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In the heart of Texas, Shannon Smith found herself

Tracy Ko/Daily
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By Max Cohen , Daily Sports Writer
Published November 6, 2013

Shannon Smith had a visitor. He had just gotten off of his plane from across the country.

Before the guest arrived, Shannon, now a newly added transfer on the Michigan women’s basketball team, found herself alone in Athens, Texas, a small town across the country from her home, feeling defeated. Not only was Athens far away from Shannon’s home and family, but the East Texas town 75 miles southeast of Dallas had little Shannon enjoyed.

There was one reason Shannon was in Athens. In the town that prides itself on its lush, rolling hills and its annual fiddling contest sits Trinity Valley Community College.

The women’s basketball team at Trinity Valley bore six junior college national championships to its name. It was a haven for young women looking to rise to the Division I level.

Now, Shannon sat in Athens contemplating her future. Days after arriving, Shannon wasn’t sure she wanted to be there. She had come to play basketball during the 2012-13 season, to get her career back on track.

Yet Shannon wanted none of it. The environment was nothing like she was used to. There were curfew rules that were foreign to her, and Athens didn’t excite her in the least. The closest mall was an hour away.

Shannon had faced enough obstacles to this point. These new ones tested her limits. She told Trinity Valley coach Elena Lovato that she was considering quitting the sport, so Lovato offered to give her four days off. She could get away from the game, something she hadn’t had the opportunity to do in years.

Once an elite recruit headed to her home state’s school, North Carolina, after a star career at Gastonia Forestview High School, Shannon never thought she’d end up here. Basketball had become complicated for the 2010 Miss Basketball in North Carolina.

When she committed to the Tar Heels, Shannon’s future seemed bright in Chapel Hill.

“I love their campus and, of course, their coaching staff and players,” she told ESPN. “We had chemistry from the beginning.”

Shannon’s early chemistry with the Tar Heel coaching staff was short-lived. She felt as though, no matter how hard she worked off the court, she wasn’t getting the playing time she deserved on it. After redshirting her first year in 2010-11 because of lingering illness, her redshirt freshman year seemed like a constant struggle for playing time.

She was assured that if she worked harder, the playing time would come. Yet her playing time remained relatively stagnant, much to her chagrin.

Shannon was repeatedly told that she was only a freshman, that playing time would come if she kept working hard. She wasn’t willing to wait, believing her differences with the coaching staff were irreconcilable. North Carolina declined comment for this story through a spokesperson.

After the season, she decided she would be leaving North Carolina.

Looking back, Shannon knows she needed to become more mature to be able to handle setbacks, but at the time, she felt like all she needed was a new opportunity.

Shannon and her parents did their due diligence in the transfer process. Their process led them back to Michigan assistant coach Chester Nichols, who had recruited Shannon as an eighth grader when he was an assistant at West Virginia. Nichols had just joined Michigan as an assistant as part of new Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico’s coaching staff. Shannon wanted to join them at Michigan.

It looked as though everything would turn out perfectly. Shannon would get to complete her eligibility with coaches she liked at a school she wanted to go to.

But Michigan didn’t have the scholarship availability for Shannon to come right in and play. Either she could go play at a junior college for a year, or transfer to a different four-year school and sit out for a year before continuing her Division I career.

At first, Shannon was skeptical of taking the junior college route.

“I was really against it at first, I did not want to do that at all,” Shannon said.

Now Shannon had made her decision, but among Athens’ rolling hills and isolation, she wondered where she had gone wrong. And she asked herself: should I give up the sport?

***

Thirty-five years earlier, Kevin Smith broke down and cried.

The young man who had given Earvin “Magic” Johnson a run for his money just months earlier in a Class A 1977 Michigan high-school state championship game for the ages had nothing left. He felt betrayed.

Kevin had never been scared of defeat. With three seconds left in regulation in that game against Johnson and Lansing Everett High School with his Birmingham Brother Rice team down by two points, Kevin stared defeat in the eyes and whisked it away with cool confidence.

Defeat didn’t scare Kevin as he caught the inbound pass, slipped by his defender and hoisted the game-tying shot from just steps in front of the block ‘M’ at half court. Defeat wasn’t an option when the shot glanced off the backboard squarely in the middle of the box before gracefully dropping through the cylinder. Defeat didn’t cross his mind when the Crisler Arena crowd showered him with adulation.

Though Kevin only temporarily delayed defeat that day after Brother Rice couldn’t capitalize in overtime on the momentum of his shot, this defeat was little compared to what Kevin would feel in the months to come.

Kevin sobbed in Detroit Mercy coach Dick Vitale’s office before he played a minute in the Titan uniform. Surrounded by his players, Vitale announced that he would be retiring from coaching because of ulcers that plagued the inside of his mouth.

Many on the team, Kevin included, believed Vitale was taking time off so that he could become the coach of the Detroit Pistons, which he did one year later. They smelled betrayal.

In less time than it had taken him to dribble up the court against Lansing Everett, Kevin’s future with the program had evaporated. Vitale was the reason he came to Detroit. Kevin held offers from elite programs with decades of tradition during his senior year of high school. He had come very close to attending Michigan, to play in a big program known for having winning expectations. Instead, he decided to play for Vitale and help forge a new winning expectation.

With Vitale gone and a dream dissipated, all Kevin could do was cry.

***

Thirty-five years later, Kevin got off his flight to Texas and went straight to Athens to speak to his daughter. She was contemplating quitting basketball, but he thought he could show her what was best.

“A parent only wants their child to be happy,” Kevin said. “I knew my daughter wasn’t happy.”

Once he arrived in Athens, he reminded her of how much she loved basketball, how much the game had meant to her throughout her whole life. He told her she needed to grow up to be the best person she could be. He told her she was staying at Trinity Valley for the year, whether she played basketball or not.

“He is harder on me than anyone I know,” Shannon said. “He doesn’t care if it hurts my feelings. He’s always been supportive. He pushes me to be great, even if I don’t want to hear it.”

Kevin knew that Shannon couldn’t stop playing. In his own career, he had felt the hardship of transferring.

After the meeting in Vitale’s office, Kevin knew that Detroit was not his future, yet he could not fully make it his past. He knew he had to play out the season, and he did, battling through a freshman season that was not played under the circumstances he imagined when he committed.

“I knew that I would still have options, so I just worked hard that year and made freshman All-American,” Kevin said.

Despite struggling with injuries, he was the fourth-leading scorer on that Detroit team, averaging eight points per game. Though he experienced success, when the season ended he knew he wanted to get out. The program wasn’t the one he committed to with Vitale gone.

With his future up in the air, his high-school rival from the 1977 championship game convinced him where his future belonged. Johnson suggested Kevin transfer to Michigan State. Kevin was convinced and transferred there in fall 1978.

Kevin arrived in East Lansing knowing he’d be limited to practice that year. He couldn’t play. He worked with the team every day while his teammates put together a memorable season.

“It was very difficult watching your teammates play, knowing you can contribute,” Kevin said.

The Johnson-led Spartans reached the pinnacle of the sport in one of the most memorable college basketball games of all time, winning the 1979 national championship over Indiana State and its star, Larry Bird.

Kevin was forced to watch from the sidelines, itching to play each day. After the 1979 season, he experienced great success in his final three years at Michigan State, becoming a team captain and two-time All-Big Ten player.

But no matter the success he would later achieve, Kevin would always remember how helpless he felt watching his teammates compete without him.

With that in mind, he knew the worst was behind Shannon. If she worked hard and stuck with basketball, she could achieve great things.

Shannon’s teammates pitched in to make sure Shannon stayed on the team. Though she had lived with them for a few days, she had previously felt a world apart. Many of them had been at Trinity Valley for the summer, while she had just arrived. They all made one thing clear: they wanted Shannon on their team.

Lovato echoed their messages when she spoke to Shannon. She cared about Shannon, and she wanted her to succeed at Trinity Valley.

At the end of her four days off, Shannon told Lovato she wanted to keep playing basketball.

Once she made her intentions clear, Shannon was determined to succeed at Trinity Valley. Her mother, Ramada, would text her about Cam Newton and made her learn about his experiences. Shannon learned of Newton’s mindset while he attended Blinn College, a junior college in Texas about an hour drive from Athens. Newton viewed his time at junior college as a business trip, a philosophy Shannon would adopt.

She did everything she could at Trinity Valley to ensure that she would one day be back on top, just like Newton did when he left junior college to win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship at Auburn. Trinity Valley, she decided, would just be a blip in the road on her way to success.

Things changed once Shannon fully committed herself to her team’s success at Trinity Valley. Once the season started, the victories piled up on the court. Off the court, Shannon was becoming a new person as well. Her teammates became her closest friends, or as she calls them, her family. Time not spent in the gym was spent with them, whether getting dinner at Applebee’s or watching movies at Athens’ lone movie theater. Her business trip was a new life experience.

“I think that’s when the whole dynamic of our group changed, when Shannon decided to share herself,” Lovato said.

Shannon’s newfound leadership showed on the court. Her team didn’t lose a game it played (its only loss was the result of a forfeit), and Shannon went through it all with a smile.

“She was the life of the locker room,” Lovato said. “I think that they really respected her because she was so talented on the floor. They looked up to her, my freshmen did.”

While many of Shannon’s previous plans didn’t unfold the way she could’ve hoped, her time at Trinity Valley couldn’t have ended more perfectly. Shannon led her team to the NJCAA national championship game, where she scored 14 points and dished out five assists before being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

“The growth she showed over that one-year time span was probably more than any other kid I’ve ever coached,” Lovato said.

Her transformational season at Trinity Valley was complete. She had gone from a girl who struggled to deal with adversity to a woman who conquered it. She loved basketball again, and basketball finally loved her back.

As the clock hit zero in the 83-71 victory in the championship game, Shannon Smith broke down and cried.

Then, she talked to Kevin and said three words.

“We did it.”


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