When katie smith of the Minnesota Lynx made an off-balance, lefthanded runner with 3:44 left against the Detroit Shock on July 13, the Target Center crowd of 12,891 erupted, the scoreboard flashed and Smith pumped the air fiercely. She had just become the first player in the history of U.S. women's pro basketball to score 5,000 points, but she wasn't basking in the spotlight. She was looking for the ref. She wanted a foul called. "That is so Katie," says teammate Tamika Williams. "Scoring 5,000 points is the stuff of my dreams, but Katie wasn't even thinking about it; she just wanted to keep playing and win the game."
A two-time Olympian and five-time All-Star, Smith is the rarest of athletes: the low-maintenance high producer, the antidiva. Aside from being a prolific scorer, Smith, a 5'11" guard, is also one of the WNBA's best defenders. "Where most players do one thing really well, Katie does three things--shoot, defend and pass--somewhere between 9 and 10 on a 1 to 10 scale," says Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor, who coached Smith on the 2004 Olympic team. "Everyone says Tim Duncan is Mr. Fundamental in the NBA. In the WNBA, Miss Fundamental is Katie Smith."
Doing things the right way only makes sense to Smith, 31, who grew up in Logan, Ohio. "I am a bit of a perfectionist," she says. "I want to play the whole game, and I want to be good at all of it. If somebody says, Go set a pick on a defender, I'm going to set a good pick on a defender."
Despite her consistency (at week's end she was leading the Lynx in scoring for the sixth consecutive season, with 15.3 points per game) and relentlessness at both ends of the court, Smith hasn't enjoyed much celebrity. Fans have never even selected her as an All-Star starter. "If you had asked most people who was leading the league in scoring the year I led it , no one would have said me," says Smith, laughing.
The die may have been cast in 1993, during Smith's freshman year at Ohio State, when she led the Buckeyes to their only Final Four berth. In a thrilling final against Texas Tech, Smith scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. The performance everyone remembers, however, is that of Sheryl Swoopes, who scored an NCAA championship-game-record 47 points in the Lady Raiders' 84--82 win.
After setting a Big Ten record with 2,578 career points (surpassed in 2004 by Penn State's Kelly Mazzante), Smith led the Columbus Quest of the now defunct ABL to two titles. Her Lynx teams, however, have never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. Last year their hopes were dashed when Smith reinjured her right knee at the Olympics and underwent reconstructive surgery for the second time in five years. "People didn't talk about Katie's comeback from injury the way they talk about [those of Detroit's] Swin Cash or [the L.A. Sparks'] Mwadi Mabika," says Williams. "But here she is, leading the team in scoring, as usual. She never makes excuses. She is resilient and humble."
Case in point: Last off-season Smith worked as an administrative assistant at Ohio State, where Williams is an assistant coach. "I don't know many other all-world WNBA players whose retired jersey hangs in the rafters of their university who would spend two hours a day stuffing envelopes and running around making sure everyone has copies of the coach's inspirational quotes," says Williams.
This summer Smith is filling her spare time in an even more unlikely way, by taking a biochemistry class at Minnesota four days a week. Let her WNBA sisters retire into high-profile careers in coaching or broadcasting; Smith plans to go to dental school when she retires in three years or so. "I've already told her I'll be her first patient," says Williams. "I know she'll approach fixing teeth like shooting baskets; she'll be very thorough and very good."
Closing in on 5,000
Who will be the next WNBA player to reach 5,000 career points? Here are the five who were closest at week's end, with about 15 games left in the regular season