Quest for perfection pushed Katie Smith into Naismith Hall of Fame

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Katie Smith is one of the physically strongest women to ever have played basketball. The phrase "bruising point guard" fit her when she showed the versatility to take over that position.

So when she mentions all the things she did growing up in Ohio, such as ballet and tap dancing, they might not fit the "fierce competitor Katie Smith" image most have of her. But she brought the same mindset to those things, too.

"That was about following instructions and paying attention to details," Smith said, citing two things she has always relished. "We competed in tap; it was about timing and being coached. When you look back, it all has the same makeup: trying to perfect something."

When Smith is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, she'll still be trying to get the instructions and details just right. That's how she's wired. When inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in June, she was the only one of the honorees to come in under the wire of the allotted speech time. Nobody else was close.

She'll nail that again in Springfield, Massachusetts, because that's what Smith does.

"I am a little bit more of a rule-follower than some," she says, chuckling. Yet the intriguing thing is that Smith also broke the so-called "rules" of what you could expect from a 5-foot-11 guard in the women's game. She played point guard, shooting guard, wing and small forward professionally, and she guarded all five positions.

In 2001 in Minnesota, she led the WNBA in scoring at 23.1 PPG. By 2006 she became a point guard distributor for a championship squad in Detroit. All the while, she was one of the WNBA's most reliable defenders.

"That was part of Katie's longevity, her ability to do what was asked of her," said Seattle's Sue Bird, who played with and against Smith in the WNBA and was also her USA Basketball teammate. "Early in her career, she was a straight-up scorer, but she was always cerebral, understood what was happening around her and why it was happening. To see her play point guard wasn't surprising.

"I remember when she was with Seattle, there would be times she would be bringing the ball up, and then we'd switch screens and she was guarding the 5 [center]."

Current Sparks coach Brian Agler coached Smith with the ABL's Columbus Quest and in the WNBA with the Lynx. He said that, as a defender, Smith reminded him of another all-time great: Indiana's Tamika Catchings.

"Katie and Tamika, in the trenches, those two could match up with almost anybody and cause problems," Agler said. "Katie was a great scorer who came to understand she could influence the game at the defensive end as much as offensive end."

Home-state hero

Smith, 44, is from Logan, Ohio, about 49 miles southeast of Columbus, where she would go to Ohio State. As a kid, she was also an Ohio Bobcats fan, because both of her parents went to that school, 25 miles farther southeast.

Smith had two brothers; the whole family spent considerable time in a van driving all over the state -- and eventually the country -- with the Smith kids' various pursuits.

"When I was growing up, I took ballet and tap. I was in 4-H and took sheep to the fair, did sewing and cooking," Smith said. "We were always going around and doing stuff. I loved them all, but basketball really had everything I liked.

"It's the physical stuff, the skills, the strength you need when you're leaning on somebody and vice versa, the quickness and jumping, and the cerebral part -- where it's changing every second; you're making decisions, you're reading things and trying to take advantage. It's perfect because it's so challenging; it's constantly coming at you, and you have to figure it out."

In high school, Smith did basketball, volleyball and track and field, and she could have excelled at all three in college. But basketball was, as she said, the thing that really "stuck." Highly recruited, she opted to stay close to home with Ohio State.

Her freshman season was epic; Smith was accepted as a rookie by the Buckeyes seniors, who weren't worried about how young she was or who got credit. They just wanted to win. Ohio State finished 24-3 and got an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. Ohio State survived a tough regional final against Virginia in Richmond, Virginia, 75-73.

That sent the Buckeyes to their first -- and still only -- Women's Final Four. In an all-Big Ten national semifinal matchup against Iowa, Smith scored late to send the game to overtime. Ohio State won 73-72, then took on Texas Tech and Sheryl Swoopes for the championship.

It was another close game, but the Buckeyes fell just short this time, 84-82. Swoopes had a record 47 points in the final, and Smith scored 28. Both would go on to be Naismith Hall of Famers; Swoopes was inducted in 2016.

Ohio State didn't make the NCAA tournament in Smith's sophomore and junior seasons, but returned when she was a senior. Her college career ended in the 1996 second round against eventual champion Tennessee.

The ABL launched that fall; the WNBA was set to start in 1997. With a team right there in Columbus, the ABL made sense for Smith. The Quest won the league's two titles before it folded in its third season.

It was with the Quest, playing for another Ohioan, Agler, that Smith said she really began to embrace defense.

"It meant as much as scoring a basket," Smith said. "The pride we took in defense was huge. Basketball is really not complicated; it's the same action just set up in different ways. But you have to know the personnel that you're guarding and what they like to do.

"Once Brian started coaching me, I loved playing defense. I could score 20 points and guard the best player on the other side. Not everybody does that."

Championship level in the WNBA

After the ABL ended, Agler and Smith were quickly reunited with WNBA expansion team Minnesota in the summer of 1999. The Lynx struggled in their early years, though. Agler was let go a little over midway through his fourth season. The next year, 2003, the Lynx had their first winning record and playoff appearance under coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. They made the playoffs again in 2004 but were struggling once more in 2005.

During that season came the move that changed Smith's career: She was traded to Detroit. Shock coach Bill Laimbeer challenged Smith to improve her fitness and embrace the point guard role on a team with scorers such as Deanna Nolan, Swin Cash and Cheryl Ford.

"The biggest part for me was I loved playing the game," Smith said. "So if it was scoring, or setting a pick, or playing the point and putting the pieces together, it's all a chess match. But when I played the point guard, it was so much more challenging.

"It's all the little things that matter the most. You have to put the ball in the hole, but it's the cut, it's the pass, the screen. Those things matter even though they don't get a lot of attention. Those are the things I tried to pride myself on."

Detroit made the WNBA Finals in 2006, '07 and '08, winning the first and last of those. The Shock fell in five games to Phoenix in 2007. Smith was the MVP of the 2008 Finals, a sweep of San Antonio.

"I remember playing against her at Detroit," Bird said. "When you have a player like that running the point guard spot, and they had players like Swin and [Nolan], who was I guarding? I had to guard the point guard, and with Katie's strength, that was a tough matchup."

Laimbeer left the Shock during the 2009 season, after which the team left Detroit for Tulsa. Smith was one of the Shock stars who did not go to Tulsa. At the end of her career, she played one season in Washington, two in Seattle and one in New York before moving into an assistant's role with the Liberty. This past season, she took over as New York's head coach.

Smith finished her WNBA career with 6,452 points, currently fifth on the league's scoring list. In 15 WNBA seasons, she averaged 13.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists. She's seventh in career win shares at 59.77. She also won Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Smith said she has brought the same things to coaching that she did to playing -- and to everything else she has ever done.

"I'm a worker, and whatever I need to do, I'll do," she said. "All of us put hours in the gym that nobody sees. In the pros, you're on your own a lot, and you're always motivating yourself. You have to think the game, you have to be a good athlete and you have to love being tested.

"With coaching, it is work, but it's also not work. Because you get to be around players to help them have the best careers they can possibly have. I like to game plan. I like managing all the players, the personalities. I have to figure out how to push buttons and put the right combos out there. But it's fun. It's exciting because I love the game so much."