It has been, on all fronts, an eventful (strange?) senior year for BYU's Michael Smith. In three months he has:
- Been featured in Sports Illustrated.- Been touted as a preseason All-America.
- Scored 30 points or more six times.
- Told his coaching staff to "Shut up!" in front of 16,000 fans.
- Taken to throwing passes to himself off the glass.
- Offended The New York Times.
Have we left anything out? Plenty. When Smith graduates this spring, he will undoubtedly go down as one of the most colorful, complex and publicized athletes BYU has ever sponsored.
Certainly Smith has produced deserving numbers. In January he scored 229 points to average almost 29 a game. That eight-game performance earned him accolades as Deseret News Athlete of the Month for January. If this news rings familiar, it should. Smith has won more Athlete of the Month awards than anyone since its inception in 1979. He was also the AOM in January and December, 1987.
No matter how many times Smith is featured, he is always a good (read: unusual) story. One night he will wear a matching pair of aquamarine knee braces. "You know me, anything to be a little different," he explains. The next game there will be no knee braces, but he will be wearing a T-shirt under his uniform. Some nights it's an occasion for blue Spandex shorts under his uniform. And every night there is his trademark: the uniform jersey pulled out in back.
Despite a high profile, Smith remains one of the most accessible athletes in the WAC. He readily makes himself available for interviews, especially after games. There's no telling what can come from that. Against Hawaii he committed two turnovers and missed a crucial shot in the final two minutes. Questioned by reporters about turnovers, he said, "I'm glad you brought that up." He proceeded to blame himself for his worst performance ever at the end of a game.
He can be comical, sober, philosophical, whimsical or any number of other things. "If he likes to keep people guessing - more reporters than anybody - it's in good fun. It's tongue-in-cheek," says his mother, Marie.
Smith has a phenomenal memory and can recall the names of media members he has only met once. He is also sensational on lists, and if given an arbitrary year, can name the team that won the NCAA title that season.
Sometimes post-game interviews can get him in trouble. During a loss to St. Mary's, Smith shouted "Shut up!" at the BYU coaches. After the game he said one of the coaches had yelled a derogatory comment at him. Smith also took the occasion to complain to reporters about Coach Ladell Andersen's coaching philosophy. The comments made the newspapers the following day, and it was a week before things died down.
His mother bristles at critcisms of her son, pointing out that he issued a public apology two days later. "I never in this house ever heard him swear. The only (wrong) thing I've ever heard him say was `shut up,' and that may haunt him for the rest of his life."
Smith is never afraid to express opinions, which makes him a delight to writers. His range of subjects may cover basketball in general, the curious twists of life, opposing coaches' mistakes, his own mistakes, his own coaches' mistakes, marriage, religion, and the nuances of the English language. He intersperses interviews with words he picked up in a vocabulary class.
"You lose a game like that, you feel like a nonentity," he says to a reporter. "Nonentity. You know what that word means? A person or thing of little or no consequence."
Or: "Things would have been in bedlam. You know that word? Bedlam? A state or condition of chaos; absence of order."
And so it goes, Smith entertaining everyone - fans, media, teammates and, presumably, himself.
Despite his accessibility, Smith can occasionally appear aloof to reporters who don't know him. In an interview session following a loss at St. John's, a disappointed Smith looked at the ceiling and appeared bored. He ended one answer with the phrase, "I don't know what you want me to say."
"How'd you like to work with that guy all year?" said a New York Times reporter.
He isn't always well received by the coaching staff, either, which complains Smith should spend less time on entertainment and more on improving his defense. Smith counters that he is only trying to be himself and enjoy the game and that he is working hard on his defense.
Smith's parents say he is a free spirit who has shouldered a tremendous amount of pressure to be a superstar player and an example, as well. "I think once or twice Mike said it was going to be difficult to play the role," says his father, Dennis. "He doesn't want that pressure to always be acting the perfect part. He wants to be more flexible."
Lest Smith be miscast as a bad apple, one must consider: He served a voluntary two-year LDS mission; is the GTE All-America Player of the Year and carried a 3.53 GPA last semester; married a high school friend-turned-girlfriend last fall. He doesn't dodge questions and doesn't hesitate to shoulder blame. This is not exactly a problem child.
But at a school where image counts for plenty, Smith gives them a headache. He appeared in Playboy magazine's preseason All-America team, which didn't sit especially well on the Provo campus. Last spring he drew headlines for several weeks as he pondered declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft.
No matter who the opponent is, Smith puts on a good show. He holds the unofficial world record for time-consuming handshakes and high fives during lineup introductions. He explains that he began his career with high fives during introductions; then he graduated to touching toes with teammates. "But when everybody caught on to that, I went with the straight missionary handshake. Give 'em the handshake . . . make a little eye contact," he teases.
He is also immensely entertaining once the games starts. Smith's spinning 360-degree baseline jump shot against Colorado State was impressive by any standard. He beat Wichita State by sinking a 15-foot jumper with a man hanging all over him. He has taken several opportunities to throw the ball off the glass and retrieve his own pass - a move that makes coaches wince. But each time, he has either drawn a foul or scored a basket on the play.
You may hate the method but you can't fault the results.
The coaches just shake their heads. "You can't take away a guy's individuality," assistant coach Roger Reid says.
Last week Smith made news again when he said in a television interview that BYU was a better team than Utah and should win the game. The Utes ended up winning 90-86, and Utah's Mitch Smith credited much of it to his rival's chutzpah.
The perception that Smith is something other than a well-intending, fun-loving person is wearing thin with his parents. "I get tired of the thing where people keep calling him different," says Marie. "He will graduate in four years instead of five - he takes an average of 171/2 hours a semester. He has a new marriage; he has given 43 speeches to young people this season; he will be an academic All-America again; he's playing his heart out on the court. It's been a very, very frustrating season for Mike. How different is he?"
Different or not, there is little variance of opinion as to Smith's abilities. He is second in the WAC, scoring 26 points a game. He regularly draws the opposition's best defensive players; nobody has figured out how to stop him. Against St. John's he scored 29 points and was lavishly praised by Redmen Coach Lou Carnesecca. He scored 31 against WAC leader New Mexico; 35 against San Diego State; 27 on national television against Wichita State.
Smith's production has not gone unnoticed. NBA director of scouting services Marty Blake says, "He's a very good shooter. He's a face-the-basket player. He has good pro characteristics."
Blake stops short of declaring Smith a certain draft choice. He is only an average rebounder and, at least according to the coaches, a below-average defensive player. But at 6-foot-10, and being a great offensive commodity, his odds appear good. "He's very good. He can pass the ball, he runs, he shoots, he goes outside.
"There are other things he's gonna have to do," says Blake, when asked about Smith's defense. "But that's not going to be my problem. I only look at potential and skills."
Smith is obviously disappointed with BYU's 9-10 record and allows that this year has been a composite of agony and ecstacy. He has had his spats with the coaches, and the team has been on the fritz. But he continues to run up impressive totals and play well in virtually every game, paving the way for another All-America season. "It's been a year that as a kid you dream about," he says. "To play college basketball. . . you dream of being a star, of being a senior and of being a leading scorer. If you had told me six years ago where I'd be, I'd have been exhilarated.
He continues, "But because of everything that goes on presently, it's kind of tough to sit back and savor because of the pressure to win and to perform every night. I'm not satisfied to lose half my games. Ten losses is as many as I've ever had in a season."
Regardless of whether he plays in the NBA, or the Cougars make the playoffs, Smith will go down as one of the greats in BYU history. He will finish the year as the school's third-leading career scorer.
But as someone who knows Smith well will tell you, basketball is only part of the picture. "He's fun and he's funny," says his mother. "Mike walks in the door, and the whole world opens up. There's not a boring day with him. He's definitely his own person."