SI Vault
Bruce Newman
November 25, 1992
Michael Smith is talented, studious, reverent and, by BYU's staid standards, a wild and semicrazy guy
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November 25, 1992


Michael Smith is talented, studious, reverent and, by BYU's staid standards, a wild and semicrazy guy

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Smith's ever-changing form of self-expression is hair. At various times he has bleached his mustache, bleached his hair, permed it or worn it in a rattail, a bowl haircut or a flattop. "Smitty has a thing about hair," says Darren Fortie, a BYU football player who used to room with Smith. "He'll make a free throw and look over at a guy from the other team and say, 'Nice 'do, dude.' " Smith has also devised an unusual way to communicate with the other Cougars during games: He lifts his foot straight out in front of him after he makes a free throw and touches his teammates' upraised toes—a foot five.

In fact it seems that Smith's theatrics have made him the BYU player most despised by WAC road crowds since Danny Ainge's memorable days of whine and poses. While Smith is regarded as something of an eccentric by the Latter-day Saints at Brigham Young, the most conservative campus in one of the country's most conservative states, he is widely reviled as a holier-than-thou hot dog whenever the Cougars leave Provo. "The fans get all over me," he says, "but I thrive on that. We get teased a lot by opposing teams because we're different. I think it's because we preach a religion that makes people on the outside see us as thinking we're better than everybody else. We believe that ours is the only true religion. Other religions have elements of truth in them, but ours is the only church that has the whole truth."

BYU's student body is fair-haired, fair-skinned and fairly insular. Like all the students at Brigham Young, Smith had to sign a contract agreeing to obey the church's strict rules before he could attend the school. "I think one of the big reasons for Michael's success is his values and his beliefs," says Daren Davis, another former Smith roommate.

Smith, who was a high school All-America in both football and basketball at Los Altos, chose BYU over hundreds of other schools. "Everybody in America wanted Mike," says Reid. "To be quite honest, if he hadn't been an LDS [Latter-day Saints] person, we would never have gotten him." One of the most ardent suitors was Notre Dame's Digger Phelps, whose first words to Smith during his recruiting visit to Hacienda Heights were, "I always wanted to coach a Jew, but I never thought I'd get a Mormon." He didn't.

The football teams Smith quarterbacked at Los Altos lost only one game in his four years there, and in his senior season he completed 252 of 383 passes for 3,437 yards and 40 touchdowns to lead the Conquerors to a 14-0 record and the championship of Southern California. He twice led Los Altos to the Southern California semifinals in volleyball. And if he had not injured his hip by falling through an open sewer grate as he was leaving a church function (of course) on the eve of the basketball quarterfinals, he might very well have carried the Conquerors to that championship. When it came time to decide which athletic talent he would employ in college—the choice that was left open to him when he was recruited by BYU—he opted for his first passion. "I've played basketball since I was five," he says. "I've loved it all my life."

After starting several games at forward as a freshman at BYU, Smith had to decide whether to return for his sophomore season or leave for two years on a church mission, something that more than 70% of the men and 10% of the women at BYU volunteer to do. Coach Ladell Andersen gave Smith a week to decide his future, and Smith spent the time fasting and praying. "It was something I always wanted to do," he says, "but when it came time to go, I wasn't so sure I wanted to leave basketball, leave my girlfriend, leave my car." His prayers were answered, he says, by "a burning confirmation in my heart that what I was doing was right."

Smith spent 21 months in Argentina, much of it knocking on doors in remote Andean villages canvassing for converts. "To be out there living that, to be engaged in that all day long, was so thrilling," he says. "It was by far the most rewarding two years of my life—the most joyful, but also the most difficult. There were times when I'd go months without a conversion." Smith participated in some 40 conversions, but in making the decision to interrupt his basketball career and go on the mission, he says, "the first person I converted was surely myself."

He played basketball only twice while he was in South America, once in an effort to ingratiate himself with the people of the village of Esquel by helping them defeat a team from Buenos Aires (he scored 41 points). Despite the layoff, Smith stepped right in upon his return to BYU for the 1986-87 season and became the Cougars' leading scorer and rebounder. Fennis Dembo, the showboating Wyoming star who's now with the Detroit Pistons, approached Smith at the Pan Am Games trials in the summer of '87 and expressed the prevailing skepticism about Smith's spectacular comeback. "What's the deal on these missions?" Dembo asked. "You just hide out for two years and work out, right?"

Smith had by then begun to establish himself as a free spirit of near Dembonian proportions in the WAC. "A lot of it started when I first got back from my mission," he says. "I was so happy to be back playing basketball, and I wasn't embarrassed to show my exuberance on the court. People had forgotten who I was. The high school All-Americans I had played with were now seniors, some of them were college All-Americans, and I was this nobody. I decided I wasn't going to let people forget me." He hasn't. Last season he averaged 21.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. "You won't find another player in the country with better offensive skills," says Reid. "How many 6'10" guys can take it inside and post you up, or go outside and shoot over you?"

Smith's only discernible weakness is his defense, a liability for which Andersen has often openly criticized him and which has occasionally caused some friction between the two. After last season, Smith considered leaving school for the NBA. Says Brian Taylor, a senior guard on last year's team and Smith's best friend, "I think there were a lot of things that went into Mike's decision to stay, including being a good Mormon. We feel like we're playing for what we believe at BYU."

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