Thursday, March 11, 2010

How I Helped Katie Smith Score

For those who do not appreciate the great sport of women’s basketball, you have my sympathy. My family has been supporting women’s basketball from day one. Not only did my mother play the game in high school before World War II, but my Great Aunt Hazel played women’s varsity at Kansas State University, class of 1917. I have a picture of her with her teammates at Sevrey High School, class of 1910. (Back when William Howard Taft was in office.) Great Aunt Hazel passed in 2006, five weeks before her 112th birthday. I tell friends that when Dr. Naismith nailed up that first peach basket, Great Aunt Hazel was probably holding the ladder for him.

By coincidence, here in Columbus resides the young lady who, for my money, is the best female basketball player ever to lace up sneakers: Katherine May Smith, number 30. For a short pop quiz, please answer the following questions. 1) If you combine the point totals from both the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association, who is the highest-scoring player in the history of women’s professional basketball? 2) Who has hit more three-point shots than any other player in the history of women’s professional basketball? 3) Who set a WNBA record, scoring 41 points in one game? 4) Who, the very next week, broke her own record with a 44-point effort in an overtime game? 5) Who, in her last season in the ABL, had a higher free-throw percentage (89.5%) than all but ONE player in the NBA? 6) Who is one of a handful of women who have won THREE Olympic gold medals in women’s basketball?

The correct answers are Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith and Katie Smith.

I first saw Katie Smith playing her freshman year for Ohio State in 1992. She had some fine teammates and that season, Ohio State’s team made it clear to the NCAA Championship Game. I happened to be listening to the game on the radio, and at first, the team from Texas Tech was putting the Lady Buckeyes to rout. Crestfallen, I changed the radio station. To my amazement (I am NOT making this up), I heard Mike and the Mechanics singing, “All I Need is a Miracle.” I’m not one for believing in divine signs, but I did turn back to the station carrying the game. To my amazement, Ohio State came back and took over the lead. Too bad they couldn’t hold onto it. The Lady Bucks were two points shy of a National Championship.

For the next three years, Katie Smith endured what must have been the basketball equivalent of Hell. What happens when you have a team with one world-class player who gets absolutely no help? That’s what Katie Smith went through her first three years at Ohio State. I could not have blamed her one bit if she hadn’t quit the team in disgust and transferred to another school. But she stuck with it and spent the rest of her days as a Buckeye.

It was not until years later that I learned that Katie could have gone to Stanford, as they had offered her a full scholarship. That’s one more reason why Katie Smith enjoys folk hero status in the state of Ohio. I found the experience of watching Katie trying to win games playing, in effect, one on five, that I simply couldn’t bear to watch the games. The day of Katie Smith’s last game at Ohio State, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch wrote, “Today is Katie Smith’s last game at Ohio State. What would you do if you had the chance to watch Jerry Lucas play one last game in college?”

I got myself over to St. John’s Arena.

A few months earlier, I had been in Ohio Stadium when Eddie George played his last football game at Ohio State, and I was one of 95,000 fans chanting, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” at the top of our collective lungs. Six months later, I was in St. John’s Arena with a crowd of 9,500, largely consisting of pre-teenage schoolgirls who were positively shrieking Katie’s name. It sounded like the death scream of a million guinea pigs. (My poor ears!) My readers might ask what I was doing. I was yelling Katie’s name at the top of my lungs while firmly pressing both of my ears shut. Two things stand out in my memory about that game, even fifteen years later. One was that Katie Smith played lights-out. Not only did she hit shots from all over the court, but she played great defense, grabbed some rebounds and made some excellent passes. She got what seemed like no help at all from her teammates and Ohio State lost a close game to Penn State. The other thing that I will never forget is that whoever organized the Senior Day ceremony was a complete idiot. There were four graduating seniors. The moron planning that ceremony had Katie Smith introduced to the fans second-to-last. I can only sympathize with the young lady introduced last because when the announcer called Katie Smith’s name, the crowd cheered until the rafters rocked. The next girl only got a smattering of polite applause.

I remember a columnist in Columbus’s underground newspaper writing a story entitled, “Thanks for Everything, Katie.” It was a bittersweet piece recounting Katie Smith’s amazing performance and career at Ohio State. It was also a lament that we would never see her like again.

It came as a totally unexpected and thoroughly pleasant surprise when the Dispatch announced that a new women’s basketball league, the ABL, would have a franchise in Columbus called the Quest. Katie Smith had signed on, as well. I rarely missed a game. Happily enough, the Quest went to the trouble of signing someone fine players. For the first time since her freshman year, Katie had a bunch of great teammates. Watching the ladies of the Quest play was, for a basketball aficionado, about the equivalent of an opera fan getting to listen to Pavarotti at the top of his game along with Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Fleming and Enrico Caruso. That season, the Quest won the ABL Championship. The next season, they won another championship. (They lost their first home game by a single point and then won 25 straight.)

One time, I made a “road trip” down to Katie Smith’s hometown of Logan, Ohio, where she and her teammates played a five-on-five scrimmage. My date and I paid the exorbitant admission fee of one dollar. We got to watch as fine a basketball game as I’ve ever seen.

One of the fringe benefits of attending Quest games was getting to meet both the players and their families. I got to meet Katie Smith’s parents, both of her grandmothers and her brothers, John and Tommy. (My collaborator asked why the Smith family would name a son “John.” The answer is because that’s what the father was named.) Upon meeting those two young men, I gained a whole new insight into why Katie Smith developed into such an amazing basketball player. She managed to survive on the court playing against her one-year younger and one-year older brothers. Aside from the fact that John’s hair is black and Tommy’s is light brown, they could almost be twins. A bit over six feet tall with shoulders that just about span the horizon. If I was going to get a Christmas present for those guys, I would have to buy them each TWO wristwatches because their shoulders are just about in different time zones. During my trip to Logan, I learned that both Katie and her younger brother, John, were valedictorians of their high school classes. Katie’s older brother played on a I-AA National Championship team and is now a tenured college professor. Her younger brother was a two-sport varsity athlete at Ohio University in football and track. Last I heard, the younger brother was finishing up his residency to be a doctor. (Editorial comment: They grow them big and smart at the Smith house.) I must mention that Katie Smith’s father happens to be a dentist, which accounts for the fact that all three of his children have amazingly bright smiles and Dr. Smith once told me that his daughter had managed to make it into her mid-twenties without a single cavity.