It was on the court of a Seattle community center where NBA player Jamal Crawford — who played for the New York Knicks at the time — first spotted seventh-grader Keith Smith with a basketball in his hand.
The 18-year NBA veteran noticed more than just talent in Smith. He noticed a deep focus for the game that would take Smith beyond the middle school court.
Six years later, Smith became a forward for Oregon.
The sophomore is his father’s namesake, whose collegiate and professional career on the court was a key influence in Smith’s passion for the sport. It was this, combined with Crawford’s mentorship and Seattle’s evergrowing basketball lineage, that helped the 6-foot-7 player begin his collegiate career.
A NBA friendship
At Crawford’s alma mater, Rainier Beach, Smith played on the Crawford Court. It’s the same court where NBA players Doug Christie, Terrance Williams, Dejounte Murray and Nate Robinson also played.
“It was kinda crazy,” Smith said. “Because in seventh or eighth grade, playing in front of some of the pros and you’re starstruck, but then when you get a relationship with them it turns into a brotherhood.”
Smith still calls Crawford for advice, both on and off the court.
“He took me under his wing,” Smith said. “Anything I need — questions about basketball, life, anything — he’s there for me.”
The two practiced together during past summers, when both found themselves home in Seattle.
“He is special to me because he is so humble,” Crawford said. “He is such a good kid.”
Crawford even notices Smith’s strong bond with his father.
“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” Crawford said. “[Smith’s father] is a great presence in his life. They have the same drive for the sport, both smooth and skilled players.”
A father-son game
Ultimately, it was Smith’s father who first put the ball in his hands.
“I’m the guy that started this thing in the Smith family,” Smith’s father said. “Every day I played basketball. It was just something I did from the time I was a little boy until the time I couldn’t play anymore.”
In the street courts of Flint, Michigan, Smith’s father fell in love with basketball. He played pick-up games with friends and learned the basics of the game.
And when Smith was born in Los Angeles, it wasn’t long before his father was dressing him in a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey.
“Basketball has been in his blood since day one,” Smith’s father said. “I knew Keith had a passion for it, and he wore it on his shoulder.”
Smith played multiple sports growing up, but it was being on the court that stuck with him.
“Basketball was the one that was the most fun to me,” Smith said. “I think it was just fun to me because it was something fun I could do with my dad.”
As a child in Seattle, Smith earned himself a spot on the Rotary Boys and Girls club basketball A-team. He started in every game and began to take advantage of the city’s deep basketball lineage.
“The Seattle tradition of basketball is really great,” Smith said. “All the older guys that make it come back and are mentors to us. Guys like Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Dejounte Murray, Brandon Roy, guys like that, they come back and just check up on us. We all have their numbers and we learn from them.”
Their mentorship paid off as Smith found success in high school.
Smith completed his final two years of high school at Rainier Beach. As a junior, he averaged 18.5 points per game. During his senior year, he averaged 15.7 points and led the team to a 3A State Championship.
The high school’s intense competition prepared Smith for his collegiate career.
“It gives you a lot of opportunity to meet people,” said Stevie, Smith’s younger brother and a junior at Rainier Beach. “It’s the best stage ever to be on and you have to work for your spot. It’s not just given to you.”
His father’s game
From 1982 to 1986, Smith’s father played at Loyola Marymount University. He led the Lions in scoring during his final two years, and he is ranked sixth on LMU’s career scoring list with 1,980 points. He was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2000.
During his senior year at LMU, Smith’s father was coached by Paul Westhead, former Oregon women’s basketball head coach. From his very first day as coach, Westhead noticed how vital Smith’s talents were for the team.
“I ran a fast-break system that needs a point guard who is fast and right-handed,” Westhead said. “I found out the very first day of practice that Keith Smith was fast and very good, but he was left-handed. He said, ‘No problem coach — I can go just as fast with my right hand,’ and he was terrific.”
After graduating, Smith’s father was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft. In his one season with the Bucks, he averaged 3.3 points and one assist in 42 games. Issues from a broken foot lingered, forcing him to retire early.
“I got my cup of coffee and had a great experience,” Smith’s father said. “But what I tell my boys: ‘Dream big, but have that foundation of an education to fall back on. Your life will move on and you’ll still love the game but you’ll have a wonderful life still.’”
The family number
At LMU and while on the Bucks, Smith’s father wore the number 11. So in high school, Smith decided to wear his father’s number. Stevie also follows in the tradition, wearing number 11 as a member of the Vikings varsity team.
“It is a big shoe to fit because all the old guys are like, ‘Your dad was a killer out there,’”
Stevie said. “My brother wore it too and they say, ‘Your brother was a killer. You gonna live up to him?’ and I say, ‘Yes.’”
Smith’s father appreciates his sons’ choice to wear the number.
“I love the fact that they do,” he said. “Everytime I look out there, I see some of me out there.”
But it’s more than just a jersey number. Smith is inspired by how his father always put their father-son relationship above their mutual passion for the sport.
“My dad has been my biggest basketball influence in my life since I was born,” Smith said. “He put the ball in my hands. … He’s always told me that he doesn’t care if I score another point in my life; he’s going to love me regardless.”
Passing the ball
The two Smiths might share the same name and jersey number, but they don’t share quite everything. One of their few differences: Smith is right-handed, while his father is a lefty.
Despite the differences, Smith’s father is proud of his son’s commitment to basketball. He believes that his collegiate experience at Oregon has already made a positive influence on his life, and he wants his son to cherish his time as a Duck.
“I told him from day one, ‘The college experience is the greatest,’” Smith’s father said. “You’re going to have new experiences, and you’re going to grow from a boy to a man. He’s a terrific person and the basketball is the icing on the cake.”
As for the future of basketball in the Smith family, Smith plans on continuing the tradition.
“I hope I have a son, and I’ll probably name him Keith. I’m going to keep it going. We’re going to keep the number going.”