WNBA bids farewell to living legend and pioneer Katie Smith

It seems like yesterday that Katie Smith had first joined the Minnesota Lynx. Having made the decision to retire, the WNBA loses one of its greatest players and pioneers. In a professional basketball career that spanned seventeen seasons with six different franchises, Smith made everyone one of those teams better through her presence.

Having grown up in Logan, Ohio, where she excelled at track and field, volleyball and even participated in ballet, Smith was Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in high school. Staying home to compete with the Ohio State Buckeyes, she would leave a remarkable legacy.

In her freshman season, the 5’11” guard helped the squad reach the 1993 NCAA title game. Playing against future WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes (playing for Texas Tech), Smith scored 28 points. Having graduated with the Big Ten scoring record (including men and women), she was the first female athlete in Ohio State history to have her number retired.

WNBA President Laurel Richie attends the pre-game ceremony at Prudential Ceremony recognizing Smith’s stellar career (Photo credit: Ray Floriani)

WNBA President Laurel Richie attends the pre-game ceremony at Prudential Ceremony recognizing Smith’s stellar career (Photo credit: Ray Floriani)

Prior to joining the WNBA, Smith had the opportunity to remain in Columbus, competing with the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball League. Competing for head coach Brian Agler (who was also her head coach from 2011-2012 with the Seattle Storm), she helped the club capture the only two league championships in league history. Perhaps Agler put it best when he called her a “true professional”.

Even though she is 39 years young, she looks like she still has the endurance and ability to play for several more seasons. The seven-time WNBA All-Star’s nonchalant demeanor and friendliness are part of a dedication to the game that makes her the kind of teammate anyone would want to have.

There were two actually farewell games recognizing the sensational Smith. The first one took place on September 10 as the Liberty appropriately hosted Fan Appreciation Night. Playing in the final home game of her career, it was a chance for fans to celebrate her remarkable career.

Team captain Cheryl Ford (left) and Smith greet President Barack Obama after the Shock win the WNBA Finals (Photo credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Team captain Cheryl Ford (left) and Smith greet President Barack Obama after the Shock win the WNBA Finals (Photo credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

The crowd at the Prudential Center in New Jersey gave her a standing ovation as the New York Liberty competed against the Phoenix Mercury. A video tribute of her career forced Smith to be stoic as she did not want to shed tears. She even joked about the varying hair styles over the years.

Presented with a framed USA Basketball jersey, WNBA president Laurel Richie was also in attendance.
For Diana Taurasi, the Mercury’s franchise player, Smith was a role model and a mentor when she started with USA Basketball. Having to guard Taurasi, Smith did a superlative job holding her to 4-of-13 shooting. As a postseason berth was on the line, Smith provided a 17 point output in front of the Liberty faithful. Despite her valiant effort, Phoenix prevailed by an 80-76 tally.

In 2011, Smith joined the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm. In front of her is Sue Bird, who would win Summer Games gold with Smith as a teammate in 2004 and 2008. Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson hovers behind. Smith would finish with 255 points as the Storm had a 21-13 record (Associated Press Photo)

In 2011, Smith joined the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm. In front of her is Sue Bird, who would win Summer Games gold with Smith as a teammate in 2004 and 2008. Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson hovers behind. Smith would finish with 255 points as the Storm had a 21-13 record (Associated Press Photo)

With the September 15 road match against the Washington Mystics signifying her final game, the fans showed a measure of class by applauding Smith. After exiting the contest with 39 seconds remaining, fans were chanting her name. Statistically, she registered seven points (along with one three-pointer) in a 70-52 loss.

Of note, Smith played one season for the Mystics in 2010. Yet, it was a season to remember as Smith helped the club to first place in the Eastern Conference, the only time that ever occurred in franchise history.

Appropriately, the head coach for the Liberty during Smith’s final season was Bill Laimbeer. The Detroit Pistons legend also served as bench boss for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. Joining the Shock in a mid-season trade in 2005, Smith experienced a renaissance in her career.

With Laimbeer motivating Smith to reinvent herself as a point guard, she would compete in three consecutive WNBA finals, winning two (in 2006 and 2008). Complemented by an improved defensive play, it would help Smith extend her playing days. While competing for Detroit, she would experience several pinnacles that would help define her legacy.

Her father stands by her side during her final home game with the New York Liberty (Associated Press Photo by Julio Cortez)

Her father stands by her side during her final home game with the New York Liberty (Associated Press Photo by Julio Cortez)

During the first WNBA championship run of her career, she was named to the 2006 WNBA All-Star Game. Not only did she become the first player to win an All-Star Game as a member of the Eastern and Western Conference, she would finish the season as the first (and only) woman to have won ABL and WNBA championships. Following in 2007, she made more history as the first women’s pro basketball player to net 6,000 career points.

At the age of 34, she helped Detroit to a title, grabbed WNBA Finals MVP honors, while helping the United States win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Those accolades are just the tip of the iceberg in her glorious career. Including her statistics from the ABL, she is the all-time leading scorer in the history of women’s pro basketball in the United States.

Leaving a legacy of 6,446 points in the WNBA, along with 904 three-pointers, Smith’s versatility and ability to excel on the hardcourt resulted in being named one of the 15 Greatest Players in WNBA history.

Having gone back to Ohio State University, Smith is now working on a Master’s Degree in Dietetics. While the next logical step in Smith’s career would be coaching, the chance to do so with the Buckeyes would certainly help bring her journey in this game full circle.

Although her career has now become part of the WNBA’s storied past, those who had the chance to see her play were the recipients of a terrific present. One can only hope that basketball will give back with a future that shall see her part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

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