Spartan Spotlight - Kelvin Smith

LANGLEY, British Columbia - Kelvin Smith was recently asked who the biggest influence in his basketball career was.

To the inquirer it seemed like the answer might be obvious. After all, Smith had spent much of his childhood playing pickup basketball with his cousin and now NBAer Russell Westbrook, who was three years his senior.

Instead, Smith, without hesitation, said it was his Aunt Julia.

“She taught me how to play basketball,” says the 6-foot-6, 205-pound Smith.

When he was six years old, Aunt Julia, who is his dad’s sister and goes by Julia Johnson-Smith, was 12 years old and, as Smith says, “she played like a guy.”

“She always played against my guy cousins and she would destroy them,” Smith says.

So when Aunt Julia took Smith under her wing, he listened.

“I learned my jump shot from her. She showed me how to follow through…like a swan’s neck,” Smith says while demonstrating how his drops off in the final motion of his shot.

Growing in the gang-riddled neighbourhood of what is formerly known as South Central Los Angeles, it was also his Aunt Julia, along his parents Kelvin Smith and Rae Monck, who helped keep “Little Kelvin” on the sporting path.

“My aunt influenced me to take up sport but my dad was always there to make sure I was doing the right thing,” Smith says. “He never wanted to see me go down that path and get affiliated with gangs. If I didn’t have my dad, I probably would have gotten involved.”

And it’s his pursuit of basketball and just basketball that, four years after graduating from Frederick K.C. Price III Christian High School, landed him at Trinity Western.

And it’s that Aunt Julia taught shot of his that has kept him in the university game.

Ask anyone and the first thing said about Smith’s game is his shooting. That’s what he honed on the court while going head-to-head with Westbrook. And that’s also what brought him to Winnipeg, where he started his CIS career in 2010.

After graduating from high school, Smith, who was something of a late-bloomer on the court, spent a year playing at Las Vegas based Impact Academy before joining the University of Winnipeg for the 2010-11 season. In his first year with the Wesmen, he averaged 12 points and 4.8 rebounds in just over 27 minutes per game. And in one particular contest against TWU that year – which was the season when the Spartans got to the CIS national championship final – he put up 23 points. For Smith, offence was always the easy part.

However, his reliance on his well-practiced shot soon came at a price.

The following year, his defensive shortcomings came to the forefront. With a deeper Winnipeg team assembled for 2011-12, Smith was limited to 10.2 minutes per game and just 2.8 points per game.  

So, disappointed with his production, he decided to transfer to Manitoba. But after sitting out a year as part of the CIS transfer rules, Smith was released by the Bisons before ever playing a game.

“For two days…it really set me back,” Smith says. “I had been working hard and I didn’t understand why he let me go. I was basically on my last leg. I didn’t know if I was going to keep playing basketball.
But I got back up on my feet.”

As a kid in South Central, Smith spent much of his childhood playing basketball at the local Boys & Girls Club across the street from his grandparents’ house. It was a place he could go to stay out of trouble when his parents were at work. But it was also a place where he could hone his basketball craft.

“That’s where I learned basketball and learned to love basketball,” Smith says. “Basketball was always my thing. Nothing could take basketball away from me.”

So despite being released by Manitoba, he wasn’t about to walk away the sport. If the allure of South Central’s street life didn’t wane his interest in the sport as a youngster, getting cut by the Bisons certainly wouldn’t either.

So he sent emails across the rest of Canada West looking for another place to play. Spartans coach Scott Allen, remembering his 23 point-game and his shot, replied.

Smith would get one more shot at playing in the CIS.

Taking his shooting to Langley, the thing he needed to discover was still his defensive and rebounding game.

“When I came here, I always knew that I needed to go hard all the time and Scott hasn’t had to tell me that,” Smith says. “But I just emphasize it to the max now. I’m getting older and there’s no more excuses.”

Playing against UBC Okanagan two weeks ago, Smith proved himself to Allen. In TWU’s second game against the Heat, the Californian played just 16 minutes, but collected 11 points and three rebounds. That earned him a starting spot against Thompson Rivers the following weekend. He responded with 12 and 11 point nights and in the Saturday game earned a season-high 32 minutes of action. And most recently, last night, he led all Spartans in minutes with 32 and earned another 14 points and five rebounds.

“He’s improved and he took that starting position last weekend and he deserved it by the way he played against UBCO,” Allen says. “He’s a great athlete and he has all the attributes to be a fantastic basketball player. He just has to be a little bit more determined when playing defence. But he’s taking steps every day to become that player and we definitely need him to be that guy and be an impact player.”

After being held to five or fewer points in nine of his first 13 games with TWU, he’s hit double-digits in each of his last five games. More importantly, he’s grabbed a combined 28 rebounds over that span, including 10 in a late-January outing against TRU.

“It’s been a big stretch for him and it’s been uncomfortable for him,” Allen says. “But he seems to be understanding it all better now and if he keeps that up the rest of the way, he’s going to be a key player for us for the next couple of years.”

When Smith isn’t playing basketball, he’s writing lyrics. One day he’d like to learn to play the guitar but for now, he simply pens rhymes and puts them to beats on his computer.

A recent offering tells his tale.

I had my basketball and felt like I was progressing slow as a snail.
Had all of South Central thinking I was gonna fail.
Look at me now, hooping for TWU.
I been around the world and I'm only 22.
I seen the pyramids and I walked the Great Wall.
My life is in this music and I love my basketball.

Somewhere in southern California, Aunt Julia, who is currently a minister and graduated from Azusa Pacific, is smiling.

Unlike so many of Smith’s childhood friends, he’s doing something different. He’s hooping as it were. And for that, he can thank Aunt Julia and her swan’s neck.

Last Updated: 2014-02-05
Author: Mark Janzen

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