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

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

Smith wasn’t drafted, but tried out for the Phoenix Suns and was invited to veterans camp. He knew the Suns had a full roster and at 6-foot-8, 195 pounds, Smith seemed like a long shot to make it to the NBA.

He weighed that option against a $40,000 offer from a team in Madrid, Spain. With a wife and young daughter to support, he opted to go overseas.

Subtle changes

A small miracle occurred when the Smiths were adjusting to their new life in Spain.

While playing a practice game against another Spanish team, Mitch recognized one of the opposing players as former BYU center Tom Gneiting. Seeing a familiar face in a foreign country destroyed what was once a major barrier.

“OK, this whole hating BYU thing is done because he’s the only other American in the city,” Smith said. “We ended up being friends.”

Then another wall fell.

His wife had located an LDS branch and met the missionaries. Smith allowed them into his home because he enjoyed their company and the chance to speak English. But there was a catch.

“I wouldn’t let them proselyte,” he said. “But it got me used to hanging out with missionaries. They weren’t the devil after all.”

Those two elders were the first in a string of about 60 different companionships that associated with the Smith family over the next several years.

Although they couldn't discuss the gospel, having the missionaries in their home provided a safe, peaceful presence and helped combat homesickness, Cindy Smith said.

“At that point, it didn’t matter that we weren’t having discussions yet — it was positive,” she said. “It bonded us together even though he (Mitch) didn’t realize it.”

Death of a coach

After one season in Spain, Smith took his little family to Turkey, where he played for various teams over the next several years. With fans shooting flares and occasional police riots in the stands, every game was an adventure, Smith said. At times, the former Ute was forced to go on strike to get paid, but he played hard and gradually made a name for himself in Turkey while competing against future NBA names like Tony Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis, Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu. At the end of his seventh season in Europe, he was named the MVP of his league and collected the most money he had earned to that point.

Off the court, Smith hadn’t changed his mind about the church, but had mellowed out considerably. His wife continued to attend a small LDS branch with their daughters.

In January 1997, Smith received a heartbreaking phone call from the United States, informing him that Archibald, his mentor and friend, was dying of cancer and his time was short. Smith was in the middle of a season and didn’t think he would see his old coach again. An opportunity to go home came two weeks later, however, when his team suddenly ran out of money.

“With no money, they take the car. The apartment’s not paid, the school’s not paid,” Smith said. “So I end up coming back and hanging out with ‘Arch’ for two months before he died.”

Lee Anne Pope, Archibald’s daughter, said Smith was considered a member of the family, and the time he spent with her father before he died was meaningful. Smith’s sense of humor kept Archibald laughing until the end, she said.

“He loved Mitch,” said Pope, who is married to Mark Pope, a BYU assistant coach. “There was something special about their relationship.”

Archibald had not talked about the church before, but the subject came up in his final days. Smith realized the church standards and values were having a positive impact on his family, and he was OK with that.

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