Playing basketball took John Smith from Johnsburg High School to a nationally renowned college career, two U.S. pro leagues and three foreign countries.
These days, Smith’s basketball travels don’t take him far – just down the road to pickup games at a local gym in St. Michael, Minnesota, about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis. He still enjoys the game, but his reasons for playing these days are a bit different.
“I don’t fit on treadmills,” the 6-foot-8 Smith joked. “If I can play once or twice a week, I can eat what I want to eat. That’s the best motivation – to stay in shape.”
Now working as a medical device salesman based in St. Michael, his wife Laura’s hometown, Smith got a humbling reminder of his college days this fall.
The 35-year-old Smith was inducted Oct. 31 into the Small College Basketball National Hall of Fame in St. Joseph, Missouri A two-time national player of the year at NCAA Division II Winona (Minnesota) State University, Smith led the Warriors to two national championships, a second-place finish and a 105-6 record in his final three seasons.
“I got to relive it a bit,” said Smith, who is still Winona’s all-time scoring leader (2,265 points) and second-leading rebounder (1,334) and shot blocker (432). “It totally blew me away. It’s been a big part of my life and has helped me get to where I’m at. But I never wanted basketball to define me, as much as I love it.”
Smith is now the youngest of the 51 members in the hall, which was founded four years ago and celebrates the careers of athletes and coaches from NCAA Division II and Division III, NAIA, the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Christian College Athletic Association.
The hall induction, according to Smith, will be something to show off in the future to his 3½-year-old son, Colton, and 1½-year-old daughter, Grace.
“It’s some kind of proof that when my kids don’t believe me, ‘I can say, ‘Hey, here’s an article. Here’s a video,’” Smith said. “They’ll have to believe me.”
Smith was part of an induction class that included former NAIA star and 14-year NBA player World B. Free, ex-Wisconsin-Platteville and University of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and late NAIA legend/Harlem Globetrotters veteran Marques Haynes.
“John’s accomplishments were simply spectacular,” said the hall’s founder, John McCarthy, who is working to raise money to build a physical location to honor the inductees inside HyVee Arena in Kansas City, Mo. “He had the individual statistics and awards, and the team success of Winona State during his tenure was truly remarkable. In short, John Smith clearly earned his place in the Small College Basketball National Hall of Fame.”
Among D-II players, Smith is the national record holder in career games played (146) and ranks second in blocks.
Smith was the two-time National Association of Basketball Coaches D-II Player of the Year at Winona and the Most Outstanding Player at the 2006 national tournament.
Out of college, Smith joined the then-NBA Development League’s Iowa Energy and also played for the Vermont Frost Heaves of the Premier Basketball League. He played one season in Portugal before spending time in professional leagues in the Netherlands and Austria.
Despite that résumé, his college career started slowly, with a redshirt season.
“I wasn’t quite ready,” he said. “I had the physical part. I was 6-8 and could walk straight. That usually makes you a prospect. I had to learn man-to-man defense. I had to learn hedging and defending a ball screen. It was all those things I never had to do [in high school]. I used to just sit back and block shots.”
As a redshirt, Smith relied heavily on former Winona assistant coaches Tom Brown and Chris Gove.
“I give a lot of credit to John. He kept working at it and getting better,” said Brown, who is now the head coach at D-II West Texas A&M, where Gove is his top assistant. “We worked with him quite a bit, and we trusted him quite a bit. He could do a lot of things on the court, not just be a [center] down low. He could rebound. He could defend. The best thing about him was he was a great passer.
“Even in his junior and senior year, he wanted to keep learning and understanding the game,” Brown said.
While recruiting Smith from Johnsburg, Brown often heard crowds chanting Smith’s name and jersey number. At Winona, he became one of the most popular athletes on campus and in the community.
“He could have had an ego,” Brown said. “He could’ve been arrogant. He could’ve been standoffish. He was never that way. He didn’t miss any practices. He was always willing to help anybody else. That’s why I think he was so popular.”