Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Siena's Smith Deserves to Hear Cheers

The given first name of the walk-on to Siena College's men's basketball team is "Just-in'love."

So, how did that name come about?

"My mother said that she was `just in love' with me, so that's what she named me .... Just'in-love," said Just-in'love Smith, who this blogger had the pleasure to meet and converse with recently.

After spending some time with Smith, I came away with the believe that we should be in love with this Siena basketball player, too.

We tend to place athletes on a pedestal too often merely because of what they can do in an athletic venue. We cheer loudest who wear the colors of our respective favorite schools.

But our appreciation for Just-in'love Smith should transcend all of that.

Smith, a walk-on who will play just this season for the Saints (his eligibility for the D-I level ends after 2009-10), probably won't play many meaningful minutes, so the chances to cheer for his on-court exploits will be extremely limited.

But, you should cheer loudest for him if his name is announced during pre-game introductions. You should shake his hand and say "thanks," if you ever have the opportunity to meet him.

And, you should think about him when you see him at a Siena game, and reflect on his contributions that came far from an athletic venue, particularly when he's standing straight during the pregame playing of the national anthem.

Smith might be wearing Siena's green, but his true colors are red, white and blue.

Smith is already my favorite Siena player, even if he never scores a point, never gets a rebound and never gets into a game.

He's far from the traditional athlete who inhabits college rosters. He turned 26 this past August. He's older, even, than the program's director of basketball operations Dave Matturro. Teammates, and even Matturro, call him "Pops."

But, that's just fine with Smith. Nothing is likely to fluster him, because he's already seen plenty of things that make college and college-level athletics seem like light lifting.

Smith has already served four years in the Army, a full year of that duty in the combat zones of Iraq as a supply specialist.

A native of Sacramento, the strongly built 5-foot-11, 190-pounder moved into New York Capital's Region to live with his sister and her husband just prior to his junior year in high school. By then, his mother had passed away and Smith says that his father is "out of the picture."

It's a recipe for trouble, but somehow Smith never fell into that trap. Here's a little more of his story, in his own words ...

"I played two years of high school basketball at Columbia High School (as a junior, he was a teammate of Craig Forth, the 7-foot center who was a starter on Syracuse's national championship team). After that I went to Hudson Valley Community College (in Troy, N.Y.) for one year, but I lacked self-dicipline. My sister and brother-in-law are both in the military and moved into this area (upstate New York) as Army recruiters. I needed something that would give me structure, and I saw how beneficial it was for them to be in the military.

"I became a supply specialist. I was responsible for delivering whatever supplies were needed from our supply post to soldiers in the field. We'd deliver food, medical supplies, weapons, ammuniton ... whatever was needed. I served three years in Fairbanks, Alaska, and one year in Iraq.

"It was crazy in Iraq. We were fired upon. I often returned fire (on the enemy). On one trip, the enemy set off an IED (an Improvised Explosive Device) about 10 seconds after we drove over it. They'd make bombs and string a wire to a trigger. When you'd drive over it, they'd trigger it. On that trip, we saw them on the side of the road pushing the trigger. For some reason, it didn't go off right away and we got past it before it exploded. But days like that ... it made me realize that I wanted to come home.

"I had some close friends who died over there, including one who was a real good basketball player and wanted to play in college when he got back. And, he never did.

"I've come back a different person. It changes you a lot. After seeing what I saw over there ... you come back and appreciate what you have and the opportunities that you have. You don't take things for granted any more. You realize what you have here is a blessing."

When Smith's tour of duty ended he returned to Hudson Valley Community College, where he played in the 2007-08 season. One of his teammates there was Tiki Mayben, who recently was dismissed from the SUNY Binghamton's program as he faces charges of selling drugs in the Capital Region over the summer.

The paths taken by the former HVCC teammates ... Smith's toward maturity and an appreciation of life, and Mayben's a more troubled direction ... is discussed.

"I tried to be a mentor to Tiki," said Smith. "I tried to talk to him about things. I felt I could help him. I tried go be like an older brother to him. I don't know what happened."

Instead, Maybe has wasted opportunities available to him purely because of his athletic gifts.

Smith, on the other hand, has learned that athletics and, even, life is a privilege and not an entitlement. And, there is surely a good lesson in that contrast of former teammates.

Smith is attending Siena on the G.I. Bill, and is a member of the school's ROTC program. His military experience means his education is paid for, and he also receives living expenses as part of his benefit package. He didn't have to continue to play basketball to receive any of that. But, he wanted to.

"I talked to coach (Mitch) Buonaguro a number of times to see if I could do this," said Smith, about becoming a Siena walk-on. "He felt I could help out."

Siena's coaching staff believes Smith will add to the competitiveness of team practices. Head coach Fran McCaffery calls him the team's best defensive player.

"I don't know if I'll play much, but that doesn't matter to me," said Smith. "I just want to be a good teammate, I can be like an older brother to the guys here. I'll help out in any way I can. I just wanted to be part of the team."

Smith already knows plenty about teamwork, having been part of a "team" far more important than any athletic unit.

For that, and for embracing the opportunity to be a positive role model for his college basketball teammates, we should all cheer for him.

Just-in'love Smith should be everyone's favorite MAAC basketball player this season.

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