Oscar Winski News

Gerrety: Basketball coach goes beyond expectations

If you have a pre-teen playing basketball this time of year, you are no doubt familiar with the litany of questions that must be rattled off before you head out the door on game day.

Did you find your uniform?

Did you pack a water bottle?

What time is your first game?

Do I have enough cash to pay admission?

Now multiply that by five or six and you’ll have an idea what John and Kelly Smith have on their minds as they head to the gym on any given weekend.

John Smith coaches a club basketball team called the Dunkers that competes year-round in leagues at Jefferson High School and the Family Sports Center in the Klondike area of West Lafayette. His current team is made up of his two sons, Tyler, 14, and Justin, 11, a few of their longtime friends, and four disadvantaged boys from Lafayette.

Because several of his players come from single-parent homes, Smith has to do much more to mentor his players than teach plays and run drills. His duties as volunteer coach, with lots of help from his wife and several other team parents, include subsidizing league fees, picking up players for games and practices, and laundering all of their uniforms.

One of his players stayed in his home for a couple of weeks last summer after the boy’s mother lost her job and her apartment.

“It’s a real hobby,” Smith, a marketing representative for Oscar Winski, said of his coaching. “I enjoy it.”

So much so that last June — a notoriously slow time for youth basketball — he signed up his team, consisting of boys mostly in sixth grade, to play in an eighth-grade girls league at Lafayette Jeff.

“We want to keep these kids off the street and occupied, and it comes at a cost,” Smith said.

That cost can sometimes include the price of a meal for a kid who hasn’t eaten on game day, shoes to replace a pair with holes in the soles, or a winter coat for a player who comes to the gym wearing a hoodie in December because that’s the warmest covering he owns.

Smith first reached out to a disadvantaged youth when a friend who volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Lafayette introduced him to a boy he was mentoring.

That boy was Victor Oliver, one of Elizabeth Oliver’s four sons. She said Victor has been fortunate to play for Smith.

“I believe Coach and his family are a very positive influence on my son,” Oliver said. “Coach motivates him to stay positive.”

As of early December, the Dunkers had won only one of their first 11 games this season, but Smith said he has seen their development.

“I’ve had these kids for a while now, and they’re really starting to come around,” he said.

Often the boys’ parents can’t come to the games because they lack transportation, can’t get away from work, or can’t afford admission. But one of the boys’ teachers came recently to watch a game and to tell Smith that the sixth grader was doing better in school.

“These kids — some of them just want a place to go,” said Kelly Smith, who washes the team’s uniforms at the end of each outing because some of their parents don’t have laundry facilities at home.

Jerry Crowe, program director at the Family Sports Center, said the facility likes hosting the Dunkers, even though the team doesn’t generate gate revenue, because he knows Smith provides a service to kids who desperately need it.

Crowe said he also likes to hear Smith shout his trademark refrain of praise when one of his players deflects an opponent’s pass to the post or hits a 3-pointer.

“We’re gonna get him a T-shirt that says, ‘N-I-I-I-I-I-C-E!’ ” Crowe said, shaking his head.