Smith had well-deserved swagger
But throughout her career, she has often been overshadowed by other legends
We stood in a hallway just steps away from the Final Four court in Atlanta.
It was 1993, and as a freshman at Ohio State, Katie Smith had led the Buckeyes to the national championship game. It was my first interview with her, and I mentioned that I'd likely get to see her play in person a few more times in college.
Her response? Something along the lines of, "Lucky you."
And that was Smith's swagger. She knew that she was good. Really good. Twenty years later, the depths of Smith's talent have been realized in some ways. She is the all-time leading scorer in U.S. professional women's basketball and a seven-time WNBA All-Star. She also won four pro titles (two with the ABL's Columbus Quest and two with the WNBA's Detroit Shock) and helped Team USA to four gold medals.
TWO LEGENDS READY TO RETIRE
After 15 seasons in the WNBA, Katie Smith's career will come to a close Sunday as New York plays its regular-season finale. Tina Thompson, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA's inaugural draft in 1997, heads to the playoffs with Seattle. Her 17-year career will end when the Storm's season ends.
But even with all of her accomplishments and accolades, it seems Smith has spent her career stuck in the shadow of other players and teams.
Few remember Smith scored 28 points in the 1993 title game against Texas Tech. That's because Sheryl Swoopes scored 47 in one of the greatest performances ever to lead her Lady Raiders to the NCAA title.
And then there was the American Basketball League. It started at the same time as the WNBA, as both leagues tried to capitalize on a surge in popularity for women's basketball following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Smith chose the ABL over the WNBA, probably because it paid more and she could continue to play in Columbus. Her team won both ABL titles before the league folded in the middle of its third season, but those championships existed largely in a vacuum. Unlike the WNBA, the ABL got very little coverage and even less TV time.
Smith spent the next 6½ seasons playing for the middling Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA. The Lynx reached the playoffs just twice during Smith's time there, in 2003 and 2004 (Smith missed the 2004 postseason with a knee injury suffered in the Athens Games). And although she won a scoring title by averaging 23.1 points a game in 2001, her play in those seasons was largely overshadowed by stars like Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Lisa Leslie, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird.
Smith was so undervalued that Shock coach Bill Laimbeer was able to make one of the all-time one-sided trades in WNBA history to get her in 2005. Smith went to the Shock, along with the Lynx's 2006 second-round pick, for Chandi Jones, Stacey Thomas and the Shock's 2006 first-round draft pick, which ended up being Shona Thorburn. The three players Smith was traded for combined for two more seasons in the WNBA. Smith, on the other hand, helped the Shock win two titles.
But even as a champion, she wasn't considered the best player on her team. Deanna Nolan, Ruth Riley, Swin Cash and even Cheryl Ford were bigger names. But Smith reinvented herself in Detroit at Laimbeer's suggestion. She got into better shape, became a better defender and extended her professional career.
And now, after stints with Washington, Seattle and finally back with Laimbeer in New York on the Liberty, Smith is retiring after 17 years as a professional basketball player. But even in retirement she will compete for the spotlight. Thompson, who won four titles with the Houston Comets in the early years of the WNBA, is also calling it a career at the end of this season.
For those who never understood or appreciated the depths of Smith's talent, here's another anecdote.
Tamika Catchings, who led the Indiana Fever to a WNBA title last season, was visiting ESPN a couple of years ago to promote the league. In an interview, we talked about the players who challenged her most. Catchings smiled, as if she was telling a secret.
"Katie Smith," she said, "I always hate playing against her. I don't know what it is. She is tough. But don't tell anyone …"
The word is out. And as Smith finishes her career, we should stop and appreciate what she has accomplished, even if she did a lot of it under the radar.