An unlikely Mormon: Former U. basketball star shares conversion story

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Mitch Smith was an all-conference basketball player for the University of Utah in the late 1980s before playing in Europe for 10 years.

University of Utah

To hear Mitch Smith tell the story, he never should have played basketball at the University of Utah — much less become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For starters, Smith received no shortage of scholarship offers. In fact, more than 50 college basketball coaches entered the Smith home to pitch Mitch on their respective schools.

Then there was Smith’s lifestyle and religious conviction. The 6-foot-8 forward liked to party, swore like a sailor and hailed from a family that was openly hostile toward Latter-day Saints, although they did listen to one LDS basketball coach.

What’s more, Smith’s official visit to Utah's campus was “by far the most boring” of his four recruiting trips.

But looking back now at how things unfolded, Smith knows there was something more meaningful taking place in his life. Coming to Utah turned out to be the first in a series of miracles during a decade-long journey that ultimately led him to join the LDS Church.

“I tell my kids that … it works out, even for the rough guys like me,” Smith said. “Not that I was a bad guy, but I was about as far away from being Mormon as you can get.”

Religion and hoops

Growing up in Phoenix, religion was a central part of Smith’s life. His parents raised him and his siblings as Christians, but were also hard-core anti-Mormons. They openly shunned any neighbors who belonged to the LDS faith. They accepted copies of the Book of Mormon from the missionaries and tossed them into the trash. Family members also attended seminars in order to learn anti-Mormon rhetoric. Smith says his father still has files on “how to talk to Mormons.”

“I don’t know where it came from. … I don’t think my parents were bad people … but I had one prejudice growing up — Mormons,” Smith said. “We didn’t know why we hated them — we just did, and that’s how it was. I grew up persecuting them a bit.”

Basketball was the other focal point of Smith’s youth. He was already a great athlete in a basketball family when he had a 6-inch growth spurt the summer before ninth grade. Suddenly he could dunk and began to excel as a player. As a senior, Smith averaged 27 points and 14 rebounds while leading Alhambra High School to a state championship. One newspaper recognized him as the Arizona State MVP, while another named him co-MVP with future NBA star Sean Elliott.

Coach Archibald

Coming off his senior season, Smith’s services were in high demand among college recruiters. He said 56 coaches came through their home, including UTEP’s Don Haskins, Arizona’s Lute Olson and coaches from all the Pac-10 schools. BYU called once, but Smith used some colorful language and hung up.

Then there was Utah head coach Lynn Archibald, who somehow connected with the family. At one point during his visit, Smith’s mother asked the coach to promise her something.

“If he does go to your school, you got to keep those Mormons away from him,” she said.

“Archibald said, 'That’s going to be tough, because I am a Mormon,'” Smith recalled. “We thought there’s no way he’s Mormon — he’s too nice.”

Smith took recruiting trips to UTEP, USC, Washington State and Utah. While the first three visits were significantly more entertaining than the fourth, Smith said there was something unique about Archibald. For one thing, the coach didn’t speak negatively about the other programs, while they all claimed he would soon be fired.

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