Khara Smith was a three-time All-American at DePaul. (Courtesy of DePaul Athletics )
Khara Smith's DePaul basketball career was filled with highlights and accolades: she was the school's first three-time All-American, she led the Blue Demons to four NCAA tournaments including their first Sweet 16, and she set an NCAA tournament record her senior season by averaging 15.7 rebounds over three games.
But in high school at Proviso West, Smith wasn't even sure if she wanted to pursue college basketball.
Smith, now 30, caught up with RedEye to talk about her NCAA tournament experience and her post-retirement teaching career.
Khara Smith: I wasn't really sure about basketball after high school. I wasn't very highly recruited at all. Then I started playing AAU for Chicago Hoops Express my junior year, and I think that got me a little bit more recognition. When I finally started to get more serious about possibly playing basketball after high school, I wanted to stay close to home to be close to my mom and siblings and the rest of my family. It was between DePaul and Illinois State, and I chose DePaul just because of the family atmosphere, the city and just being able to be as close to home as possible.
The first part of [the NCAA tournament] experience [is always new]. You'd like to go far, but just getting into the tournament is a really big deal. I think within that experience with that team, we learned a lot. We played good but we couldn't advance any further. But it was an overall good experience, a learning experience, and then in the next year we got to the second game.
There is so much talent in women's basketball, so even though we weren't able to get over the hump to get to the Sweet 16 quite yet, just being able to get over the hump of the first game set us up for the leap that we made to go to the first Sweet 16 for DePaul women's basketball.
When the 2006 tournament came along, you guys played Liberty in the first round, the team that had ousted you the year before. Was that on your minds at all?
It was, just because what had occurred before when we played them. It obviously wasn't the same team, but they put us out prior, so of course you want to be able to get revenge. And being able to play in Chicago, even though Allstate Arena isn't where we play our home games, but it enabled us to be in Chicago and have as many fans as possible, so that was really a good experience for us.
Did the team all gather for Selection Sunday? How does that work?
No matter what, every year, it's always done as a team. We have boosters, former DePaul players, alumni—it's kind of a big event. There's food and everything like that. We sit around and watch the entire show, see how everything plays out, and go from there. [We watch] in a banquet hall setting on campus, or in the gym with the big screen monitor and things like that. But it's usually on campus somewhere where a good amount of people can watch it on the big screen.
So you beat Liberty, and now you get to play Tulsa in the second round.
It was an up and down game. I believe we were down the whole game and then in the last two minutes of the game we got on a roll. I got an important and-1 in the last couple minutes that put us over the hump, and we finally got to the Sweet 16. Just being in the city of Chicago helped us out a lot.
What was it like going back to campus?
It was really exciting, because everybody was excited to be able to say that we were the first team to do this in school history. And then in the Sweet 16, to be able to play an elite team like LSU, it was just overall excitement and enthusiasm to be able to be there. It was a great campus experience, with everybody supporting us.
[The LSU game] was a very good first half for us. It was a tie game at halftime actually, so we were in it. Everybody came out ready and pumped and were not intimidated because they were [seeded] No. 1. We were ready to play, ready to go.
Second half I think we came out flat, and kind of got into a hole we couldn't climb out of. We lost by 12 to 15, I think, but I don't think the final store tells how well we played. I think overall it was a good game. No one was intimidated or anything of that nature. Everyone came out and gave it their all, but unfortunately we were on the losing end of it.
[Looks up the score.] Actually it was closer than that. It was 10!
Oh really? Oh cool! Well I feel better then. (Laughs.)
After I graduated, I did end up being drafted by the San Antonio Silver Stars, but I decided not to play just because my body was really banged up, and I was just kind of tired. I ended up having my first son in 2007, so I had to reprioritize. I got into education working with at-risk youth. I worked with an after-school program tutoring and mentoring at-risk youth, and then a couple years ago I moved to Aurora, where now I'm teaching at Aurora Education Center, an alternative school for autistic and behavioral kids.
Were there any skills or lessons that you gained in basketball that help you as a teacher?
A lot of teachers at the school say I have a lot of patience, and I think that coming from a large family and then going into college where there are a lot of personalities and talents on the basketball court [builds patience]. And then remaining humble and sharing [my success] with my teammates, because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be that player. I try to carry that over [to teaching], especially the patience part, just because with the behavioral and autistic kids, you just never know what to expect on a daily basis. So patience I think is the most important one.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.
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