Monday, July 28, 2008

Former Buckeye Katie Smith: On a Big Stage Again

Katie Smith will be competing in her third Olympics, beginning next week in Beijing. Her storied career includes stops at Ohio State, the American Basketball League and now the WNBA's Detroit Shock.

July 27, 2008

By Jim Massie

In an alternate universe without basketball, Katie Smith could have been the next Shirley Temple if a tap-dancing Shirley ever used an elbow to clear some room for a series of time steps.

"She was in dance in elementary school," Barb Smith, her mother, said recently. "She competed in tap. In fifth grade, we let her join the basketball team -- the Bobcats. Her little brother was on the team.

"By seventh grade, she was in AAU basketball. It just took off from there. Her father (John) and I never knew she was as goal oriented as she is. We didn't know she had this innate desire to be an Olympian."

Consider the sound of a metronome keeping time for the tiny dancer, let rhythm blend into the thump, thump, thump of a crossover dribble and you can watch the dream that began in Logan, Ohio, passed through Ohio State and two professional women's basketball leagues and reaches its zenith for a third time next month.

Katie Smith, 34, will be playing in her third Olympics next month as a guard for Team USA in Beijing. Smith already has two gold medals and the burning desire to add a third.

The fiery part doesn't surprise her mother at all.

"It's not hard to be that way in this family," Barb said. "Three children in 33 months, all healthy and physical and we lived on a farm. Everybody had chores to do and we'd see who could get them done first. I was a competitive swimmer. Her dad played football at Ohio University."

In Detroit, where she is a starting guard for the Shock of the WNBA, Katie Smith said that she first noticed the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team as a youngster.

"I remember watching the Olympics on television," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Man, how do you get to be a part of that group of 12?' Just watching them, it gets you interested in representing your country."

After her freshman season at Ohio State, she took her first step along the international road in 1993. She tried out for the senior world championship team and didn't make it. Instead, she became part of the junior world championship team under Jim Foster, then the coach at Vanderbilt and now at Ohio State.

"I was wide-eyed and willing to do whatever I had to do," Smith said. "You're trying out with 200 or 300 people. They put the cuts on the board and you run up to see if you made it. I was in the mix of players at the top of my age group. They don't hand you anything in USA Basketball. You earn the spot, earn the playing time and sacrifice time for it. It's all worth it at the end of the day."

Again, the steely focus rated as no surprise to her mother.

"She didn't just play basketball," Barb said. "She was good in volleyball and good in track. She was serious about her 4-H projects. She was the same way about her school work. She excelled. She is a lot like her dad. If she is going to do something, she is going to do it right."

Smith's work ethic became evident from her beginnings with USA Basketball.

"It was obvious even (in '93) that she had the potential to be an Olympian," Foster said. "She had the necessary passion. A lot of people verbalize what they want to be. Not as many people figure out how to be what they say they want to be. She would wake up in the morning and think about what she had to do to get better."

The reason was simple. Basketball moved her.

"I was all-state in volleyball, basketball and track," Smith said. "But basketball was something that I loved. I liked all aspects of it. Obviously when you're good at something it makes you want to do more. I like the physical part of basketball. It has cardio where you're running and jumping. There is a mental aspect to winning. You can outsmart your opponent. It has a little bit of everything."

She would grow in the USA program and learn under point guard Teresa Edwards, a five-time Olympian.

"That is one of the neatest things about USA Basketball. Katie grew up in a system learning under Teresa," said Nell Fortner, the 2000 Olympic coach. "I remember coaching the team that went to Brazil to qualify for world championships in '97. There were serious battles going on in practice between them. Over the years, I think it did Katie a world of good."

In Smith, Fortner also noticed a willingness to do whatever tasks the coaches asked.

"You have to be able to check your ego," Fortner said. "Everybody you're playing with is extraordinary. Katie accepted that right away. And she stands out for me because she is mean. She wants to win. She'll do whatever it takes."

Smith, of course, has excelled at every level in her basketball life. She left Ohio State as the leading scorer in Big Ten history. She led the Columbus Quest to two championships in the ABL and became the first women's professional layer to pass the 5,000-point plateau after joining the WNBA in 1999.

"I recruited Katie when she was in high school and I was at Old Dominion," said Anne Donovan, the current Olympic coach. "You could tell she was a disciplined athlete in high school. She also had this competitiveness. She still carries it today."

Smith, however, doesn't dunk like USA teammate Candace Parker and no longer worries about leading the team in scoring with shooters such as Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter around.

"I think Katie always has been a little underappreciated," Donovan said. "She goes to Detroit and (coach Bill Laimbeer) wants her to play the point. She sacrificed her scoring to do that. It's the same with the national team. She is selfless."

When asked, Smith will lock down a perimeter scorer.

"That is one of her strengths for us," Donovan said. "We have to play defense. If we don't play defense, we will not win the gold medal."

In Athens in 2004, Smith was part of a second gold medal-winning team. A knee injury made her a spectator and threatened her career.

"I hurt (the ligament) right before the Olympics, but it wasn't completely torn," Smith said. "Then I tore it in the Olympics. It was still great to be there. I just had to work on my cheerleading skills."

She never considered quitting.

"No, that wasn't the end," Smith said. "I still wanted to play. If my body hadn't responded, it was something I would have had to deal with. But it did."

Fifteen years after joining USA Basketball, Smith and four-time Olympian Lisa Leslie now are the primary role models for the younger players. She figures this will be her last Olympics, although she hopes to play professionally for a few more years. She still is dancing as fast as she can.

"I'm happy to be here," Smith said. "I've been able to play basketball and I've been playing it well for a long time. I've worked hard for it. It doesn't just happen. All of the players put in the work. It says a lot for us when we go out and perform."

Logan High School: 1988-92; 2,740 career points

USA basketball: 2000, 2004 Olympics; 1998, 2002 World Championships

Ohio State Basketball: 1992-96; 2,578 points; Two-time All-American; All-time leading scorer at OSU

Columbus Quest: 1996-98; Two ABL titles; 1,433 points

WNBA: Minnesota Lynx (1999-2005), Detroit Shock (2005-present): 4,972 points; 2001 scoring title; 2006 championship

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