The words have been blurred, but their meaning is still as clear as ever. “Next” and “play” appear on the shoes of Michigan forward Jennifer Smith. The phrase has been used as an inspiration this year – to keep her focused on moving forward in a season that has been so difficult.
“It’s more of a thing to get her to focus on letting go and moving on,” Michigan coach Sue Guevara said. “She would get caught up in not making a shot, and when that would happen, you could see her body and shoulders would drop. Maybe she wouldn’t sprint as hard down to the next end where, if you just let that play go and go on to the next one, you can be effective.”
Now, after Michigan’s long season, the words are so worn and faded that they barely resemble letters anymore. But just looking down and seeing the blue scribble is enough for Smith.
“Usually if I miss a couple of my shots, I’ll get down on myself and think, ‘Oh God, my shots aren’t going to fall tonight,'” Smith said. “But I’ve tried to really focus on shooting every single time I get the ball, and not to focus on what I did wrong, but how I can make it right.”
And while things haven’t always gone right for Smith, the Michigan program can at least be thankful that any struggles in her collegiate career have come for the Maize and Blue.
From East Lansing to Ann Arbor
Smith’s success at Michigan would never have been possible if not for a tough decision she made four years ago. Because staying close to home was a priority when selecting where she’d play basketball, many people around her had just assumed that Smith, a Lansing native, would wind up a Spartan.
But nobody expected that “close to home” would mean making the 65-mile trip to Ann Arbor.
“It didn’t go over real well; everyone was kind of expecting me to stay at home, so I kind of shocked some people with that (decision),” Smith said.
To this day, many friends give Smith a hard time about being a Wolverine.
“A lot of my friends go to Michigan State. So when I go home, they give me a lot of crap about it.”
Smith was recruited by schools from all over the country, giving the most consideration to Duke, Clemson, Michigan and Michigan State. But ultimately, being near her family was the deciding factor. Smith’s close relationship with her parents – who have only missed a handful of her games since middle school – and her brother led her to decide that playing college basketball in the state of Michigan was the right choice.
“(Staying close to home) was a big factor,” Jennifer’s father, Greg Smith said. “She was being recruited by other Big Ten schools and other leagues, and she pretty much could have played wherever she wanted to. But we told her that we wouldn’t be able to go to as many games if she played out of state.”
After narrowing her choice down to Michigan and Michigan State, both of which were heavily recruiting her, Smith decided that she wanted to be out on her own to get the full college experience.
“She thought that being an hour and a half away from home, she would still be able to be on her own somewhat, and we’d still be able to come to the games,” Greg said.
Jennifer’s parents have enjoyed watching her games and have attended nearly every game she’s played in her three years. The Smiths even made the trip to Michigan’s in-season tournament in Hawaii during Jennifer’s freshman year, Greg’s first time ever on an airplane.
While the Smiths hoped that their daughter stayed close to home for college, they didn’t pressure her decision one way or the other. According to Smith’s mother, Debbie, choosing a college was her daughter’s decision 100 percent, and she and her husband were behind Jennifer no matter what choice she made.
After deciding that Michigan was the school for her, Smith committed to play for the 2000-01 season, and she hasn’t looked back.
The queen of style
Today, Smith is a junior who is making an impact on her team, both on the court and off. Sure, Smith leads this year’s Wolverines in scoring and is a close second in rebounding, but just because Smith is all business on the court doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to have fun off it.
“I would say she’s very trendy, (especially with) clothing,” said Michigan senior forward Raina Goodlow, one of Smith’s two roommates. “She always has the latest clothing. She loves to go shopping, and has little, nice things all over the house.”
“I think that anytime, if she has free time, and you’re like, ‘Jen, do you want to go shopping?’ she would definitely go,” said forward BreAnne McPhillamy, Smith’s other roommate. “She owns a lot of clothes.”
In addition to keeping up with the latest trends in clothing, Smith is also trendy with her selection of music.
“50 Cent, stuff like that,” Smith said when asked what music she listens to the most. “Which I get made fun of for (by teammates), but whatever.”
“She’s so into R&B and rap,” Goodlow said. “She likes all kinds of music, but she’ll surprise me. She’ll listen to some hard rap, and that’s just Jen.”
Goodlow, who missed all but four games last year due to a staph infection, had nothing but good things to say about Smith, and it’s quite obvious that the feeling is mutual. Smith said that Goodlow is one of players on the team that she really looks up to.
“I have a lot of respect for Raina,” Smith said. “Especially since she came back and worked so hard after not even being able to walk last year.”
Nursin’ or hoopin’?
After earning her college degree, Smith will have a number of options in her life, both athletically and academically. But at this stage of, approaching the end of her junior season, Smith would like to continue to play some sort of basketball after college.
“I’d be interested in possibly going to the WNBA if I get recruited,” Smith said. “If not, maybe (playing professional basketball) overseas, but I’m not sure.”
But before she boards her plane for Europe, Guevara believes that Smith has a good chance to play for the professionally for a number of WNBA teams.
After last year, Smith’s sophomore season, she got a good deal of interest from WNBA scouts. Guevara said she received “a lot of phone calls” from scouts regarding Smith following the Big Ten Tournament last year.
Goodlow also believes Smith has a good shot to earn a spot on a WNBA roster.
“The sky’s the limit for her,” Goodlow said. “She has the natural height, great ability and she’s strong on the blocks. That’s what every WNBA team is looking for. I think she’ll fit right in.”
“I think that she has a great upside, and I hope we get to see more of that upside (next year),” Guevara said.
While she would like to play basketball coming out of college, this doesn’t mean that Smith won’t be thinking about what career she will ultimately wind up in. Smith was a Nursing school student her freshman year, before being forced to transfer because basketball proved to be too much for her academics. But Smith said that she still wants to be a nurse and is hoping to go back to school to get her nursing degree after she graduates.
Smith’s parents said that, once again, they will support whatever decision their daughter makes regarding her post-collegiate career.
“I’m not going to try and influence her one way or another,” Smith’s father said. “As long as she’s healthy and happy, whatever decision she makes is up to her. I want her to get her degree from Michigan before she does anything, and if she chooses to play pro ball, I’m going try and make it to every one of those games too.”
Looking Toward the Future
This season, the Wolverines have struggled with leadership. Through their non-conference schedule, this weakness was not exposed because the team was winning, coming out on top in nine of its first 11 games. But since the start of the Big Ten season in early January, Michigan has looked like a different team, losing 14 of its final 18 games.
Before the season began, Guevara expected that leadership would have to come from her two senior captains, Goodlow or senior LeeAnn Bies. But over the course of the team’s embarrassing Big Ten season, the seniors failed to step up. On the other hand, Smith has taken charge, averaging 26.7 points while shooting 64 percent over three straight outings from Feb. 16 to 23.
Next season, it’s obvious Smith will have to be the leader that she has started to become over the past few weeks. While she knows this will be a challenge, she’s looking forward to it.
“I think I have the capabilities (to lead the team),” Smith said. “I’m a really approachable person to talk to. My teammates used to call me ‘Nurse Jen’ because I have that character and I did also want to be a nurse. I think I’ll be there for the team on and off the court.”
“I feel pretty good about it,” Guevara said about Smith’s ability to lead the team. “I think she’s vocal, she’s got a pretty good head on her and I think that she has a very strong work ethic that the younger kids can look up to.
“I think every style of leadership is different. I think Jen does a really nice job of letting people know how she feels, and maybe calling people out, saying, ‘This is what you need to do. This is what you’re not doing.’ “
After Michigan’s 82-55 loss to Michigan State on Feb. 16, Smith was visibly frustrated at her team’s lack of effort.
“I wish our whole team would have the same attitude (I have),” she said of the team’s loss, in which she felt that maybe some of her teammates were giving up on the season.
While this statement was only enough to fire up the team for two wins over the team’s last six games, it’s a testament to how Smith will look to lead the team next year.
And while many players may have been relieved that the team’s long and painful season ended on Friday in Indianapolis, Smith wasn’t relieved at all. Instead, she’s anxious to get next season underway and turn things around.
“No I’m not happy that we’re done at all,” Smith said after the team’s 72-50 loss to No. 12 Purdue on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament. “I wish we could’ve gone on, but I mean I guess that’s what I have to do now – look towards next season.”
Will the disappointments of this year and last haunt Smith in her senior campaign? All she has to do is look down to her shoes. In this case, “Next Play” will have to translate to “Next Season,” and under Smith’s guidance on and off the court, next year’s Wolverines will look to erase the memories of the past.