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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.

“I hated snow, I hated Mormons, but there was something different and genuine about this guy,” Smith said. “I came to Utah because of Archibald.”

Marrying a Mormon

During his freshman year, Smith was at a dance club when he met an attractive blonde named Cindy Kilpack. He asked her out.

“Of course, she was a Mormon,” Smith said.

Initially, their courtship was a rocky one because they kept breaking up. She was reluctant to date him because of his contrasting standards and religious views, but as they continued to see one another, she discovered a different side of him.

“He had a tough upbringing, a hard mentality for sports that made him so hard on the outside, but he was so tender and sweet on the inside that I knew there was a chance," Cindy Smith said. "But I didn’t think it would take 10 years.”

Despite warnings from some of Smith’s friends who claimed she would leave him if he didn’t get baptized, Mitch and Cindy were married at the end of his sophomore year. They asked 3rd Circuit Judge Paul Grant, the father of Utah teammate Josh Grant, to perform the wedding.

“We found the perfect guy to marry us. He was a judge and an LDS bishop,” Smith said. “We told my parents he was a judge and we told her parents he was a bishop.”

They were man and wife now, but there were still major differences to resolve.

Within days of their wedding, Smith went out with his buddies and came home intoxicated. Cindy responded by locking him out of their apartment.

“She wasn’t used to that,” Smith said. “That was her first realization that life was going to be more exciting for her.”

While Cindy admits she was a little naïve, her husband’s behavior wasn’t anything new to her. She was raised in a broken home of divorced parents and alcoholism, and didn’t want that for her family. She insisted on some strict rules that Mitch quickly learned to respect.

“There were some pretty hard times,” Cindy said. “I know those experiences (growing up) prepared me.”

Fierce competitor

Despite his personal challenges off the court, Smith thrived on the court. He was consistently among the team leaders in scoring and rebounding at Utah and made the all-conference team as a sophomore, junior and senior.

Although he only played in the NCAA tournament once, his career numbers at Utah are still among the best in the school record books. In addition to top-10 marks in rebounding, blocked shots and minutes played, Smith is currently in 10th place on the Utes' all-time scoring list with 1,628 points, right behind Tom Chambers and just ahead of Andre Miller and Nick Jacobsen.

Smith’s success came as a result of his style of play, according to Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson.

“He hustles, he works, he’s silent, he’s all business, he’s blue collar, he’s unspectacular, he’s anything but colorful or cocky,” Robinson wrote in 1989.

“I’m a garbage player,” Smith said in the same article.

Jeff Chatman, a former Cougar forward who battled against Smith for three years, said Smith was a fierce competitor who never backed down from an opponent.

“We didn’t like each other at all, but I loved to play against him. It was all-out war. We would go back and forth, jawing at each other for most of the game, but it was respectful,” Chatman said. “If you gave him a body shot to keep him off the boards, you knew he would come back at you. He would not be intimidated.”

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.

“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.”

He had other offers, but his perspective had changed. His family, more important to him now, had been living in Europe for 10 years and he appreciated the sacrifices they had made to support his career. Moreover, he couldn’t play with the same anger and intensity as he had before. He knew his pro basketball career was over.

“I never figured out how to play after I was baptized,” Smith said.

A year after the baptism, the Smith family was sealed together in the Bountiful Temple by Elder Holland, who didn’t know Mitch’s history, but who had followed his career at the University of Utah.

That sealing was a very sweet experience, as sealings always are, but this was special because I had always thought so highly of Mitch,” Elder Holland said. “I’m an old basketball player of sorts myself, so I was very impressed by him when he played at the U. … I thought of him as just the kind of guy we always want at BYU. … I was proud to do it.”

After returning to the Salt Lake area, Smith spent nine years coaching the girls basketball team at Woods Cross High, including two daughters. Since 2010, he has worked as a salesman for Otis Elevators and currently serves as the ward mission leader in his North Salt Lake Ward. As part of his missionary effort, he created a profile to share his story on Mormon.org. The Smith family has also performed the temple work for Mitch's mother, who died a few years ago.

A powerful change

Those who knew the old Mitch Smith still marvel at how he has changed. The first time he went to the temple, Smith bumped into a former BYU opponent who was clearly alarmed to see him there.

"He said I was the last person he ever thought he would see in the temple," Smith said, laughing. "It was a slam, like there’s no way you should be in here kind of thing."

Josh Grant said he practically fell out of his chair when he learned that Smith was a Mormon. Grant credits Cindy for standing firm and never compromising who she was.

“Every time I see him I still laugh,” said Grant, who now works as a fundraiser for the University of Utah’s College of Engineering. “Miracles are miracles. I don’t know how you distinguish one being greater than the rest, but the miracle of Mitch Smith’s conversion is equal to or as great as any conversion of a Hell’s Angel. It really is miraculous what he has been through and the change that has occurred.”

Elder Holland said Smith’s story illustrates that Heavenly Father is the ultimate strategist because he puts people exactly where they need to be, when they need to be there, to accomplish his purposes. Smith’s story is also an example of the need for more understanding, compassion and determination in seeing the good in people, which leads to finding common ground and friendship.

“There can be the tendency to jump to hasty judgments on both sides. This ought to be avoided,” Elder Holland said. “Mitch’s story is an example of patience, kindness and thoughtfulness, with basic courtesy and faith winning out in the end.”

Smith joked that he would lose his “street cred” by telling his conversion story, but never hesitated in sharing his experiences. He is grateful for the blessings and people who have influenced his life, especially his friend and former coach, the late Lynn Archibald.

“People say if I had played for (Rick) Majerus I would have made it to the NBA,” he said. “I’ll take what Archibald gave me any day of the week over the NBA.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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