Basketball star shows he has the right stuff

Plenty of unforgettable stories took place during the winter prep season.

The Kentwood High girls basketball team won the state title.

Kentlake’s Kayla Shira staked claim to being one of the area’s best-ever gymnasts.

Predicted to finish sixth in its own league, the Kentridge boys basketball team surprised everyone — except themselves, of course — on the way to taking third at state.

Tahoma junior Nick Bayer won his second straight state wrestling title and now, if he can win a third next season, can join an extremely elite class.

Yet, in going over the stories that have filled the sports pages the last several months, it dawns on me that one of my fondest memories of all never escaped my notebook this winter.

It happened on Feb. 27 at Auburn High, a day Kentwood High’s boys basketball team would rather forget.

The Conquerors were eliminated from the district playoffs that day, one win short of the state tournament for the second straight season. Adding a bit of salt to the wound was the fact that Kentridge, probably Kentwood’s biggest rival through the years, did the eliminating.

But what remains fresh in my mind — more than who won or lost, or even how it happened — was something that occurred before and after the game.

For those who saw these two teams fill up most of the 6,000-seat ShoWare Center on Jan. 30, picture all of those people crammed tight into the Auburn gym. It was a high-energy, standing-room-only bunch for much of the night.

I figured plenty of taunting would be going back and forth between fan bases — chants of “air ball” and “you can’t do that.”

Instead, the Kentridge student body gave the Kentwood team a standing ovation when the Conquerors ran out onto the floor 20 minutes before tip-off. The rivalry between the two schools can get pretty heated, so this was a nice change of pace.

But what really stands out had little to do with basketball and more to do with a 16-year-old kid showing a lot of class and maturity. After falling to Kentridge, 51-41, broken-hearted Kentwood players spent roughly an hour in the locker room consoling one another.

Waiting patiently outside the locker room was Austin, a 7-year-old SeaTac boy who came to the game just to see Kentwood star Joshua Smith, a 6-foot-9, 285-pound kid who has been tabbed as the nation’s top junior recruit.

After 25 minutes, Austin, now more anxious but as patient as a 7-year-old well past bedtime and seeking an autograph can be, nervously asked me, “Is he coming out?”

I assured Austin that Smith would be out eventually, but it might be awhile as this loss was especially tough to swallow.

Sure enough, 30 minutes after going into the locker room, Smith emerged. Alone.

As the team’s top player, he has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the Kentwood boys. The player we media folk always ask to talk with after a game, win or lose. And win or lose, Smith always has stepped up, politely answered questions and shook hands.

However, this particular interview session wasn’t an easy one for Smith, and understandably so. For the second straight year, Kentwood’s season came to an end one game short of state.

With tears of frustration welling up in his eyes, Smith had to turn away a couple times before coming back to answer the usual litany of questions. After a few minutes — and after being asked two more times where he’s leaning on going for college — the nightmare is over. Smith is free to go. But before returning to the locker room, the 7-year-old boy, who is roughly two-feet-and-change and 195 pounds smaller than Smith, catches the Kentwood star’s eye.

Smith very easily could have avoided eye contact and ducked back in the locker room to be with his teammates.

He’s still just 16. Nobody would have thought any differently.

Instead, Smith turned, looked down at Austin and reached out to shake the young boy’s hand. After doing so, he obliged with an autograph, talked for a moment, and then returned to his teammates.

Though the autograph was no big deal to Smith, who has signed plenty already in his 16 years, it meant the world to Austin, who walked out of that gym with his parents that night sporting an ear-to-ear grin. It might have been past his bedtime, but I’m guessing he didn’t sleep much that night.

Smith didn’t come out on the winning end of the scoreboard that night. But giving a youngster a few moments of his time when, quite frankly, he probably would rather have crawled into a hole, tells you a little something about this big guy’s character.

As his star continues to ascend, those few moments might fade from Joshua Smith’s memory.

They’ll never fade from mine.