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Through tragedy and turmoil, passion still drives Mitchell Smith

If Mitchell Smith’s 22 years worth of life experiences have taught him anything, it’s that he’s got the drive to push through everything.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Two plays from the 2019-20 Missouri men’s basketball season help encapsulate Mitchell Smith’s career with the Tigers.

Against Illinois on Dec. 21, the redshirt junior was matched up with Illini sophomore big Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Though Bezhanishvili was mostly considered the “better” player heading into the game, Smith held him to just five points — his season-low.

During the second half, with Missouri holding a 41-33 lead, Bezhanishvili caught an entry pass in the post and tried a spin-move to his left. But Smith was in perfect position and drew a charge, Bezhanishvili’s sixth turnover of the game.

Smith let out a roar as Tiger fans and his teammates and coaches roared with him.

That’s one side of Smith as a player. The player he is now, the player who’s earned a starting role in head coach Cuonzo Martin’s system, is a player who will always be in your face defensively. He won’t back down from a challenge, and when he beats you, the passion is obvious.

The second play came during the second half of Missouri’s loss to Tennessee on Jan. 8.

With the Tigers clinging to a 51-50 lead and the energy rising in Mizzou Arena, Mark Smith drove the lane but missed a layup attempt. Mitchell Smith, as always, was there to fight for a rebound, and he went for a put-back attempt that hit every part of the rim before falling out. But Smith was more than fired up and was already punching the air before he realized the shot didn’t fall in.

That’s another side of Smith as a player. He’s been around the game long enough that he’s seen a fair share of things not go his way. From small things like missed shots to bigger things like injuries, the game hasn’t always been kind to Smith. But either way, he will be there with that same fire and energy, and he’s always ready to celebrate in case the next shot goes down.

“When I really get locked in, it just comes out. I can’t control it,” Smith said. “It’s fun playing basketball, so plays like that, it just fires me up.”

Smith’s stats won’t jump off the page, but he’s currently having the best season of his Missouri career.

He’s averaging more points (4.7), rebounds (4.4) and minutes (20.5) per game than ever. He’s started every game since the win at Temple on Dec. 7. And although his 3-point percentage is down from last year, the increase in volume shows his confidence from deep has skyrocketed.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

“We see that from Mitch a lot actually in practice, being able to knock down shots,” Mark Smith said after Mitchell knocked down two triples against Northern Kentucky on Nov. 8. “I think that’s going to be a normal thing you guys see from Mitch.”

Beyond that, he’s the energy guy defensively, and he’s got the ability to guard pretty much every position. He was recruited as a traditional center, but Martin pushed Smith to try his hand at guarding all five spots.

“We always felt like he could be a really good defender, even in the year he sat out,” Martin said on Jan. 10. “(...) Now he’s in every rotation so he knows his defense is sound. He understands what he’s trying to do.”

Smith came to Columbia looking to make an impact, and he’s finally taking advantage of the opportunity this season.

His journey to get here has made it even more rewarding.

Decision of a ‘momma’s boy’

As a youngster, the now 6-foot-10 Smith towered over his peers. In team pictures, he stuck out like a sore thumb due to his overwhelming height.

“I had a picture for the longest time in my office, and guys would come in and say ‘What’s he standing on?’ and I’m like ‘He’s standing on his own two feet,” Smith’s father, Selvin, said.

Mitchell Smith (back, middle) towers over teammates during a team picture taken after the Arkansas Hawgs won a state baseball tournament in June 2011.
Courtesy of Selvin Smith

His dream had always been to be a professional athlete, and his stature made it seem that getting there was a genuine possibility. But even with the height, he wasn’t looking to be the next Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan. He didn’t dream of making it to the NBA.

No, back in his youth, Smith wanted to be like Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 lefty who won five Cy Young Awards in Major League Baseball.

See, in those days, Smith’s love wasn’t basketball. Basketball was just a way for him to pass the time until baseball season started. He was a stellar first baseman and a lethal pitcher.

But what made baseball meaningful for him was the bond he shared over the sport with his mother, Karen.

Karen was what the rest of her family described as a baseball “fanatic.” She was a fan of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. She attended every one of her son’s games, and she dreamed of seeing her son play professional baseball.

But in early 2006, Karen got sick.

One day, when it was just the two of them at home, Smith heard his mother yelling his name repeatedly from another room. At first he thought he was about to get in trouble, but he quickly realized the situation was more dire than that. Karen had abdominal pain and couldn’t move. Smith called his father, who told him to see if Karen needed medical attention.

Smith asked his mother if she needed him to call 911, and with the little bit of energy she could muster, she told him, “Yes.”

Not long after, Karen was diagnosed with small intestinal cancer. After a roughly 18-month battle, Karen died on Nov. 29, 2007, just a day after she and Selvin celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Smith was 10 years old at the time.

Karen’s death hit the family hard. The rest of the family hardly liked to be at home. Smith, along with his 15-year-old sister, Monica, dove deeper into their sports as they learned to cope with the pain.

“It was just kind of like, our way of grieving is to just keep doing what she loved watching us do,” Monica said.

Mitchell Smith with his sister, Monica, and mother, Karen.
Courtesy of Monica Smith

Since the day Karen died, Smith — a self-described “momma’s boy” — has tried to live his life in tribute to her. Baseball was such a big part of their relationship, and he wanted to live up to his mother’s dreams for him in the sport.

That’s why it was so tough for him to give it up.

He loved baseball and knew how much it meant to Karen, but as a 6-foot-7 incoming freshman in high school, Smith knew basketball was the sport he needed to focus on. It hurt him to give up Karen’s favorite sport, but he also knew she would’ve understood his decision.

“It hurt because that’s what she wanted me to play. She loved baseball,” Smith said. “But she’d think I made the right choice.”

On both the anniversary of Karen’s death and her birthday — Jan. 22 — one of the family members will send a text to their group chat in memory of their “angel.”

For a long time, Selvin initiated the conversation. Monica remembers it being that way for a least a few years, until on one occasion, she was surprised to see the first text come from her brother.

“Thinking about Mom today. Would’ve loved for her to see this, but I know she’s watching from Heaven,” Monica remembers the text saying.

Although losing a parent is something a child won’t ever get over, this was one of the first moments Monica can remember thinking her brother was truly at peace with their mother’s death.

“It was the first time that usually something that’s initiated by my father, the first step was taken by Mitchell, which is actually really cool,” Monica said.

Karen’s death still affects her son. Smith thinks about her daily, has a tattoo for her on his right forearm and wears a bracelet with her name on it on his right ankle when he plays.

Karen’s death was a huge challenge for him to overcome, but that wouldn’t be the last time Smith faced adversity.

Getting through it — and getting through it again

Smith was recruited by former Missouri coach Kim Anderson, visited Columbia Sept. 18-20, 2015, and committed on the final day of his visit. With his college destination set, Smith went on to average 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game his senior season at Van Buren High School in Van Buren, Arkansas.

Smith’s freshman year at Missouri started off slow, seeing fluctuating minutes in 11 non-conference games, but by the time SEC play rolled around in January 2017, he was on a path toward more playing time.

But on Jan. 4, tragedy struck once again.

Smith was guarding LSU’s Skylar Mays as the final seconds of the first half ticked down. Mays cut toward his left, and as Smith tried to cut back with him, his knee gave out and he fell to the floor. Smith was carried off the court, with no ability to put any weight on his left leg.

Selvin, who was watching the game at home with his current wife, Jamie, didn’t say a word when he saw his son go down. He and Jamie were silent until he got a phone call saying Smith had torn the ACL in his left knee.

“I thought my college basketball career was over, because I’d never had an injury like that,” Smith said. “You always hear stories about how people don’t play after that, so thousands of things were rushing through my head.”

Smith had surgery on his left knee on Jan. 27, and Selvin and Jamie stayed in Columbia for 10 days to help him through the beginning of his recovery. They went with to rehab sessions with athletic trainer Pat Beckmann, where they saw just how tough the process would be.

After one grueling session, Selvin left Smith with Jamie and went to get the car. Smith had always been a momma’s boy, and even though Jamie wasn’t his actual mother, he still transferred that relationship over to her.

The vulnerability he displayed for the few minutes they were alone that day showed as much.

“When Jamie and I got alone, she said, ‘You know, when you left to get the car, he cried like a baby. He just grabbed me and cried like a baby,’” Selvin said. “But now by the time I got back with the car, he had buttoned that up and was the strong man that he wanted to project to me.”

Smith rehabbed the knee for 2-3 hours a day over the ensuing months. But when he was almost set to return, he caught another bad break in the form of a torn left meniscus.

That meant he would have to go through the entire process once again, and he didn’t know if he could handle it mentally. At times he wanted to quit, and he talked to Selvin and Monica about it almost every day.

“He was like ‘I almost had it, I was pretty much ready to get back in it and this happens,’ then he goes, ‘Do you think I’m supposed to be doing something else?’” Monica said. “I was like ‘No I don’t. I think at this point, God is trying to test you to see how much you actually want it.’”

However, Selvin was still living in Arkansas, and Monica had moved out to Texas. Smith didn’t have any family members to talk to face-to-face while he was in Missouri. So instead, Smith turned to someone he would come to consider family — Kevin Puryear.

Missouri forwards Mitchell Smith (5) and Kevin Puryear (24) cheer on the sideline during the Tigers’ win over Oral Roberts on Dec. 7, 2018, at Mizzou Arena.
Courtesy of Zach Bland, Mizzou Athletics

The former Tiger forward was the cohost on Smith’s official visit, and when Smith arrived in Columbia, the two began to hang out more and more. Smith lived in MU’s South Hall but was eventually spending more time at Puryear’s place than his own.

Their relationship grew into a full-blown friendship, and eventually into a brotherhood.

“That’s probably one of my favorite memories ever of college is just the relationship, and obviously my friendship with him will last until we’re both six-feet-under,” Puryear said. “One of those friendships that doesn’t really happen to everybody.”

Even with their close relationship, it wasn’t always easy for Puryear to get Smith to open up about his problems. Sometimes he’d have to work to get Smith to open up.

But once he and Smith were close enough that Smith felt comfortable enough to talk about his issues, Puryear helped get him to keep fighting. Smith took a redshirt in 2017-18, and with Puryear acting as his biggest cheerleader, he pushed through the second recovery and finally returned to the court on Nov. 6, 2018, against Central Arkansas.

At one point, Smith had considered packing his bags and going home. His grades had slipped. The second injury had made him think perhaps basketball wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing.

But with Puryear right there to push him along, Smith was finally back.

“I joke a little that Vicki and Kevin (Puryear’s parents) didn’t claim Mitch on their tax returns, because Mitch spent a lot of time at their house and a lot of time with (Puryear),” Selvin said. “That’s probably one of the best things that happened to him in his college career is that he and Kevin became friends.”

Embracing the challenge

Smith typically calls his father after every game.

If Missouri is playing in Columbia, the two will get on the phone not long after the final buzzer. If the Tigers are on the road, Smith tells Selvin, “I’ll call you when we get back to CoMo.”

However, after Missouri lost this season’s Southeastern Conference opener at Kentucky on Jan. 4, the call didn’t come right away. Selvin waited for the phone to ring, but it still hadn’t long after he assumed the team had gotten back to Columbia. After waiting for hours, the phone finally rang, and Smith was on the other line.

“I said to him, ‘Y’all just getting back?’” Selvin said, “and he said, ‘No, I went and I worked on my shot.’”

Yes, Smith — who scored just two points against the Wildcats and missed all six of his field goal attempts — decided to go to the gym before calling Selvin. He loves his dad, of course, but he needed the shots to start falling before he could focus on anything else.

Smith is hardly the centerpiece of a championship team. His final box score will vary from game to game, and it’s not always a surprise if he goes scoreless.

But that passion for basketball, that drive to keep fighting — that’ll always be there.

When Smith had just arrived as a freshman, he wanted No. 24, his high school number. But Puryear had just come off a season that saw him named to the All-SEC freshman team, and he already wore 24. Smith didn’t care, and he even challenged Puryear to play for it.

“Coming off the freshman year I had, I thought that was a pretty gutsy move on his part, so I automatically had respect for him,” Puryear said.

That’s the fighter Smith has proven to be time and time again.

Smith’s basketball identity is of the hard-nosed player every coach wants on the floor. He’s the player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact, because his effort-level always makes him a factor.

He’s been criticized for his defense. He’s been criticized for his shooting. He’s been criticized for his decision-making.

But his drive has gotten him through all of it.

“I definitely embrace (the criticism) because I mean, what’d you come here for?” Smith said. “I came here to play basketball. Criticize me, that’s cool with me. I’m out here, I’m trying to help us win, I’m trying to play this game.”

And so he’ll continue to live the same way he plays the game. He has no fear of what lies ahead.

Knowing he’s gotten through the death of his mother and two major injuries, there’s no reason for him to believe he can’t get through whatever life throws at him next.

“I got a chip on my shoulder. I want to push through, I want to prove to people, I’m not going to let a setback slow me down,” Smith said. “With my ACL and then the setback with my mom, I’ve just got to show people I’m still me, I’m still going to push through.

“In the game, if we see us down 10, I’m not giving up. I’m still pushing through, because I’ve bounced back from other things, so I can bounce back from that.”

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
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