The city's least appreciated superstar hopes to cap her remarkable basketball career with another WNBA championship and a third Olympic medal.
Ohio State hoops legend Katie Smith was named earlier this week the new head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Columbus Monthly published this profile of Smith in June 2008 at the twilight of her extraordinary basketball career and as she mounted a quest to win a third Olympic gold medal and a second WNBA championship (a feat she pulled off).
Katie Smith is a different kind of pro jock. The Buckeye hoops legend doesn’t have a publicist, personal chef or security detail, and she’s more likely to brag about her banana nut bread recipe than her jump shot. When she greets a visitor on the front porch of her two-bedroom ranch in a middle-class section of Upper Arlington, her entourage—Mikey, a Labrador mix, and Logan, a goldendoodle—sneak outside and pounce on two tennis balls in the front yard.
Smith is the Hank Aaron of women’s basketball, the most durable and consistent player of her generation. She’s played in more than 700 games over the past 15 years, scored more points than any other professional women’s player and won two Olympic gold medals and championships in both the Women’s National Basketball Association and its defunct rival, the American Basketball League (with the Columbus Quest). Yet her achievements have netted her little fame and no big fortune. She earns less than $100,000 a year—she’d be richer today if she’d become a dentist as she originally intended—and her 1,800-square-foot home pales in comparison with the palaces of male professional athletes.
It’s early March, two months before the WNBA season opens, and Smith is enjoying some rare downtime in Columbus. She’s dressed casually in a black sweater and khakis, and her strawberry blondhair is pulled back in a ponytail. She’s polite and affable with sleepy, pale blue eyes and a wide smile. She grabs a bottled water and settles her 5-foot-11-inch frame into a kitchen chair while the dogs take turns slurping from an Ohio State dish on the floor nearby.
To be sure, Smith is no Charles Barkley. She says nothing provocative and showers compliments on her teammates, opponents and the city of Columbus. “It’s a great place to call home,” she says. But she isn’t a talking robot, either. She’s engaged, relaxed and unhurried—making eye contact, ignoring her cellphone when it rings and showing flashes of surprising candor. While almost every other WNBA insider says just rosy things about the league’s future, Smith declines to predict it’s here to stay. “Are we totally out of the woods? I don’t think so,” she says, noting that the Charlotte Sting, one of the league’s original franchises, folded in 2007. “We’re still having those growing pains.” And she doesn’t pretend that Bill Laimbeer, her coach with the Detroit Shock, is Mister Rogers. “He can be a jerk,” she says with a laugh. “He has his moments. He’s as annoying as can possibly be.”
This spring, Smith inked a two-year deal with the Shock. In all likelihood, it will be her last WNBA contract. Smith turns 34 in June, old for a basketball player, and her body is showing sings of wear and tear. Her surgically repaired right knee bothered her during the off-season for the first time, and thoughts of retirement have crossed her mind in recent months. “It’s close,” she says.
She acknowledges thinking about her post-basketball life (“I’m at my mid-30s crisis,” she says with a laugh) and longs for more stability. Smith has lived in Central Ohio since her Ohio State days, but she’s been a part-time resident at best. Her hectic schedule—crisscrossing the country with the WNBA during the summer, traveling all over the world with the U.S. national team at other times—makes it difficult to keep in touch with friends and family and establish roots in Columbus. “It’s hard when you are away from home a lot,” she says. “Everything is on hold.” And she’d love to experience a fun, relaxing summer vacation like everyone else for once. “It’s been 12 years since I had a good one,” she says.
But she’s not ready to hit the beach just yet. In mid March, Smith did an eight-day tour of Spain with the U.S. national team, her third overseas basketball trip since her WNBA season ended in September. Then she’ll face one of the toughest summers of her career. Smith and her Detroit Shock teammates are expected to compete for the WNBA crown again after coming just short last year of winning their second consecutive title. And in August, Smith will try to nab her third Olympic gold medal when the WNBA goes on hiatus for a month to allow its top players to compete in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Only two players—Sue Bird and Sheryl Swoopes, Smith’s longtime rival—have grabbed both Olympic gold and WNBA rings in the same year since the pro league launched in 1997.
The twofer would be a fitting capstone to Smith’s remarkable career, but that’s not why she continues to lace up her high tops. Despite her aching knee, the lousy travel schedule and the relatively so-so money, Smith knows she was given a gift: the chance to earn a living playing the sport she loves, something she never thought possible growing up in Logan about 50 miles southeast of Columbus. “I play the game because I love it, and I want to compete and I want to win,” she says.
In many ways, Smith personifies the best traits of the women’s game, which emphasizes skills and fundamentals—passing, shooting, setting picks—instead of above-the-rim acrobatics and one-on-one play. “I pride myself on playing the whole game,” she says.
Smith is best known as her sport’s career scoring leader and a brilliant long-range shooter, having knocked down more three-pointers than anyone else in WNBA history. But she also excels as a defender, passer and ball-handler. “She’s skilled at pretty much every skill needed to be successful,” says Val Ackerman, president of USA Basketball and the founding commissioner of the WNBA.
Her natural position is shooting guard, but she can play anywhere. A physical fitness fiend and a one-time high school state champion in discus and shot put, she can use her strength and quickness to neutralize taller power forwards and post players near the basket. And in recent years in Detroit, Smith has served as an all-purpose guard, bringing the ball up the court and managing the offense. “She’s like a chameleon,” says DeLisha Milton-Jones, the veteran Los Angeles Sparks forward who’s played against Smith in both the ABL and the WNBA. “She adjusts to whatever situation you need.”
Her complement of skills is truly unique. Diana Taurasi, the Phoenix Mercury star, has similar offensive talents but can’t defend like Smith. And on the men’s side, Shawn Marion, the talented Miami Heat forward, can guard four positions, but no one would take him in a shooting contest with Smith. “There are not many players as versatile as her,” says Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler who coached Smith with the Minnesota Lynx and the Quest. “I don’t know if there’s anybody. She is obviously going to go down as one of our greatest players ever.”
Though Smith’s numbers and accomplishments stack up against anyone’s, she’s never gotten much public acclaim. First, she was overshadowed by older stars such as Lisa Leslie and Swoops, whose Texas Tech team beat Smith’s Ohio State squad in the 1993 NCAA finals. Now, Smith is being eclipsed by a younger generation that includes Taurasi and Candace Parker, the sport’s latest up-and-comer. In 2005, when Smith became the first professional women’s player to score 5,000 points, the news coverage at the time focused on her lack of name recognition, a notion that Smith didn’t dispute. “If you asked who would be the first to score 5,000 points in women’s basketball, nobody would say Katie Smith,” she told the Associated Press.
Even in Central Ohio, she’s a lesser star. Certainly, Smith has earned plenty of local honors: Ohio State retired her jersey in 2001 and the Touchdown Club of Columbus named her Ohio State female athlete of the century a year later. But the Dispatch pays little attention to her WNBA exploits. And even though she’s achieved more professionally than any ex-Buckeye athlete other than Jack Nicklaus, she doesn’t do a lot of endorsements. “We did a deal early in her career with Huntington, but she doesn’t have the same opportunities presented to her as male athletes,” says her agent, Bret Adams.
Bad luck is partly to blame. She got her start in the ABL, a league that boasted better players than its rival but lacked the marketing muscle of the NBA, the WNBA’s benefactor. Then she played seven years with the Minnesota Lynx, putting up gaudy numbers for a team that rarely made the playoffs or attracted much media attention. Smith also might be more famous today if she had made the 1996 Olympic team during her senior year at Ohio State. That squad, which featured Swoopes and Leslie, elevated the popularity of the women’s game and brought fame to its best players.
Of course, women’s basketball remains something of a niche sport—especially in Columbus. Last year, the Shock scheduled an exhibition against the Washington Mystics in Nationwide Arena to give Smith a chance to play in her adopted hometown again, perhaps for the last time. Only 1,500 people showed up. “I was really disappointed,” says Craig Dunn, the Logan Daily News sports editor and Smith’s first basketball coach. (In comparison, nearly 75,000 attended the Buckeye football team’s spring game at Ohio Stadium a few weeks earlier.)
But Smith doesn’t crave glory. “I’d much rather be underrated than overrated,” she says. Her coaches, friends and teammates use words such as “humble,” “level-headed” and “down-to-earth” to describe her. They make her seem like a Girl Scout, which is appropriate. She was one while growing up in Logan, the city of nearly 7,000 in the Hocking Hills. She also took ballet and tap lessons, showed steer and sheep, learned to sew and cook in 4-H (cooking is still a hobby) and graduated as the valedictorian of her class.
ESPN analyst and former player Nancy Lieberman says Smith’s transition to the Shock perhaps best demonstrates her unselfishness. “One of the greatest two-guards our game has ever seen was willing to play point guard for the Detroit Shock,” Lieberman says. “She does whatever it takes to win.”
Midseason in 2005, Laimbeer brought Smith to the Shock in a deal that he’d been trying to make for nearly two years. The grade gave Smith a chance to play for a wining organization with a deep roster, but she had to learn a new role: Laimbeer wanted her to be the team’s “lead guard” or “offensive leader.” (He doesn’t like the phrase point guard for some reason.) “I explained to her, ‘Your time of being the star of the show has passed,’ ” Laimbeer recalls. “We need somebody to be that glue.’ ”
On first blush, Smith and Laimbeer, the former Detroit Pistons provocateur, seem like an odd couple, since he’s acerbic and rude. But on the court, they both are cold-blooded killers. “Katie is a die-hard,” says her former Columbus Quest teammate Valerie Still. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in practice, playing the Sisters of the Blind or playing for a championship.”
The Quest was probably one of the best women’s teams ever assembled—an overachieving bunch that won two titles before the ABL folded in 1998. And Smith—“the enforcer,” according to Stills—was the most competitive of all. While her Quest teammates eased up when they prepared for their first championship series in 1997, Smith took a different approach in practice. “She hyperextended my arm,” Still remembers. “She was going for the ball. I go, ‘C’mon, Katie. We can’t be hurting ourselves now. We’re playing for a championship.’ But that’s her mentality.”
Coming off knee surgery after tearing her ACL in the Athens Olympics, Smith struggled a bit during her short stint with Detroit in 2005. But she worked hard in the off-season and returned to the team the following year in the best shape of her career. With Smith playing the role of feisty on-court leader and defensive stopper, the Shock marched through the regular season and beat the Sacramento Monarchs in a hard-fought five-game championship series, giving Smith her first WNBA title.
Smith saw her numbers decline form her Minnesota days as she deferred to Detroit’s younger stars Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford, the daughter of NBA great Karl Malone. Still, Milton-Jones, the veteran WNBA player, says Smith was the key. “It was all because of Katie,” Milton-Jones says. “She was the one hitting big buckets late in the game. She was the one getting key defensive stops. She’s just able to kill you in so many different areas on the basketball court.”
These days, the WNBA seems to be treading water. Backers can point to a handful of positive signs: attendance increased slightly in 2007, the league is loosening its ties to the NBA and players signed a six-year collective bargaining agreement earlier this year with pay increases and quality-of-life improvements (veterans for the first time will get their own rooms on road trips). But other facts are less encouraging: attendance dropped the previous four years, the league continues to play an abbreviated summer schedule when few sports fans are thinking about basketball and wages are still far behind male pro sports (the maximum salary is $93,000, while the rookie minimum is $34,500).
“It will never achieve the level of support that the men’s league has,” Laimbeer says. “That doesn’t mean there is not anything for it. And every year, more and more young girls are looking at basketball as not only a way to have a college scholarship but also as a way to make a living.”
Indeed, while basketball hasn’t made Smith rich, lucrative opportunities are opening up for younger female stars. Taurasi and several other WNBA stars spent their off-season playing for Spartak, a Russian professional team. Taurasi recently told the Los Angeles Times she makes 10 times her WNBA salary playing overseas.
Taurasi and others owe a great debt to Smith. “What Katie’s generation has done is when given the opportunity they were given, they really elevated the awareness of the game in the United States,” says her former coach Agler. Says ESPN analyst Lieberman: “She’s done as much for the game as anybody.”
It’s early April, and Smith is back in Columbus. The tour of Spain went well. Despite her nagging knee, she started both games against the two top Spanish female professional teams, Ros Casares and Perfumerias Avenida. The Americans won both times, but the scores were close, and the second exhibition went into overtime. In that game, Smith led the team in minutes, rebounds and assists.
Just like on the men’s side, the rest of the world is catching up with the U.S. female national team, and it’s no sure thing that Smith and her teammates will take home a fourth consecutive gold medal in Beijing in August. In fact, the Australians, the defending world champions, led by WNBA star Lauren Jackson, might be the favorite.
Smith has a couple of weeks before her next trip—a training session in Chicago and then to China for a pre-Olympic warm-up tournament—but she isn’t taking time off from basketball. When in Central Ohio, Smith, a gym rat, plays pickup ball three to five times a week, depending largely on how her knee feels.
On this day, she’s at the Dublin Community Recreation Center, one of her favorite places to play. Some things never change: The lunchtime crowd is diverse in age and race but not in gender. Just like when she was a fifth-grader in Logan and was forced to sign up for a boy’s basketball team to learn the sport, Smith must square off against men these days if she wants to play in Columbus.
She has been coming here for about six years, and she’s made some good friends. One is Marty Auxter, a 51-year-old Marysville resident who’s wearing a USA Basketball warm-up jersey that Smith gave him. Smith attended his 11-year-old son’s birthday party a few years back, bringing her gold medals, and also got Auxter’s son a job as a ball boy for the Ohio State women’s team. “She’s a genuine person,” says Auxter, catching his breath between games. “Some athletes, when they have that type of status, aren’t that open and friendly. Katie is. It doesn’t get much better than her.”
Auxter enjoys facing off against her, though it can be humiliating. “She lights me up,” he says. Fortunately, he’s got company. “Most of the guys can’t keep up with her, and that’s not a slam on the guys,” he says. “She’s just that good.”
He returns to the court and, once the next game starts, knocks down a long jumper from the wing. “All right, Marty,” Smith yells from the sidelines. He waves as he runs back on defense.
Smith has her game face on. Basketball, even the pickup version of the sport, is serious business to her. She lost her first two games of the day, and she’d like to end that streak.
Her next game is a tight one, and Smith is a little off. The guy she’s guarding beats her down the court and scores an easy basket. “My bad,” Smith says. Later, her shot is blocked, and she turns the ball over in the backcourt.
But Smith does subtle things well. Her team has the biggest guy on the court, a hulk with braided hair in a ponytail, and she identifies the mismatch. She drops him a nice pass in the paint for a layup and later picks the man guarding him, freeing him for an easy hoop. She also offers him encouragement and advice, the leadership qualities that some predict will lead her into coaching.
Smith’s contributions help end the losing streak. After the victory, she slaps hands with her teammates and heads to the sideline. Then she waits for the next game to begin.