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Ahmad Smith wants to leave mark, not Webster
In a matter of months, Ahmad Smith went from potentially playing basketball for a Division I school to playing part-time on a Division III team. Men’s Basketball Head Coach Chris Bunch said Webster University was lucky to have Smith on its team. But the freshman, who had his Division I dreams pulled out from under him, did not feel so lucky.
“The first year of college basketball was more of a learning experience. I was battling myself, thinking ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to leave,’” Smith said.
Smith’s plan after finishing his high school career was to attend Western Illinois University (WIU) and play basketball at the Division I level. He would work hard and gradually earn a starting spot. But Smith’s life did not go according to his plan.
Smith said WIU was supposed to give him a two-year scholarship, but during the summer, the assistant coach informed Smith that they did not have enough money to give him.
“I was basically going to have to pay out of pocket to go there for a whole year. That wasn’t the original idea,” Smith said.
So Smith’s father called Coach Bunch and asked if there was any room on the roster for his son. Bunch said there was, and a week before the fall semester started, Smith was a member of the Webster basketball team.
During the 2011-2012 season, Smith’s role on the team was the sixth man, which meant he would be the first man substituted into a game to play any position the team needed. As Webster’s sixth man that year, his 7.2 points-per-game was fifth-highest on the team.
Smith said the situation with WIU affected his play. Some days he worked hard at practice, but other days, Smith said, he felt like he did not want to be there. His inconsistent feelings transferred over to games. Smith said he would give his maximum effort for “big teams,” but for other teams, Smith did not care.
Going from “the man” in high school to the sixth man in college is a tough transition, but Bunch said changing roles is normal for freshman.
“As a freshman, he was in a new situation. There were several established players here,” Bunch said. “A lot of people struggle as a freshman, where they go from being a key part (on their high school team) to going to a new team, and not really feeling like the guy.”
At the end of his first season, Smith did not know if he would return to Webster for the next season. He wasn’t a starter, and his effort and passion for the game were inconsistent. But Smith said he couldn’t leave Webster without giving his full effort.
“I decided I was going to come back because I wanted to give my all to Webster. I knew I didn’t do that my freshman year,” Smith said.
Smith spent the summer working on his game. He spent every day in the gym, shooting hoops and improving his technique. He said his team would rely him to be the “go-to-guy” when his sophomore season started.
The sophomore, “go-to” version of Smith went straight to the net. Smith doubled his points-per-game production (14.6) and was second on the team in total points scored (365) that year. But an injury forced Smith to sit out the final two games, the latter being a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) Tournament. Webster lost that game to Spalding University, 70-56.
Smith’s sophomore season may have ended with an early exit from postseason play, but he improved his on-court production. However, once again, Smith gave serious thought about transferring.
This time, however, Smith decided to talk to his teammates about his decision. Smith called former teammate and friend Stefan Whittingham who transferred to Lincoln University after Smith’s freshman season. Whittingham said he advised Smith to “do what was best for him.”
Smith decided to return to Webster for his junior year. He set his sights on finishing his career at Webster and leaving his mark on the school.
As of Feb. 24, the team owns a 14-3 record in the conference. Smith recently earned Player of the Week honors for the week of Feb. 10-16. Smith said the improved season comes from the team stepping up and putting up great production.
Bunch said that the team’s improved season is also due to Smith’s change in attitude.
“He is realizing that he is a leader and is starting to take ownership of (the role),” Bunch said.
Bunch said Smith is beginning to recognize when he needs to shoot the ball and when he needs to pass it to his teammates so they can carry the load.
“We have four or five guys who can play, and it’s not always going to be (their) night. It’s about one unit, and you have to put your ego on the shelf. He’s starting to do that much better this year, understanding that he doesn’t have to do it all himself,” Bunch said.
Whittingham said he can hear his friend’s maturity in his voice.
“I can tell just by the way he talks about basketball — you can tell he is actually comfortable talking about plays he has to make on the court, knowing when to shoot and when to pass the ball around. You can really tell that he’s growing as a player,” Whittingham said.
When this season ends, Smith said he will return next year without considering to transfer. All Smith is thinking about now is coming back to Webster next year a better player than he was this season.
“I still have a long way to go,” Smith said. “I still have goals I want to reach.”