On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
At six feet, Ish Smith is a tall man, but certainly not tall by NBA standards considering there are 15 players in the league over seven feet.
What he lacks in height, though, he makes up in speed, skill and love of the game.
Smith was traded to Washington last summer to start his tenth season with the league, a season which got interrupted by a pandemic but may start again as soon as next month.
He joins us to talk about growing up with his dad as his coach, why he can but doesn’t dunk and his hopes for what is likely to be an unusual, socially-distanced season. What do you want to ask Ish Smith?
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Ish Smith Point Guard for the Washington Wizards; @IshSmith
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome. Warning, if you are old enough to remember that cut from Kurtis Blow, you're too old to join this conversation. It's for kids only. Ish Smith is known as a journeyman in the National Basketball Association, because he's played for so many teams. And last summer, he signed with his 11th team, our own Washington Wizards.
KOJO NNAMDIThe point guard, known for his discipline and tremendous speed, was having a good season when the NBA suspended it in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. But now, it looks as if play might resume in midsummer, and Ish might be on the court again. We'll ask him about that, his style on the court and what made him the player he is today. Ish Smith, welcome to the program.
ISH SMITHHow you doing? Thank you for having me. Thank you all for having me.
NNAMDIDoing the best we can, here. (laugh) Tell us about Ish Smith as a kid. Where did you grow up? Tell us about your family.
SMITHI was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our family dynamic, my father, Larry Smith, my mother Gwen Smith. And there was four of us, so I've got two older sisters, Lativia, who will turn 40 this year. And then Serlethea, who will be 37 this year, I want to say. She's already 37, I want to say. And then me and my brother are 11 months apart, and I'm the oldest of us two. His name is Gerald Smith.
SMITHAnd we were a hardworking family. My mom and dad, they own their own business, a janitorial business. So, I just remember, as a child, doing a lot of cleaning hospital buildings, medical buildings, banks. And that really -- you know, when I watched my mom and dad work at that level, I kind of took and adopted that level of hard work. And to pursue through different things and how my dad kind of, you know, worked for his family and how my mother, you know, worked, you know, for all of us. So, that was the basis of our family, and I pray and I hope that I've adopted that and that I continue that on to this day.
NNAMDIYou must've grown up watching Dell Curry play in Charlotte.
SMITH(laugh) Yeah. You know what's funny? Dell Curry started an AAU team called the Charlotte Stars. And me, Steph was on the team, a guy by the name of Jamie Skee, (sounds like) who played at VCU, Darnell Mack (sounds like). You know, we had a really, really good team. And so, I know Dell personally. That's a really, really good friend of mine.
NNAMDIWell, for those who don't know, Dell Curry is the father of Steph and Seth Curry. What's your full name, and how'd you get the nickname Ish?
SMITH(laugh) Yeah, so it's Ishmael Larry Smith. The middle name, Larry, is from my father's first name, and Ishmael is actually from the Bible. Ishmael and Esau, so Ishmael and Isaac, however way you want to say it. And so Ish just came -- I remember I was little. I was playing a church league game, and everybody was like -- if anybody remembers back in the days in like '96 is when I think the -- '95 is when the Panthers came. I want to say like '96 or '97 is when Rocket Ishmael was there.
SMITHAnd I was always like this little short kid, had a bald head. The ball was bigger than me. So, I used to always play at a fast, fast pace. And everybody was like, you know, he plays like Rocket Ishmael. Ah, that's Ish. Ish plays fast. And so, you know, I just was given the nickname. And I know my mother's mad when she calls me Ishmael. So, I try to keep it at Ish at all times. I don't care how old I get, when I hear Ishmael, I know I'm in trouble.
NNAMDIWhen did you first start playing basketball? Who'd you play for, and who coached you?
SMITHSo, I was young. I started around like two or three years old, and my father was my first coach. My dad was really -- he was such a huge basketball fan, he used to record all these -- back in the days, we used to have VHS tapes. So, he used to record the VHS tapes. And it was Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, back in the days, because he really wanted me to get the basics of the game. I remember Pistol Pete, just so many guys that he had me watching.
SMITHAnd so he actually introduced the game to me, put the basketball in my hands. And they kind of just kind of followed me. If I wanted to play over here, my dad would be like, all right, let's go play over here. Let's go play over here. And because I had such a love for the game, I was okay with it. But he and my mother instilled a lot of values in my life, which I think, you know, draws off of the basketball court. Everybody talks about, you can shoot, you can pass. Now, I think the things that they instilled in me is what makes me not only a good basketball player, but a great man. And that's something that I'm truly thankful for, for that.
NNAMDIWell, you know, my own son coached my grandson all the way up to high school, until he got to high school. And then, when he got to high school he was at every single game that my grandson played. Now that my grandson, of course, is in college and away from home, so my son can't intrude on his basketball (laugh) as much as he would like to. But here's Max, in Virginia. Max, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXHow does it feel knowing that you have so many fans that love you at D.C., even though you've been playing here a short time?
SMITHHow you doing, Max. It feels good. You know what? The fans here were unbelievable. You guys were great this year. I know we didn't play much defense this year, but offensively, we were really, really fun to watch. And it shows me that, basketball-wise, this is a basketball city, and you guys really appreciate good basketball, hardworking guys who bring it every night. So, I'm truly thankful and receptive of all the fans and the love, and I appreciate it. So, I'm thankful, and I'm happy to be coming back for another year.
NNAMDIYeah, you became a fan favorite here very quickly. Is that the same experience you've had in the other 10 cities you've played in?
SMITH(laugh) You know what? The first, I want to see, five or six cities, I was sitting on the bench, passing the towel and water to guys. But, you know what? I laugh at that, but I don't take those times for granted because it allowed me to continue to push and press and continue to kind of persevere to where I want to get to. I'm still not at the level I want to get to. That's the beautiful thing I love about basketball, is you can kind of constantly perfect it. In the game of imperfection, you're constantly trying to perfect it.
SMITHSo, you know, in the other five cities, you know, I was just some dude sitting at the end of the bench, and if somebody got hurt, I would come in. But, you know, I would like to think that everywhere I went, the cities really appreciate me. And so I'm thankful for that, but, you know, I'm just glad that you guys have, you know, received me and appreciate the way that I play and that we play as a team. I don't want to just put the onus on myself, no. As a team I think we've been really, really fun to watch, and we've got to continue that on.
NNAMDIWell, if I had any say, you'd still be here for a very, very long time right after this season. (laugh)
SMITHWell, we need to get you in the front -- no, I'm messing with you. (laugh)
NNAMDII've got a loud voice. Ish, your parents owned the business that you worked in growing up. Tell us about that business, and what that experience taught you.
SMITHYeah, that was fun. It's sad, because they cleaned, you know, buildings and they had their own janitorial business, and they were very, very -- my mom to this day, and my dad, they're very tidy. You walk in the house, the house is very, very tidy. But me, I've learned then the hard work that it took to get to what you want to get to. So, I took basketball and said if my mom and dad can work at this level, you know, to provide for us, I can for sure work at this level to play basketball, something that I really love, something that I really have a passion for.
SMITHBut they built a lot of character, a lot of time management on when we had to be in there, clean and get out. And they built the business from the ground up to where it was, like, one of the biggest businesses at the time when I was growing up. And, for me, it just taught me the perseverance to continue to work, continue to push and continue to press even, when you don't really want to do things.
SMITHI know my dad -- you know, my dad used to wake up at 2:00 a.m. -- I'm sorry, not 2:00 a.m. He used to wake up at 6:00 a.m., 6:00, 7:00 a.m. and then won't come back in until like 1:00, 1:30 a.m. And that was his constant thing every night. Every night he was pushing. So, you know, for that, I'm truly indebted to them. I'm very thankful, but I think, more than anything, it just taught us, like, camaraderie as a family. Because we really did it as a family, especially on the weekends. On the weekdays, my dad had to do it by himself, because we had school nights. But on the weekends, we kind of did it as a family.
SMITHSo it was kind of cool for all of us to be out there, as one group. Believe me, we got a lot of spankings, because we were messing up the buildings as my dad was cleaning the floor and doing specific things. But, I mean, you know, we enjoyed it. We had fun.
NNAMDIAnd your family is -- you're still very close with your family, right?
SMITHI'm super tight with them. We're really, really close, really, really tight. I talk to my brother, sisters, mom, dad, my cousins. I'm really close to my cousins, so I talk to them on a daily -- and constantly trying to get some advice, and they're constantly giving me some advice. My friends -- I got a friend named Brian, I used to be cool with him since the third grade. We're still cool to this day. Some friends out in L.A., so I got a very, very tight circle, but we communicate, you know, at least once a week.
NNAMDIHere's nine-year-old Desmond, in Maryland. Desmond, you're on the air.
DESMONDMy question is, were you the star player on your first team that you played on?
SMITHDesmond, that's a great question. When I was younger, yeah, I was pretty good. I don't like to, like, single myself out and say I was a star player, but I was pretty good. I don't know what a star player consists of, but I was pretty good. I was always fast, but my dad was always the hardest on me, which was okay. He pushed me to great lengths and great levels until I went on to another coach. But I would like to think I was pretty good back in the days, Desmond.
NNAMDIThat's the thing people notice about you, how fast you are. Yet you say you don't particularly like running, unless there's a basketball in your hand.
SMITH(laugh) No, I don't. Let me tell you, it was funny, because I kind of adopted that when I was in high school. So, I had a coach in Scarborough (sounds like). He was a great coach. And it kind of continued to college, when I went to Lake Forest. But he used to, like, before open gym, we had to run on the track, and I just hated it. And it was funny, because people used to always say, Ish, you're really fast. I'll bet you race.
SMITHAnd guys would be beating me, football players, track, they were beating me. As soon as we get on the basketball court, I got a basketball in my hand, I would always be the fastest. So, I truly think it's a blessing. I truly think it's an anointing from God that I got. I can't explain it. I wish I could tell you, like, I'm just naturally fast without the basketball, but I need the basketball in my hands.
NNAMDIWhat about school? What kind of student were you, and what was your favorite subject in school?
SMITHOh, my favorite subject was math. To this day, I love math. It's funny, because my nieces and nephews, they bring home homework and my sister calls me -- both of my sisters call me, and they were like, you see this new -- how they're doing this math? No, no, just write it out this way. It was like, no, it's a new way that they're doing it. I'm like, I like to write up all my work, so that's the way I would do it and that's the way I was taught to do it. But math, I was always really good at it.
SMITHI like school. I like challenges, though. That was my thing. The student is a student -- like, if a teacher was communicating with me, I used to always tell my teachers this, and they weren't too happy with me, I used to tell them like, if you're a really good teacher and you're communicating it well, then I don't have to take homework home or anything. I get what you're saying and I understand it and it soaks in my brain. And I'm able to regurgitate it to you later. But if I got to go home and, like, cram and try to figure out what was there, then either I didn't understand it the best way I could, or, you know, you might've not been teaching it the right way.
SMITHAnd I got in a little trouble with that, but it challenged them to be better and it challenged me to listen better. But I was a really good student. I remember, you know, graduating from Central Cabarrus High School in Concord, North Carolina. And I think I finished with a 3.1, 3.2 GPA. So, I was a really good student. And if you challenged me, said I couldn't do it, then I probably was going to get As and Bs.
SMITHI remember challenging one of my college students. I didn't bet them. It was a friendly wager that I would make a higher grade than her in the class, and I did. And I would do that from time to time if I wanted to lock in the course or class.
NNAMDIYou liked the competition.
SMITHI was a competitor. Still a competitor, so (laugh) it's probably -- like, I felt Michael Jordan when he said, I don't have a gambling problem. I have a competitive problem.
NNAMDIOh, big time. That guy doesn't even like losing at Tiddlywinks. (laugh)
SMITHNo, he doesn't. He doesn't at all. That's what makes him the greatest.
NNAMDIHere's 14-year-old Ken, in Maryland. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENHi. I'm a really big fan. I was just wondering, what was your favorite NBA team to play for?
SMITHOh, Ken, that's a great question. I would have to say the current team I'm on right now, the Washington Wizards. You know, you guys, the fans have been great. This is a basketball -- the DMV is a basketball area. And, like I said earlier, you guys have been very, very receptive to us as a team. And hopefully we continue to grow and one day bring the championship to this city, you know, like the late great, you know, rest in peace, Wes Unseld did. So, those are goals that we have. Obviously, they're lofty goals, but I think if you set your goals high, then you can reach them.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You've played for 11 teams since you got drafted in 2010, but what's it like to get traded so often? Do you wish you could've stayed longer in some of those places?
SMITHYeah, you obviously do, but it's funny, because I had a coach tell me -- Ernie Nestor, he told me one night before I went into the draft, he said, Ish, you might move a lot, but once you find your team, you're going to really take off once you find your niche. And so I kind of, you know, soaked that in and prepared myself for that. And I understood that the NBA is a business. It happens, people get traded, released, cut.
SMITHSo, for me, I used to always have this saying, you know, my next move is the best move. And that's where I always -- that's what I took to every city I went to. The next move is the best move. And so, for me, when you're going through it, is it difficult? Yes, but I used to love it because for me it was like, all right, somebody else wants me. Somebody else wants me. (laugh)
SMITHAnd so I'm a guy who sees a glass half full but I used to always say, next move is the best move. And I just knew I just needed, you know, obviously, an opportunity, but I remember, you know, when I finally got my opportunity that I knew I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Because I knew if I didn't, you know, do well at this moment and this time, you know, the teams would be like, well, we gave him a chance. He didn't fulfill his chance. Sorry about that, buddy, you know, and bring in another Ishmael Smith who could play fast and do whatever. But, for me, it was a great challenge. I loved it. I loved every bit. I wouldn't want it any other way if I had to, you know, go back and do it again.
NNAMDIIsh, like you, a lot of kids have to move and make new friends. How do you approach that, and how do you keep up with your old friends from other teams, other places?
SMITHYeah. So, I think it was probably the character that my mom and dad put in me to kind of, you know, be able to be open and meet new friends. And talk to, you know, new people and be very, you know, welcoming, be very open, be very respectful to everybody you see and meet. So, for me, it came from those two.
SMITHAnd I had a coach by the name of Skip Prosser at Wake Forest, and he treated everybody the same, with so much respect, honor. And so I remember him just instilling that in us as a team. And I try to carry that everywhere I go. So, just going from the next team to the next team, you're just open to whatever the case is.
SMITHAnd I know a lot of children go through that. And a lot of children go through, you know, having a friend here and then losing a friend, because you've got to move to a new city, a new team or, you know, a new school. But that's okay. Like, it's just adding more friends to your list. And, you know, everybody -- you know, the Lord uses us all for different reasons, for specific reasons. So, you just go to know that everybody has a personality and you just got to get to know that person. And, you know, you find the good in everybody's personality, then it makes it easier to make the adjustment.
NNAMDIWhich players did you admire growing up, and why?
SMITHYou know what? It's actually a contradiction, because these two don't like each other. But I was a huge Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas fan.
NNAMDI(laugh) You're right.
SMITHYeah, I was. It's funny, because -- and Muggsy Bogues, Huge Muggsy Bogues fan, because I didn't think I was going to be tall. And so I...
NNAMDIBut you're taller than Muggsy. Muggsy's 5'3".
SMITHYeah, he's 5'3" and he's a Wake Forest grad, too. I'm really close to Muggsy.
NNAMDIYeah, and he's from this area, from Baltimore.
SMITHYeah, he's from this area. Yeah, he's a legend around here. He's a legend at Wake Forest. He's a legend in the NBA. But I remember not being, like, okay, you know, if I don't grow then I got hope, because Isiah Thomas is like 6', 6'1". Muggsy is 5'3". So, I said, if I’m somewhere in between there, okay, I can make it.
SMITHAnd, you know, as we know, I played with Isaiah Thomas this year, who played with the Wizards. He was so special this year. And seeing him at 5'8", 5'9" dominate the game as, you know, he has, you know, over his career. But, yeah, Isaiah Thomas, you know, somebody I looked up to when I was younger. And then Michael Jordan was -- you know, I don't know anybody who wasn't a Michael Jordan fan growing up in the '80s and in the '90s. So, I was one of those kids.
NNAMDIHere now is 8-year-old Eli in Maryland. Eli, it's your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELII was just wondering, how do you like it on the Wizards so far?
SMITHEli, I really enjoy it. You know, I really enjoy it, but I think what makes it even more fun being here is because you guys support us so well. I think the fans were so special this year. The atmosphere was so special this year. And I want to thank you, Eli, and everybody else who are Wizard fans who come out and support us and, you know, really show up and show out. So, I want to thank you. But that's what has made this Wizards experience been fun. And I hope moving forward, you know, we can kind of continue to make you guys happy to be Wizard fans.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Eli. Here's 13-year-old George, in Virginia. George, you're on the air. It's your turn. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEOh, hey, Ish. I'm a big fan of you and the Wizards. I was wondering, you know, since the NBA proposes new plans to come back and play in the playoffs and eventually the championship, I was wondering how you and the Wizards are preparing your mind and your body for the challenge of possibly competing to go deep into the playoffs or for a championship.
SMITHGeorge, that's a great question. So, what we did during this whole pandemic is we got on Zoom workouts. And so we had two of our -- one of our strength coaches and one of our trainers bring in, like, air bikes. And so we had an air bike that we go on and rode. And then he brought in some bands that I have attached -- if you came in here, you'd see I have it attached to my banister in the townhome I'm staying in. And we would get on the Zoom call, prop your phone up or your computer up, and we would just kind of do it with our strength coach leading it.
SMITHAnd so it was kind of cool because it was kind of cool to see everybody. We stayed connected. We stayed talking to each other. I would go downstairs in the garage and do our ball-handling drills together as a team. So, we stayed on top of that. And then now with -- I think we're in phase one now here in D.C., maybe phase two. I don't -- I haven't caught a -- you know, I don't know. But I know they now have opened a practice facility for us. And we're very precautionary on how we're coming in. We're lifting with gloves on, masks on.
SMITHOur trainers are coming in. We're only coming in four people at a time, and we're coming in, and our trainers who are training us have masks on and gloves on, rebounding and passing us the basketballs. So, we're being very careful during this time but guys are getting excited, we're getting excited. I think because we've been so locked into the houses for so long, I think everybody's excited. But we've got to be smart to slowly, but surely ramp it up so we can be prepared to make a deep run.
NNAMDIOnly have about a minute or less left, so here is Diego, in Maryland. Diego, your turn.
DIEGOOkay. My question is, what was your favorite game that you played in, pro or college?
SMITHDiego, my favorite game that I played in in college, I'll tell you two of them, was when I played -- yeah, so, in college was I had a game when I shot against Texas in the NCAA tournament. That was back my senior year. That Texas team was really good, and I put up a pretty good stat line.
SMITHNow, the bad part was the next game we played against Kentucky with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins on the other team, and they beat us pretty bad.
NNAMDIWe've only got about 10 seconds left.
SMITHAnd then, in NBA, was this year, actually, against the Denver Nuggets.
NNAMDIIsh Smith is a point guard with the Washington Wizards. Ish Smith, thank you so much for joining us on Kojo for Kids.
SMITHThank you so much for having me, man. This was fun.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with Washington Wizard Ish Smith was produced by Lauren Markoe. Our conversation about how to talk to children about race and racism was produced by Kayla Hewitt. Join us for the next Kojo in Your Virtual Community on racial disparities during the pandemic. We'll explore how the coronavirus has hit people of color especially hard, and what's being done to lessen health care inequality. The program starts at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. That's Tuesday, June 9th. It's free, but you need to register at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, for many in the LGBT community this pride month feels different. We discuss the intersection of pride and protests and what local advocacy groups are doing to support the move for racial equity. Plus, we sit down with Lonnie Bunch, the founder and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture to discuss the role of cultural institutions at times of social unrest. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.