The Oakland Golden Grizzlies learned Thursday night what Wright State has known for more than a month now:
You can’t keep Malachi Smith down.
He’s a basketball version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
But instead of ending up in a Broadway musical and popular 1960s movie as she did, the back-up freshman guard has seen his playing time triple over the past seven games, he had an 11-point, three-steal performance in the Raiders' rousing 76-62 come-from-behind victory Thursday at the Nutter Center and he continues to get some good-natured razzing from some older teammates.
Even when things weren’t going well for him early this season – when he played only one minute against Indiana State, just two at both Murray State and Kent State and three against Toledo; when he had seven games where he didn’t score a point – Smith kept a positive attitude.
Some teammates said he was overly sunny.
“He’s all the way up here,” 6-foot-9 center Loudon Love said with a chuckle as he reached his hand high above his head.
Junior forward Bill Wampler agreed: “He’s happy all the time.”
While Love admitted senior guard Alan Vest “has a lot of energy all the time, so he’s up there, too,” he attributed some of that to “all the coffee he drinks.”
He said Smith is “a great character off the court, just a funny kid.”
“He’s pretty goofy sometimes,” Wampler added.
Love nodded: “We joke all the time. ‘Someone’s gonna have to ruin his day.’”
Later, a grinning Smith confirmed that: “Oh yeah, they’ll try. They try to be funny and say stuff like I’m just a little kid and I shouldn’t be out there. They tell me to ‘stop talking,’ to ‘just be quiet because no one is listening.’
“But it doesn’t work. I try to tell ‘em they can’t ruin my day. Nothing is going to ruin it.”
Love realized that during a chance encounter one morning when Smith was struggling game after game early on.
“Here’s a little story,” he said. “I was in the gym for an ice wrapping and he comes in and was talking about what he was doing that day.
“He’d woke up early to get a run in, then he worked out a little bit. Now he was back to do some shooting.
“He said, ‘I can’t do anything on the court for my minutes,’ but he said that in a positive way. There are guys who hang their heads and get down a little bit, but he’s one of those guys who’ll work to get better in the season. He wants to do whatever’s best for the team.”
As Smith put it: “Even if I just played two minutes, then I was determined to be the best player on the bench. I was going to be a good teammate.”
Wampler saw that: “Early on he made some questionable plays, but he worked really hard on his game. He started on the scout team, did his role and earned playing time.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He stayed the course and never really went away from what he was told to do. He really embodies hard work getting you where you want to be.”
Raiders head coach Scott Nagy said players in Smith’s position find themselves at a crossroads:
“There are two options when things aren’t going right. You can either give in to the discouragement or you can keep going.
“The thing is, neither way guarantees you that you are going to get what you want. But if you don’t give in – if you fight through it – you’ve at least got a chance.
“If you give in to discouragement, you flat out won’t get what you want. And so he did not give in.”
More than that though, his mood was, as Love said “Way up here!”
How could that be?
“I guess,” Wampler shrugged, “he just loves life.”
Later, away from his teammates, Smith explained:
“I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me. I want to enjoy every moment because it goes by fast.”
That’s when you stopped him: “Wait a minute, how old are you?”
“Nineteen,” he said.
“You sound like you’re an old man.”
He smiled: “I was raised fast. There were times I stayed on my own when I was eight. I helped take care of my mom at a young age. There was just the two of us and I looked out for her if she was sick or she had a bad day at work.”
Connie Smith, his mom, spent 12 ½ years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, including four years – with Malachi in tow – at Naval Station Rota, the Spanish naval base on the Bay of Cadiz in Andalusia that is funded by the U.S. She and her husband, who also was in the military, divorced when Malachi was six.
“A lot of kids have a bond with their parents,” he explained. “But with my mom, she’s like my best friend. We’ve done everything together.”
He said his mom – who lives in Illinois, just outside St. Louis – has come to many of his games this season: “She always told me to be ready.”
He’s also gets some long-distance phone advice from his grandfather, Larry Knight, who now works a security job in Florida, but was a star at Loyola University in Chicago in the late 1970s – a 6-foot-8 forward, he averaged 21.5 points and 14.3 rebounds a game as a senior – and was a first round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in 1979.
After brief stops with the Jazz and Chicago Bulls, he won a Continental Basketball Association title with Anchorage and played a dozen years overseas, mainly in France and Italy.
“He watches the games on ESPN plus and always tells me to be aggressive and be confident in myself,” Smith said.
Nagy said Smith has “great instincts” on the court, but “the problem early on was that he was so bad defensively, it was hard to play him.
“He just lacked the desperation that a good defender needs. Playing defense in college is a whole different level than what kids are asked do in high school.
“It took a while, but he’s starting to figure it out.”
Over the last seven games, Smith is averaging 21.3 minutes and 8.6 points. He had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds at Youngstown State on Jan. 17.
Against Oakland on Thursday night, the Raiders erased a six-point halftime deficit with 31-5 start to the second half to take a 20-point lead.
Smith, who played 20 minutes, made five of eight shots and though he had three turnovers, he bounced back from each.
“One time today I remember I had a turnover, but on the very next play I got a rebound and scored,” he said “At the beginning of the season I wouldn’t have done that.”
As soon as he finished talking he said he would call his mom. They talk every day.
“She watches every game and she’ll critique me,” he said with a smile. “She’ll tell me what I could have done better. But at the end of the day, we won so there’s nothing to be too down about.
“And before she hangs up, she’ll tell me she loves me.”
Good game, Raiders victory, mom’s love.
Thursday night – just like Wampler said – Malachi Smith was loving life.