Thursday, February 08, 2024

Katie Smith helping Upper Arlington girls basketball as volunteer assistant coach


The former Ohio State and WNBA star has shared her wisdom and experience with the Golden Bears


20 HOURS AGO (fEBRUARY 7, 2024)


Katie Smith is not only one of the greatest professional women’s basketball players to lace up a pair of sneakers, she’s also a well-respected basketball coach, who currently is the associate head coach for the Minnesota Lynx of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

So when John Wanke was hired to coach the Upper Arlington girls basketball team in 2021, and heard from a mutual friend that Smith owns a home in the community, he decided to reach out to her to ask if you she would be willing to help out.

It took just a three-minute phone conversation for Wanke to convince Smith to join his coaching staff as a volunteer assistant coach, and the Golden Bears’ entire program has benefited greatly from her contributions over the past three seasons.

“That’s not an exaggeration to say that was the most productive three-minute conversation I’ve had on the phone,” Wanke said, with a chuckle. “Katie’s name by itself carries a lot of weight and she’s a huge presence, and I believe that great leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are, so I wasn’t intimidated to bring her in.

“Katie’s arguably the greatest player of all time, and our girls are getting coached by someone who is likely going to be the greatest coach who they will ever learn from. I can’t imagine there are many high school coaches anywhere in the nation, who have earned three Olympic gold medals as a player and who also have her coaching experience.”

Smith said it’s been a pleasure coaching high school athletes for the first time in her illustrious career.

While playing basketball at Logan High School in southeastern Ohio, Smith first gained national attention when she was recognized as the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior. She capped her senior season by leading the Chieftains to the 1992 Division I state final, where they lost to Pickerington 53-46 in front of a record crowd of 12,385 fans at St. John Arena, despite Smith scoring a game-high 24 points.

“I’m having a lot of fun and getting just as much pleasure out of the experience as they are,” Smith said. “This is the first time I’ve been around high school basketball players this much since I was in high school, and it brings back a lot of great memories. There’s a certain innocence and excitement, because high school basketball is not a business, and they are doing it only because they love it.”

Smith helps out in a wide variety of ways, most notably working with athletes to help improve their individual skill sets.

Some of Upper Arlington’s players were a little intimidated by Smith when she first joined their program, but she quickly put them at ease and began making them better.

“Much like polish on a shoe, Katie helps refine things for our players to help them take their games to the next level,” Wanke said. “Katie could have an arrogance to her, because of what she’s accomplished, but she doesn’t. She has an amazing grace, empathy and humility that helps her blend in as one of the members of our team, and makes people comfortable around her.”

Smith sometimes has to miss practices, or more rarely a game, because of scouting duties for the Minnesota Lynx. She lives in Upper Arlington with her wife, Yesenia, and two children, Yesslynn and Lenin for about half the year, and lives in an apartment in Minnesota for close to six months.

“I wasn’t looking to be a high school head coach because that would be too much on top of my (WNBA) and family duties,” Smith said. “But John’s an awesome coach who has done an exceptional job of putting things in place, and he was supportive of me coming around to help out as much as I can.

“I feel blessed that I’m able to be around the coaches, kids and staff here at Upper Arlington.”

Upper Arlington senior point guard Quinn Buttermore said Smith makes a big impact in the time she spends with the Golden Bears.

“Katie has so much knowledge and insight, and she’s such a great resource as a coach,” said Buttermore, who is averaging a team-best 3.7 assists. “Whenever she chimes in in practice, it gets very quiet, because we know what she has to say is legit, meaningful and helpful.

“When we were struggling with our shooting in practice recently, she gave us pointers and told us to slow down and make sure we were shooting with good form. We listened to her, because whenever Katie shoots in practice, it always goes in. She’s definitely an amazing, one-of-a-kind coach and person.”

Smith also helps out with tactical advice during games.

“I have a certain system and scheme that I’ve put into place, but when Katie and my other assistants offer me feedback, I always listen,” Wanke said. “She offers a lot of invaluable feedback to us as coaches, as well as to the players.”

The Golden Bears are thriving under the direction of Wanke and his staff, which includes varsity assistants Kendal Glandorff, Brianna Lowry, Smith and DuJuan White, freshman coach Jarret Hubbard and volunteer assistants Jennifer Green and Jodi Green.

After finishing 3-14 overall during the 2020-21 season, Wanke’s staff led the Golden Bears to a 15-9 record the following season and a 17-7 mark last season.

This season, Upper Arlington is 16-3 overall and 7-2 in the Ohio Capital Conference-Central Division.

Elizabeth Hunt is averaging a team-best 16.9 points per game, followed by Ava Harrigan (6.5), Buttermore (5.5), Ella Hanky (4.6), Hannah Hunt (4), Tatum Thrush (3.8) and Lucy Martin (3.6). Thrush also averages a team-leading 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists.

“We’re playing with tempo, offensively and defensively, because we’re eight or nine deep on this team,” Wanke said. “We’re defending at a high level, primarily playing man-to-man, and it’s translating into wins. Our first three losses were by a total of seven points, so we’ve been competitive every game.”

Katie Smith poses on the bench with the Upper Arlington girls basketball team. Smith has been serving as a volunteer assistant coach o for the Golden Bears. Katie Smith

Many of Upper Arlington’s players didn’t fully grasp how famous Smith is in Columbus until the Golden Bears watched the Ohio State University women’s basketball team defeat Iowa 100-92 in overtime in front of a program-record crowd of 18,660 fans at the Schottenstein Center on Jan. 21.

Smith’s No. 30 uniform now hangs in the rafters at the Schottenstein Center, after Ohio State honored her on Jan. 21, 2001 as the first female Buckeye athlete to have her uniform number retired.

During her freshman season, Smith averaged 18.8 points per game to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title and earn both Big Ten Freshman of the Year and All-American honors. She also helped lead Ohio State to its first NCAA Final Four appearance, where it eventually lost to Texas Tech in the championship game.

In four seasons at Ohio State, Smith averaged 20.8 points and led the Buckeyes to an 80-44 record while making 124 consecutive starts. She scored a career total of 2,578 points to become the Big Ten’s career scoring leader in both men’s and women’s basketball.

As a senior, Smith scored an Ohio State single-season-record 745 points to earn All-American honors once again and be named the 1996 Big Ten Player of the Year.

Smith, who was a three-time academic all-Big Ten selection while earning a degree in zoology, was inducted into the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame in October, 2001.

“We knew she was a great player, but I don’t think we realized what a big deal she is, because she’s so humble and she never puts a spotlight on herself,” Buttermore said. “When we were at the Schott, we saw her uniform number hanging up there retired because of how great she is. And then when she came to say hi to our team, people were looking at her and stopping her for photos, and I think everyone realized how fortunate we are to have her as our coach.”

The Golden Bears also got to see firsthand the impact that Smith is continuing to make at the professional basketball level, when they traveled as a team to Indianapolis, Indiana in the spring of 2022 to watch Smith’s Minnesota Lynx play at the Indiana Fever.

Smith has coached in the WNBA since the fall of 2013.

After serving as an assistant coach for New York Liberty for four years, Smith was Liberty’s head coach for two seasons.

When her contract was not renewed after Liberty went 17-51 during her tenure, Smith served as an assistant coach for the Lynx from January 2020 to December 2021, before being promoted to associate head coach in January 2022.

“Watching Katie coach in the WNBA was very cool,” Buttermore said. “We usually forget that she’s done so much stuff, because she’s so mellow and cool to talk to. She doesn’t talk about winning gold medals or her other accomplishments unless we force it out of her.”

During her playing career, Smith also enjoyed an impressive run as part of the USA national team, helping her squad win gold medals in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics, as well as in the 1998 and 2002 World Championships.

“Only a select few get to represent their country in the Olympics, so that was my dream after I started playing in the fifth grade,” Smith said. “I hoped that I could play in college, be an Olympian, and then come back home to become a dentist, because the opportunity to play professionally didn’t always exist.”

Katie Smith goes up for a layup as a member of Team USA

Katie Smith

However, as fate would have it, Smith was drafted in the first round of the newly-formed American Basketball League in 1996, and she would go on to lead the Columbus Quest to back-to-back ABL championships in the only two full seasons that the league existed in 1997 and 1998.

Smith then embarked upon a legendary WNBA career, in which she averaged 13.9 points while playing for a total of five teams in 15 seasons, in Minnesota (1999-2005), Detroit (2005-09), Washington (2010), Seattle (2011-12) and New York (2013).

In 2006, Smith helped the Detroit Shock win the WNBA championship to become the only player to capture both ABL and WNBA titles.

Two years later, Smith was the MVP of the WNBA finals while leading the Shock to a 3-0 sweep of the San Antonio Silver Stars.

“Winning those championships in Detroit was awesome, because it meant we were the best at the highest professional level.” Smith said.

By the end of her career, Smith was the all-time leading scorer in women’s professional basketball history with a total of 7,885 points, including 6,452 points in the WNBA.

The versatile, sharp-shooting guard also was named a WNBA All-Star a total of seven times (2000-03, 05, 06 and 09), was first-team all-WNBA in 2001 and 03, and was the WNBA scoring champion in 2001.

In 2018, Smith was inducted into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“When you think of a great basketball player at every level, she’s it,” Wanke said. “Katie has a little bit of an aura around her, and I think she’s helped spark enthusiasm for girls basketball in our community. Our youth program has doubled in size in the past three years, to where we now have 40 kids in grades three through six. And we had 211 kids in our last youth summer camp.”

Upper Arlington has three regular season games remaining, including its league finale on Friday at Dublin Coffman and the sixth-seeded Golden Bears will open the Division I district tournament on Feb. 21 by playing host to 38th-seeded Central Crossing.

“We just want to keep building for the tournament, and hopefully, we can make a run,” Smith said.

More importantly for Smith, she hopes to continue to teach valuable life lessons to Upper Arlington’s student athletes.

“I’ve coached the elite, and these kids make the same mistakes that we yell at them for,” Smith said. “I just want to do my best to teach them what I can, while also making this the best possible experience for them.

“This experience is part of what will shape them as they become young adults, and all I want for them is to be prepared to work hard and treat people well, so they will be successful wherever their life journey takes them.”


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