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

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

“So I’d gone from fighting with the wife — ‘They (the girls) are going to be Baptist’ — to ‘I’m fine with them being baptized (in the LDS Church),’” Smith said.

Archibald died on May 28, 1997. Smith was asked to speak at his funeral. It turned out to be a powerful spiritual experience for the towering, hard-nosed basketball player. As he spoke, Smith said he felt the Spirit.

Bob Burton, a friend and former assistant coach to Archibald, was next. As Burton finished and sat next to Smith, the two listened to a third speaker and were quite impressed.

“Who is this?” Burton whispered to Smith.

“I don’t know,” Smith replied as the warm feeling returned.

The speaker was Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, then a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Holland was there at the request of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a close friend of Archibald who wasn’t able to attend due to an illness.

The next step

The following year, Smith was surprised to receive a generous offer from a team in Belgium.

“Usually, when you make a name for yourself in a country, you stay there,” he said. “You typically don’t get offers like that from other countries.”

As the family settled into a new environment, they became acquainted with a new home teacher, an American lawyer, who Smith said was very assertive.

“He says, ‘You are going to take the missionary discussions,’” Smith said. “He didn’t give me a vote.”

It then occurred to Smith why he was really in Belgium. There were no missionaries in Turkey, but there were in Belgium. He agreed to the missionary lessons, not knowing his wife had called home and asked friends and family to fast and pray for her husband.

In the first visit, one of the elders asked Smith’s daughter, then 8 or 9 years old, why she wanted her father to join the church. “So the family could be together forever,” the little girl said.

“Game, set, match,” Smith said. “I feel something and I know what the answer is, but I’m still hard-headed. I tell the missionaries the kids can’t be in any more discussions.”

As the sessions continued, Smith wrestled with his feelings. He wasn’t sure if the gospel was true and he still wanted to drink. When he did pray, he expected a lightning-bolt answer.

One night when Smith was up late holding his fussing baby daughter, he said a prayer and looked at a calendar. He’d almost concluded he wouldn’t have to join the church when suddenly his eyes settled on June 13.

“I got that feeling, the one you don’t want to admit, especially someone stubborn like me,” Smith said. “There was no chance of denying what I felt.”

When the family returned to the U.S., Smith called the bishop and requested a baptismal service for Saturday, June 13, 1998, which turned out to be the only weekend his parents could come from Arizona. They came despite their strong opposition to his decision, demonstrating what Mitch called “the true love of a parent.”

Smith never wavered in the faith after getting baptized, his wife said.

“He was all in,” Cindy Smith said. “It was exactly what he wanted to do.”

The journey continues

Smith returned to Turkey the next season but wasn’t the same player. His coach, a man he had played for before, showed him previous game film and said, “This is who we hired. I don’t know who you are.”

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