sadness.

A long history

Smith was a first-round pick of the Bandits in 2002, going third overall. Interestingly, two of the other guys taken in the first round that year, Mark Steenhuis and Chad Culp, were Smith’s teammates as recently as the 2016 season. It took him a season to wrap up a full-time job with the team, but it was hard to get him out of the lineup from 2004 to 2017.

It takes a little time to appreciate a player like Smith. He showed up night after night, not failing to give it everything he had. What’s more, Smith did it for well over a decade. Those of you who like “old school values” in your sports figures must have loved this guy. Bandits’ players don’t receive as much attention as those with the Bills and Sabres, but Smith was a worthy successor to players like Darryl Talley and Mike Ramsey.

Smith admittedly came with some baggage. He always played with emotion, and sometimes those feelings spilled out at the wrong time. In other words, Smith took some bad penalties over the years. But – would you have told him to reduce his intensity in order to stay out of the penalty box? Probably not.

In the last couple of years, Smith’s tank seemed to be heading toward empty. He needed a little extra rest at times, and couldn’t help much in transition like he used to do. One Bandits’ organization member remembers Smith playing summer lacrosse in Ontario fairly recently. Billy Dee took off in transition, went down the field, scored a goal, continued to run back to the bench, headed down the hallway to the locker room, and promptly threw up. The years add up.

A personal favorite

Some personal feelings are easy to add into the mix at a time like this. When I arrived on the Bandits’ beat in 2009, I was a little nervous. I didn’t know much about indoor lacrosse, and the person I replaced, Tom Borrelli, was so good that he was inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame before dying in an incredibly tragic accident.

For some reason, Smith took to me right away. He had a smile on his face whenever I greeted him, and it stayed there through the end of the 2017 season in late April. Billy even laughed at my attempts at humor. While there obviously was some distance in our relationship – it comes with the territory – I always had the idea that he made it easier for me to do my job by showing I could be trusted. I can only imagine what his teammates felt when they were on the floor with him. Bandits’ goalies must have felt a lot more secure with him around.

As Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons said recently, it’s all right to like the people you meet in journalism. Smith always made my job easier by taking phone calls at all hours and coming out for interviews when he would have preferred to sit in his locker staff after a one-sided loss. It’s easy to appreciate that sort of person. If you are accountable off the field, there’s a very good chance you’ll be accountable on the field.

We’d all like it better if player and team had a happy separation at the end of a career. But sometimes there are genuine disagreements about whether that player’s time at the game’s highest level is over. Ask Bruce Smith of the Washington Redskins, after he was let go by the Bills. Luckily, usually everyone gets back together again after that player retires, and the athlete takes a long bow for his accomplishments.

It would be odd to see Smith show up in Buffalo in another uniform this winter, but it is part of the bargain of the business. In the meantime, let’s hope the Bandits don’t hand out No. 3 this year. It would be nice to keep it clean until it goes up to the rafters with the other retired numbers. Someone who gave everything to the team deserves to have that honor coming back to him.

More from Budd Bailey can be found here.

 

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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