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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Zaid Abdul-Aziz (Don Smith)

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called “Buffalo Braves From A to Z,” published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren’t so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material … so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

The basketball career of this particular player can be split into two eras. The first was when he had the name of Don Smith. That player was a top player as an amateur, a high NBA draft choice, and a successful pro. But when he decided to change his name to Zaid Abdul-Aziz for religious reasons, his career in hoops appeared to suffer for it. That included a brief stop in Buffalo. With the advantage of time, Abdul-Aziz comes across as a man of intelligence and integrity; it’s too bad the Braves didn’t get to know him better.

Donald A. Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 7, 1946. Life wasn’t easy for Smith in those early days. His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother, sister, half-brother and grandmother in the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn. At one point they lived above a bar that played the music of Billie Holiday. Thus began a love of music that led into some street-corner singing in Brooklyn. He also battled a speech impediment, which helped leave him quite shy, and briefly joined a gang at the age of 13 to try to fit in with a group.

Smith attended John Jay High School. That school was closed by the city in 2004 due to poor performance by the students there. He spent three months in prison during that time, as an acquaintance lied to authorities and said Smith was part of a robbery. His name was eventually cleared, changing his sentence to probation and allowing him to have a more normal life. “That’s why I tell people, you have to be careful about your friends,” he said later. Smith had first learned about basketball at the Bedford YMCA, where such players as Connie Hawkins and future Brave Mike Davis received similar lessons. Don was a part of the basketball team in high school. Smith was something of a project, but he eventually became a good center. He had plenty of size and strength, and he worked hard. It made him one of the top players in the city.

After graduating in 1964, Smith accepted an athletic scholarship at Iowa State University. He had been recommended by former Iowa State player Hank Whitney. If Smith was looking for a change of scenery, he certainly found it. Ames, Iowa, was a long way from Bed-Sty in so many ways. “I went from Brooklyn, which was 99 percent black, to a school in Iowa that was 98 percent white,” he said. Smith became a superb basketball player for the Cyclones, then playing in the Big 8 Conference. With a 42-inch vertical leap, it’s no wonder that he picked up the nickname “Kangaroo” somewhere in his youth. Don averaged 24.3 points per game in an eight-game freshman season.

It didn’t take long for Smith to have the biggest highlight of his time at Iowa State. It came early in his first varsity season. “The No. 1 memory of my Iowa State career is an easy one,” he said. “I have always been an extremely shy person. I guess it was my sophomore year when the announcer said, ‘Starting at center, No. 35, Don Smith,’ and the people got up off their seats and clapped and clapped and clapped. And then when I came out of the game, the people gave me another standing ovation. This happened every game throughout the rest of my career and it really made me feel special.”

Another good moment came when he was a senior on December 7, 1967. Smith had the chance to have an up-close look at Lew Alcindor, one of the greatest players in basketball history, for the first time as Iowa State went west to play UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins won easily, 121-80, but Smith acquitted himself well. “I couldn’t wait for that game,” Smith said later. “When I went out there, just to go to Pauley Pavilion was incredible. The game was pretty close in the first half, then they blew us out. They were the No. 1 team in the country and had a lot of weapons. John Wooden (UCLA coach) said me and Elvin Hayes were the greatest players to ever play against Kareem. To have the great John Wooden say I was a good player says a lot. I really relished him saying that.”

Smith’s team didn’t have a great deal of success during his three years on the varsity. They were around the .500 mark under coach Glendon Anderson. Don led the league in rebounding in all three years on the varsity (averages of 13.0, 13.4 and 14.6), and in scoring for two years (24.8 and 24.2). Smith earned some All-American honors along the way and was a three-time all-conference selection. His uniform number eventually was retired, and he’s a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Don was picked for Iowa State’s 100th anniversary team. Smith came back and finished his work on a sociology degree in 1970; he later did graduate study at Seattle University.

That sort of basketball record made him a candidate to go very early in the 1968 NBA Draft. Sure enough, he went fifth overall in the first round to Cincinnati. It was a great year for big men in the draft, as the first guard taken (Ron Williams of West Virginia ) was picked at No. 9. There were little pomp and circumstance about the draft back then. Smith simply waited for the phone to ring.

“My attorney called me,” he told the Ames (Iowa) Tribune about Draft Day. “He told me the situation and he told me how much of an honor it was – and also the financial gain from such a high honor. … Sometimes I have to pinch myself because anything could have happened to me during that time. I could have torn an Achilles tendon or something or a bad interaction with a coach or I could have done something negative.”

Smith signed a multiyear contract worth $111,000 and was excited about joining the Royals, if only to play with stars such as Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. Oddly, Smith was more or less ignored by the members of the team – especially Lucas and Tom Van Arsdale. Supposedly the veterans were worried that Smith might take the starting job of center Connie Dierking. At least Robertson became friendly enough with Smith to write the introduction to his autobiography several years later. It must have been an uncomfortable partial season for Smith, who only played 5.4 minutes per game in 20 games. The Royals gave up on him very quickly, as he was traded to Milwaukee for forward Fred Hetzel.

Playing for the Bucks was an instant improvement. Milwaukee had a first-year expansion team, and it had the usual collection of prospects and suspects on the roster. Smith had the chance to play almost 29 minutes a game, averaging 11 points and 13 rebounds per game in that span. Milwaukee finished 27-55.

Still, better times were ahead for the Bucks. They had the No. 1 draft choice in 1969, and used it on Alcindor. Everyone knew that he would be a once-in-a-generation player, and Milwaukee signed him to an appropriately rich rookie contract. They also drafted Bob Dandridge, a future Hall of Famer, that year. Smith’s days as a significant contributor at center were over for good. Still, he played 20.5 minutes a game and scored 7.4 points per game. Don played in 80 games, a career high. The Bucks improved all the way to 56-26, but lost to the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs.

Smith didn’t even make it to training camp with the Bucks that fall. They traded him to Seattle for guard Lucius Allen and forward Bob Boozer on September 17, 1970. Smith thought about following the example of baseball’s Curt Flood and challenging the deal in court, but eventually reported to the Sonics. When Bob Rule missed almost all of the season with an injury, the Sonics used Smith and Pete Cross at center in 1970-71. Don moved into the starting lineup early in the season and helped Seattle get off to a good start. However, he was sidelined for a while with an inflammation of the lining of his heart. Smith averaged 10.9 points in 20.9 minutes per game, so at least he was productive. Smith had the game of his life on March 9, 1971, scoring 37 points (15 of 17 from the field) and grabbing 14 rebounds in a win over the New York Knicks.

That was the year that Spencer Haywood joined Seattle in midseason. The Sonics couldn’t get to the .500 mark, finishing 38-44 under player-coach Lenny Wilkens. Smith’s playing time went up in 1971-72, averaging 13.8 points in 30.7 minutes per game. Haywood helped Seattle improve to 47-35 – better, but still not a playoff team.

During his time in Seattle, Smith converted to Islam – although he did not formally announce the switch or reveal his new name for a while. An incident with one of the Bucks’ players had started him to thinking about his religious beliefs. “I was a Christian, but I never went to church,” he said. “I just wore a cross because that’s what I did. One day, Kareem came over to me and asked, ‘What’s that around your neck?’ I never criticize religion, I just tell people what I believe. In the 1960s, there was a lot of confusion. When people heard ‘Muslim,’ the first thing a lot of people thought was, ‘He hates white people.’” Smith went to the Milwaukee library and began a spiritual journey that continues to this day.

The SuperSonics had invested a lot of money in signing Jim McDaniels during the 1971-72 season, and they needed to find out what they had. Smith was off to Houston in a straight cash transaction on September 18, 1972. The Rockets had Otto Moore at center, but Smith picked up some playing time (18.8 minutes per game) as a reserve. It didn’t help that he suffered a knee injury in January, 1973, that required surgery. Houston had some shooters on that team – Jimmy Walker, Jack Marin, Mike Newlin, Calvin Murphy – but finished 33-49. During the course of 1973, Smith formally accepted the Islamic faith. When injuries limited Moore to 13 games in 1973-74, Smith moved into the starting lineup. He averaged 31.1 minutes per game, a career-high, and scored 10.9 points per game. Marin was traded to Buffalo, and the Rockets ended up 32-50.

In the fall of 1974, Smith took a slightly daring step. “I went in to the general manager (Ray Patterson) and I told him, ‘I can’t play basketball anymore. I quit,’ ” Abdul-Aziz said. “But I didn’t really want to quit the team. I’d gotten sick and lost all my vital minerals. It was like a form of depression. What I really wanted him to do was give me a little time off because I was fasting for Ramadan, but if I would have told him that, he wouldn’t have understood. So I quit.” He returned to the Rockets a day later.

Kevin Kunnert, acquired in the Marin deal, slid into the starting center’s spot. That left Abdul-Aziz as a reserve, and he averaged 9.7 points in 65 games. “That was kind of my downfall,” he said about the short retirement. “I was playing great with Houston, then I took that one-day hiatus and I never got back to being a starting center in the league.” Houston was still mediocre at 41-41.

On April 19, 1975, he formally completed a name change to Zaid Abdul-Aziz. The Rockets cut their ties with Abdul-Aziz on August 1, 1975. Zaid had said earlier in the previous season that he probably would retire in the near future, but he decided he wasn’t done with basketball yet. It took him a while, but he found a job with Seattle on January 31, 1976. The Sonics needed a big man because John Hummer had ruptured an ankle and was lost for the season. Haywood and McDaniels were long gone, and Bill Russell was coaching the team by then. Zaid became a backup center for 7-foot-4 Tom Burleson. Abdul-Aziz only played eight minutes a game. Seattle did reach the playoffs that spring, but lost in the first round to Phoenix. The job lasted until the end of the season, when he was let go.

The Buffalo Braves came into the picture next, as Abdul-Aziz signed with the team on November 26, 1976. He barely had time to introduce himself to star center Bob McAdoo. The Braves traded McAdoo to the Knicks in December. Abdul-Aziz hung around for about six weeks, playing in 22 games. He averaged about nine minutes per game that season, which ranked 17th among Buffalo’s players. Abdul-Aziz’s best game with the team was on December 11, when he scored 16 points against Indiana. In his autobiography, he only devotes a couple of paragraphs about his time in Buffalo. One was partially about the weather; the city had its worst winter in memory that year. Zaid also remembers that teammates once challenged him to block Adrian Dantley’s shot in practice … and he did so. The Braves waived him on January 20, 1977.

Zaid had to wait for more than a year for another chance to play in the NBA, signing with the Celtics on February 14, 1978. That team had as much chaos as the Braves did the previous year. He has a distinction of one of the few players to wear a Celtics uniform without playing a home game. Abdul-Aziz played both of his games on the road. Boston waived him on February 24, 1978. About a week later, Zaid returned to the Rockets for one last contract, and stayed through the end of the season. He watched Moses Malone and Kunnert a lot, playing less than 10 minutes per game.

When the Rockets cut him, Abdul-Aziz had run out of chances. He played 505 games in 10 seasons, averaging 9.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. The change in names turned out to be the most memorable moments in his career – and one that may have shortened his career.

“There’s a lot of mystery with Islam,” he told the Seattle Times. “Some of the people who really respected me as Don Smith, it was hard for them to make a change and respect me as Zaid Abdul-Aziz. Some people wrote me off, like they were feeling sorry for me because they thought I made a mistake. I put everything on the line.”

Zaid’s life after basketball had a difficult adjustment period. He and financial partner Wilt Chamberlain lost some money in a professional volleyball league. Abdul-Aziz lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, and he and his wife divorced upon returning. He eventually moved back to the Seattle area, and worked as a drug and alcohol addiction counselor. Zaid wrote a book about his life called “Darkness to Sunlight” in 2006. According to on-line records, he and his second wife now live in the San Diego area. Abdul-Aziz has six children, one of whom played basketball for Seattle Pacific.

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