Billy Dee Smith has always been surrounded by black leaders, role models and pioneers both in the lacrosse world and while growing up in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario.
As an adolescent, Billy Dee’s father, Keith Smith, worked on a farm run by Rose and Joe Engemann. The Engemann’s were also famous around town for having soccer, hockey and lacrosse teams. In his youth, Keith became one of the original members of the St. Catharines Spartans lacrosse team. Naturally, his three sons followed suit.
In the 1990’s, Billy Dee’s passion for lacrosse was taken to the next level. During the 1992 NLL Season, Billy Dee’s lacrosse team played during halftime of one of the Bandits games that season. Being on that floor where John Tavares and one of the league’s more notable black players at the time, Kevin Alexander, were showing off their skills at the professional ranks gave Billy Dee hope that he might one day be able to do what they were doing.
Then, in 1995, Billy Dee’s brother, Jason Luke, was drafted to the team. To see his brother join the team that had become such an integral part of his, and his families life, was deeply inspiring. To see these black men that he looked up to making a name for themselves in the NLL was a symbol of hope.
In his youth, Billy Dee was confronted and taunted by many non-black youths, but he wasn’t one to sit back and be insulted. Much like his father, grandparents and even his great grandfather, Billy Dee was not going to let others determine how he was going to live his life or who he was going to become. Billy Dee’s grandmother ran a black church in St. Catharines and his great grandfather was a runaway slave. They spoke up and spoke out against injustice and never stopped fighting for their rights. Billy Dee was known for standing up for himself with his words and his fists when he was being harassed.
“I definitely did experience racism growing up in the minor system,” Smith said. “Kids are just young and dumb and don’t know any better. But, that’s kind of to be expected unfortunately.”
Finally, in 2002, a decade after he first started focusing on one day being an NLL player like his brother, Billy Dee was given the opportunity by the Buffalo Bandits. He was drafted by Kurt Silcott, the only black GM at the time. Considering what it meant to Billy Dee to be playing in the NLL as one of the few black men in the NLL at the time, to be drafted by a black GM was a special experience.
“It was cool that he had the position that he did,” Smith said. “I knew that he was the only black GM at the time.”
The Bandits are an organization synonymous with winning. In the 90’s, the team had already won three NLL Championships, including in his brother Jason’s rookie season in 1996. By the time that Billy Dee had joined the team, the Bandits had already appeared in five NLL Finals. In the first years of Billy Dee’s professional career, the Bandits made three more trips to the NLL Finals. In 2008 (Billy Dee’s third NLL Finals), they added one more trophy to the collection beating the Portland Lumberjax 14-13.
Billy Dee reminisced about what it was like to win an NLL Championship. The taste of victory was even sweeter for a man like Billy Dee. It wasn’t easy making the NLL, particularly as a person of color. Thankfully, the Bandits were willing to bring in whoever could help them win.
“I think, first and foremost that they want to win,” Smith said. “Back in the day when I was a rookie, there was like three training camps before you even got to practice with the team. You would see all types of people coming out to the training camps. They were big in the community, whether it was the native communities like Six Nations – those guys knew a lot about lacrosse. But, I feel like a lot of people were overlooked because of the color of their skin, natives included.”
When Billy Dee finally decided to hang up the jersey at the end of the 2019 NLL season, he had built a reputation as being one of the most fierce and formidable defenders the game had ever seen.
Billy Dee’s 685 penalty minutes are the most given out in NLL history. Most of his career was played before the league began tracking caused turnovers and he had retired before blocked shots were being tracked, as well. He still amassed 52 caused turnovers over 16 seasons (8 were seasons where CTOs were tracked). He also collected 534 loose balls in that time. But, we don’t need stats to know how menacing Billy Dee was on defense, winning the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award. His ability to bully the opposition and keep them from attacking the net was a problem for the rest of the league for the 16 seasons of his career.
In 2013, Billy Dee had the privilege of playing with his cousin, Dhane Smith. In 2016, they came close to winning the NLL Finals, but the team couldn’t muster enough offense against the defensive juggernaut named the Saskatchewan Rush. However, 2016 was not a wash. Dhane went on to became the first black player in league history to win NLL MVP honors. Last NLL Season, Dhane won the award again, making him the first black player to be named MVP multiple times – he also became only the fifth player in NLL history to win the award more than once.
Now an Assistant Coach for the Halifax Thunderbirds, Billy Dee is coaching another one of his cousins, Tyson Bell. He hopes that the two of them can one day do what he and Dhane couldn’t seven years ago. Billy Dee has been impressed with what Tyson and Dhane have been able to do in their careers. He’s been around those two since they were little kids and now they are elite professional box lacrosse players. More than that, Tyson and Dhane are outspoken leaders for the black community.
“Being their older cousin, it’s an absolute honor to see how they’ve grown up and turned into men,” Smith said. “I’m extremely proud of them. Hopefully I had something to do with their growth by letting them be their own men and having them learn to have the courage to speak up when you should, not only when people expect it.”
Billy Dee Smith and his family have been trying to make a difference in their communities for decades. Each one of them have been undeniably true to themselves and true to their hearts. They are proud of what they’ve become, but they are even more proud of how far they’ve come and where they’ve come from.