I was second oldest of eight children and raised by a single unemployed mom in a low-income neighborhood in North Sacramento. Life was tough; we survived with government checks and food stamps. I had a desire to do what I could to be a role model for my younger siblings but lacked any guidance or resources during my early years to show me how to actually help them.
The only bright spot during that time showed up in fifth grade when I joined the local Pop Warner football team. Even though I am 6’7” and built like the NFL running back that I could have become, in those days I was short and chubby. I played quarterback because of my bulk, but I was scared to get hit and so slow off the ball during the game that I earned the nickname Slow Motion.
My life began to move in a positive direction when I was a 14-year-old freshman at C. K. McClatchy High. I didn’t care about studying, but found some satisfaction as a member of the school’s junior varsity football team. At the end of the season I tried out for the school’s basketball team. By that time I was 6’2” tall. Even though I had gotten some height, I was still carrying my baby fat and was still slow on my feet so got cut from the team.
During the summer following my freshman year my height shot up to 6’5” and I grew out of all my clothes. I went out for varsity football and met Coach Malcolm Floyd. He was an ethnic mixture of Samoan and African American. He had been with the NFL. His younger brother, also named Malcolm Floyd, recently retired from the San Diego Chargers.
Before I signed the paper to join the team Coach Floyd asked me, “Are you going to make grades?”
“Yes I’m going to make grades,” I said.
“What position do you want to play?”
I said “Quarterback and wide receiver.”
Coach said, “Well, I don’t want a dumb quarterback.” That comment stuck with me.
Coach Floyd’s influence increased when he shared with me that he had actually grown up in the same apartments I was living in, and had faced some of the same struggles that I was dealing with.
That year I raised my GPA to 3.2. We won only four games but it was great being on Coach Floyd’s team. He became a mentor, helping me to begin thinking like an adult. For some reason, Coach Floyd started calling me Shug. That was fine by me. Nobody was calling me Slow Motion anymore.
Basketball was my other sport. In my sophomore year I landed a starting position with the varsity team that had dumped me the year before. It was fun competing, and I got a lot of applause in one game when I dunked the ball. That spring I was invited to join the Play Hard Play Smart traveling basketball team. I had been proud of my solo dunk, but some of those guys were dunking the ball as a matter of routine, dribbling the ball between their legs, and making phenomenal plays.
After the first few practice sessions I told Coach Brian that I wasn’t going to continue playing on his team.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because these guys are too good.”
“You’re completely fine,” the coach said. “I wouldn’t have talked to you if you couldn’t compete.” He convinced me to stay on the team with the argument that becoming a 2-sport athlete would be a boost to my career. He was right. Competing alongside top players caused my own level of play to improve greatly.
Basketball proved to be an exceptional cross-fit activity and I brought some of that improved athleticism to the football field. I was going full force and trying to bring the guys along with me. My teammates acknowledged my energy and commitment by electing me team captain on the JV team and later on the varsity.
Things were going well in school, but life with my mother became so difficult that I moved out and spent a few months camping on teammates’ couches. Coach Floyd apparently learned of my living conditions and performed one of the most generous acts anybody ever did for me; he invited me to move in with his mom.
Lea Taata Floyd, who was the Samoan side of Coach Floyd’s ancestry, became the mother I never really had. The first day I moved in she said her only rule was that I had to be in the house before the streetlights came on. It was difficult to be home before sunset, but I was determined to do so because I wanted to remain in contact with this woman who had raised two NFL players. She took a personal interest in my life and encouraged me to keep my grades up.
Each morning she gave me a ride to school. When I was ready to get out of her car, she would ask me, “Am I wasting my time?” Every time I would answer, “No.” Playing that little game every day became an incentive for me, because I was determined to make sure that I was giving the right answer.
I loved football, but basketball became my sport. We were 15-11 in my junior year and improved to 16-10 in my senior year. It wasn’t a great sports school, but we made the playoffs for only the second time in a decade.
Following graduation I couldn’t qualify academically to take advantage of a number of offers for basketball scholarships, so I spent the next two years at City College of San Francisco earning an AA that I could transfer to a four-year school. I joined the CCSF Rams basketball team and had the good fortune of being trained by an extraordinary coach named Justin Labbagh, who flipped the page for me on how to be a winner and motivated me to develop my leadership skills. I played shooting guard, small forward, and power forward. We lost only three games in the two years I was on his team.
After receiving my AA, I was given a full-ride scholarship to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and spent two years as a member of Marshall’s Thundering Herd basketball team under the direction of a great coach named Dan Dantoni. He and his brother Mike had both coached NBA teams, and Mike is currently head coach of the Houston Rockets.
Coach Dan let me pick his brain and learn what the NBA was looking for. I also picked up valuable information and tips from his assistant, Chris Duhon, who had played at Duke and then with the Lakers and Knicks. They learned about my strengths and weaknesses and taught me how to play off my size and natural athleticism.
During my junior year at Marshall I averaged 15 points a game. The first five games of my senior year turned out to be the best basketball of my life. I scored 21 points against the University of Louisville by sinking a number of shots from the three-point line. Everything was going my way; I was projected to be drafted by the pros. However, while playing Morehead State University in the fifth game of the season, I dove for a loose ball, broke my right shoulder blade plus the bone that holds the rotator cuff, and my season was over.
I was depressed and felt that my life was coming to an end. Fortunately, Taylor Conley, who was then my girlfriend and is now Mrs. Smith, together with her mom Lizz and father Brian, became my support team. Now that I wasn’t playing basketball, they encouraged me to show what else I was capable of doing. I focused on my studies and by the time I graduated with the Class of 2015, my grades had improved to a 3.8 GPA and I was on the dean’s list.
After recovering from my injury, the University of Nevada granted me another scholarship. Before starting practice, I took a qualifying physical. Something didn’t sound right, so they set me up for a CAT scan and discovered that I had a disease called cardiomyopathy that affected my heart muscle and could lead to a heart attack. I was frightened to go to sleep at night for fear that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Fortunately, I got a second opinion from a Stanford cardiologist who said that I was a low risk, and he set my odds at collapsing during the middle of a basketball game at only two percent. Nevertheless, the doctor thought the chance was too great. “If I were you, I wouldn’t play anymore,” he said.
I spent the next two years as a dedicated substitute teacher in the Vallejo Unified School District. I enjoyed teaching and felt that I was able to make a genuine impact on the lives of some of the kids. It was satisfying that I could show them the truth about life and then watch some of them actually begin to run with it.
Last year I coached San Ramon’s Dougherty Valley High Wildcats basketball team. We finished the season 18-8, but I took most satisfaction from my sense that I was empowering the players to create better futures for themselves while helping them improve their game. I came to a powerful conviction that I had discovered my purpose in life; this is what the Universe had created me for. So I sat down with my wife and in-laws and told them my dream. I told them that I wanted to be more than a coach; I wanted to start my own business of changing young people’s lives and futures.
Last August I started Shawn Smith Basketball Skills Factory. I used all of the social media including my website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to get the word out. I attracted a group of enthusiastic elementary and junior high basketball wannabees. I set out to be more than simply their trainer; I wanted to be the guy in their corner. I began mentoring them and passing down to them the strong messages and lessons that my coaches had instilled in me through the years. I tried to be real with them and told them how when I reached my lowest point, I realized that I needed support from others who got me back on my feet and helped me thrive. Some of these kids are already changing and growing because of my influence. I’m looking forward to the day when one of the young people I mentor graduates from college.
I’m just getting started. I’m planning to get a location, build a gym, and run a series of basketball camps aimed at specific cultural niches. (What could happen, for example, with a mother/daughter camp?) We change the world by refusing to accept limits. I plan someday to turn my Shawn Smith Basketball Skills Factory into a franchise and to create an empire that will provide opportunities for people like myself to actually open up hope for a positive future to a great number of young people.
If anyone had looked at me 20 years ago, living with my seven siblings and our single unemployed mom in those Sacramento projects, they would have thought that there wasn’t much chance for Shawn Smith to ever achieve anything worthwhile in life. They were right. There wouldn’t have been much chance if I hadn’t found sports and had the good fortune of coming under the influence of a number of remarkable coaches and trainers who made it their goal to show me how to become a good athlete and a good person.
Those coaches gave me a future. I’ve dedicated my life using my Shawn Smith Skill Factory to pass that gift down to as many young people as possible.