Dedicated to Basil

Basketball: Morgan State junior Shakira Smith lost her older brother and mentor in 1996. The nation's leader in steals is living and surpassing his dreams.

February 21, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

This is how life changed for Shakira Smith, Morgan State women's basketball player and the nation's best at stealing the ball.

You're a cheerleader at a Boys and Girls Club in Prince George's County who morphs into a long-limbed basketball player likened to Scottie Pippen when recruiters come calling. When you go away to school, you leave your childhood friends behind.

And when you go from admiring your brother, Basil, to burying him, his dreams become yours, like going to college and playing basketball there.

"I just want to do the things that he would do or would want me to do," the junior guard said of Basil, a former high school player at Friendly who was murdered in July 1996. "It was a test from God to see how strong of a person I want to be."

Smith's devotion to Basil, who would be 22 now, was forged through the efforts of their mother, Deanna. A widow who worked evenings as a registered nurse, Deanna Smith depended on her son to keep track of his sister.

He made sure she washed her dishes, but also took her along to play basketball with his friends, teaching her the aggressiveness that would serve her on defense.

"They were two years apart, but he always looked after his little sister," Deanna Smith said. "He would bring his friends out to see her play, because he was proud of her."

Now, after two middling seasons, Shakira Smith, 5 feet 11, is showing signs that perhaps she'll go beyond the loftiest goals of her brother. The Friendly High graduate is one of the leading candidates for Player of the Year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, leading the nation with 4.55 steals a game and averaging 16.7 points and 4.0 assists.

Outings like the 22 points, eight rebounds, seven steals and six assists against South Carolina State have been only slightly abnormal for Smith, who leads her team in five statistical categories.

"She had the ability to play the way she's playing now," Morgan State coach Gerard Garlic said. "I used to tell her that she reminds me of Scottie Pippen in that she could give us different parts of the game. She's truly developed into that player."

Smith's emergence has coincided with that of the Morgan State team (13-10, 10-5), which -- heading into today's 7 p.m. nonconference game against Towson -- is considered one of the top contenders to win the MEAC tournament, which begins on March 6.

If the team can get over a two-game losing streak (surprise setbacks to Bethune-Cookman and UMES), it could have its best record since a 16-12 effort in 1989-90.

Heady stuff for a group that went 12-16 last season. Since, Morgan lost its coach, Darcel Estep, who left in June for a better job at St. John's. The school installed her former assistant as the interim coach, just as he was ready to walk out the door.

Immediately, Garlic made a night-to-day switch away from Estep's structured and slow system to an unabashed run-and-gun, issuing orders to his players to start shooting 1,000 shots a day, a challenge that few took him up on.

"I tried it one time," junior guard Sherie Cornish said. "I think I made it to 500 once. I don't think 1,000 is possible."

While haggling over the details, the team embraced Garlic's coaching style in general, through the doubts that came when the team began the season with six players because of injuries.

Though players took care not to jab at the Estep regime, freedom was the theme of players describing the difference between this season and last.

"The biggest difference is that freedom has been allowed," junior point guard Lisa Mickens said, acknowledging that a lack of players in the beginning made Garlic's flexibility a necessity. "We were under a lot of pressure last year. If you did something wrong, you were going to be pulled. Now we're allowed to try things and be more aggressive."

The results? Though the Bears no longer rank nationally in scoring defense, they've scored 90 or more points as many times (three) as last season's edition broke 70. Monique Liddell, probably the backbone of this season's team, was the only player scoring in double figures last year. She's now one of four, as the Bears average 75.3 points, tops in the league.

For Smith, the team's development has been rewarding because of where the Bears were picked to finish in the conference: eighth.

"It was like they looked at us like we weren't going to be anything," Smith said. "But I don't need them to give us respect. I want to prove that I deserve it."

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