UW senior walk-on makes last shot count

Staff writerMarch 6, 2014 

SEATTLE — C.J. Wilcox doesn’t remember this, but he won’t go so far as to say it didn’t happen.

Connor Smith, now a senior walk-on for the Washington men’s basketball team, showed up at the school’s intramural activities center during the spring of his freshman year. There were Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Scott Suggs, Wilcox — a bunch of men’s basketball players doing what they do during the offseason, running pickup games.

Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward who played at Wenatchee High School, got into a game. Wilcox, now the second-leading scorer in UW history, was on the other team. And when Wilcox attempted a reverse layup, Smith blocked the shot.

Smith recalls this moment in detail while seated courtside at Hec Edmundson Pavilion before a practice last week. Wilcox’s memory is not as sharp.

“Did he say if he was coming from help side, or was he guarding me? I don’t remember,” Wilcox said, smiling — as much as he will smile. “I’m sure he probably did, because he wouldn’t remember something like that if it didn’t happen.”

“That’s kind of maybe what planted it in my head a little bit, that I could compete with them,” said Smith, who along with fellow seniors Wilcox and Perris Blackwell will suit up for his final two games at Hec Ed this week, beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday against UCLA (ESPN2).

Wilcox and Smith became good friends — the best player on the team and the last player on the bench — after Smith set a goal in May to try to earn a walk-on role with the Huskies.

Smith is majoring in public health, minoring in bioethics and humanities, and will graduate in the spring. He is a member of Delta Chi fraternity and regularly attends The Inn, a student worship service near campus facilitated by University Ministries.

It was there, during a small-group discussion May 15 that he decided — you know what? — maybe he ought to give that basketball thing one more shot.

This was after he underwent back surgery in the fall of 2012 for an internal bacterial infection in his pelvic area. He was in the hospital for 11 days.

“After that, I had to recover for a long time,” he said, “and it put a lot of things in perspective.”

So Smith and his friends sat and talked about goals, about the importance of setting them, about the lessons that can be learned from pursuing and achieving them.

Basketball had only been a leisure activity during Smith’s first three years at UW. He played (and won championships) in intramural leagues, unsurprising for a tall kid who had a few offers from small schools on the West Coast as a senior at Wenatchee.

But his high school back troubles — stress fractures and degenerated disks, he said — kept him from pursuing a collegiate basketball career. Instead, he decided to row for the UW crew but gave that up “after a week” when he realized his back couldn’t handle it.

That’s behind him now.

Feeling better after the surgery, Smith went after a spot on the basketball team. He got in touch with Kegan Bone, UW’s video coordinator — a member of Smith’s fraternity held the same position a few years back — and arranged to play at open gyms. Conversations with former UW walk-on Dion Overstreet and current walk-on Quinn Sterling also aided Smith in his quest.

UW coach Lorenzo Romar liked his attitude and thought he could help the Huskies in practice. Smith was invited to UW’s first two official practices in October. After the second, Romar invited him to spend the season as a walk-on.

That invitation was extended “right over there,” Smith said, motioning to a spot on the Hec Ed court under one of the auxiliary hoops.

“He was in our camps, but I didn’t know he had grown up to be 6-8, 6-9,” Romar said.

(Smith said he was actually MVP of Romar’s camp in sixth grade. The two even posed for a photo together when Smith was a child and Romar had hair.)

“We got ahold of him and invited him to come out and work out with the team.”

Smith was elated. So was his father, Alan, who played at UW in the 1970s. Smith’s father and mother bought season tickets, and at least one of them — usually with one of Connor’s four siblings — attends each of UW’s home games.

In six appearances this season, Smith has totaled seven minutes. He scored the first basket of his career Feb. 22 at Oregon State. Almost every player on UW’s bench stood and cheered.

“Obviously I’m never going to get the playing time, but that’s not what it’s about for me,” Smith said. “It’s about coming out, being part of a team, working my tail off and doing anything I can to help the team be better.”

For his efforts, Smith has been rewarded with opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise received, such as his budding friendship with basketball legend and Pac-12 hoops analyst Bill Walton.

The two were chatting before a game Walton worked earlier this season when the subject of Smith’s back surgery came up, a plight with which Walton sympathized, having undergone major back operations himself.

So Walton asked Smith for his email address and sent him an article he wrote about his own medical experiences.

“Bill Walton and I, we’re homies,” Smith said wryly. “Without this whole experience, I wouldn’t have ever been able to talk to people like that.”

And he wouldn’t be as tight with Wilcox, his roommate on road trips, where they joke and watch reruns of “The Office.” At home, they play one-on-one after practice.

Wilcox is more likely to retain these memories.

“We watch the same TV shows. Same humor,” Wilcox said. “We’re always joking around and playing pranks on people.”

“All the guys are great,” said Smith, who plans to pursue the necessary education to become a physician’s assistant, and might then pursue a master’s degree in hospital administration. “Super-welcoming, down-to-earth, humble guys. I get along with everyone great. It’s been fun.”

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Christian_Caple

HUSKIES GAMEDAY

UCLA (22-7, 11-5 PAC-12 CONFERENCE) AT WASHINGTON (16-13, 8-8)

6 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Seattle

TV: ESPN2. Radio: 950-AM.

The series: UCLA leads, 94-40.

PROBABLE STARTERS

UCLA

NamePos.Ht.PPGRPGAPGFG%FT%

Jordan AdamsG6-517.45.52.347.083.8

Norman PowellG6-411.23.01.854.074.4

Kyle AndersonG/F6-914.98.66.849.075.2

David WearF6-106.83.90.749.781.8

Travis WearF6-106.93.31.250.085.2

WASHINGTON

NamePos.Ht.PPGRPGAPGFG%FT%

Nigel Williams-GossG6-313.44.44.147.070.7

Andrew AndrewsG6-212.24.02.737.279.1

C.J. WilcoxG6-518.23.62.646.085.4

Desmond SimmonsF6-75.14.40.644.276.5

Shawn KempF6-94.31.80.156.469.2

Scouting report: It’s the penultimate game of UW’s regular-season schedule, yet it is the first time the Huskies will play the Bruins this season. So it goes with the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule. UCLA has won just once in Seattle since 2004 (that lone victory was last season). The Bruins have enough size to disrupt anyone, but UW’s undersized roster might have even more trouble defending — and rebounding — against UCLA than most teams. Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 star who can handle the ball as well as most point guards, presents a particularly difficult matchup. Anderson and Jordan Adams were suspended last week against Oregon for violating team rules, but they returned for UCLA’s victory over Oregon State. ... Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews have played especially well lately for the Huskies. Williams-Goss had double-doubles in each of UW’s past two games (14 points, 10 assists at OSU; 17 points, 12 rebounds against WSU), and Andrews has averaged 16.8 points and eight rebounds over UW’s past four games. ... UCLA freshman Zach LaVine, who averages 10.7 points per game, starred at Bothell High School. He considered attending UW before signing with the Bruins.

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com

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