Standing tall for Rebels

It was hard to miss Kenyatta Smith on the basketball or volleyball court during his recently completed athletic career at Flintridge Prep.

For one, Smith was almost always the biggest physical specimen on the court, towering over others from his position under the basket or in the middle of the net as a multiple All-CIF and All-Prep League center on the basketball team and middle blocker on the volleyball team.

From the time he emerged on the basketball scene as a head-turning freshman, it was clear Smith also had the skill set and raw talent to complement his uncommon physicality and, season by season, he honed his game to become more polished and ever more dominant.

Smith put it all together this winter in a basketball season that stretched farther into the spring than any in Rebels lore and ended with the first CIF Southern Section championship in program history.

He averaged 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game during the season and was even better in the Division V-AA playoffs, averaging 22.6 points and 16 rebounds per outing, culminating in a 15-point, 17-rebound, six-block performance in the Rebels' 47-44 victory in the championship game against Muir on March 5.

For his achievements in basketball, Smith was honored with a slew of postseason awards, including Prep League co-Most Valuable Player, CIF Division V-AA Player of the Year, the John R. Wooden High School Player of the Year Award for CIF Southern Section Division V and his first-ever All-Area Boys' Basketball Player of the Year nod.

While Smith was developing into a championship-caliber basketball player, he was also making the transformation from a casual volleyball player to a cornerstone of the Rebels' CIF–contending squad.

Debuting on the varsity team as a sophomore, Smith notched all-league honors in each of his three seasons and earned an All-CIF Division V first-team accolade following his senior campaign, in which he registered a team-leading 198 kills and 73 blocks.

In light of his extensive accomplishments in basketball and volleyball over the past year, Smith was unanimously voted the 2010-11 James H. Jenkins News-Press Male Athlete of the Year.

Smith recently sat down with the News-Press' Gabriel Rizk to look back on his distinguished two-sport high school career and ahead to his future.

Gabriel Rizk: Can you remember the last time you weren't the biggest kid in your class at school?

Smith laughs.

GR: Was there ever a time?

Kenyatta Smith: Yeah. There was a time in elementary where there was another kid. It was his first year too, but he was actually a little older than me. He might have had an inch on me.

I've seen him since and I've passed him.

GR: I'm guessing that because of [your size] it was fairly obvious for you to gravitate toward basketball since you were a young kid. What got you into basketball and when did you start to realize you wanted to play seriously?

KS: I didn't really start playing organized basketball until seventh grade. I always did like little pee-wee stuff, but nothing major. It really started with a couple of my coaches in elementary school who said, "You're big, come on, why aren't you playing? Just give it a shot."

I was always kind of shy, but I said OK. I decided to go out for it and I did pretty well, it started to come really easy to me. Being tall, I guess just always kind of had the upper hand.

GR: Who taught you how to play? Is there one person you can think of who really taught you the basics of the game and a love for the game?

KS: I've had a lot of coaches come in and out of my life. On the [Amateur Athletic Union] circuit, I've had a couple coaches. The two main ones were Robert Icart and Craig Stover and also [Flintridge Prep] Coach [Garrett] Ohara, he's definitely helped me a lot with just the basic fundamental facets, not that just go along with his offense, but in general and they've really helped.

GR: The year before you got to high school at Prep, they didn't have much size and because of that the Rebels kind of struggled that year. What was Coach Ohara's reaction when you showed up on his court as a 6-foot-5 freshman and he realized he was going to have you to plug into the lineup?

KS: I remember I actually went to his basketball summer camp the summer before I came to Prep and as soon as he got a hold of my file that I had applied and everything, he started calling and just made contact from there. I think he was pretty happy because he had been watching me grow and develop in middle school and by the time I became a freshman I think he was very pleased.

GR: From the point you first started playing summer league games for Prep that year, it was pretty clear you were going to be a big part of the basketball program there, but at that time was volleyball in the picture? Was Coach Beattie already recruiting you?

KS: He definitely started recruiting me, almost as soon as Coach Ohara did. In middle school he joked about it, but in high school he really started to become serious. I mean, I wanted to play volleyball. I did in elementary and I thought it was fun. It didn't take that much persuading to get me to come out and play volleyball, but he did try pretty heavily.

[For me] volleyball wasn't really a serious sport as much as basketball was, where I had a goal and I was aiming to get somewhere. Volleyball was more just something to keep me going. It was a lot of fun and something I really enjoyed. It was a good outlet to have.

GR: There was a time, I believe it was your sophomore year, where it was rumored you were being persuaded to play football at Prep. How close did you actually come to playing football?

KS: Every time I would walk past the athletic offices, [former Prep football Coach Perry Skaggs] would say, "Yatta, Yatta, I've got some pads over here for you." There was definitely some pressure to play every year. If it wasn't from the coaches it would be from my peers. [They would say,] "All you've got to do is go stand in the end zone, we'll throw the ball to you and you just jump and get it."

I thought about it, but it was always a busy time for me. Football season is when I start gearing up for the basketball season. Early on, it could have been fun, but it just became too much of a liability. If something happens in football season, there goes basketball.

GR: In the three years leading up to your senior year, the basketball team had a lot of success, won Prep League titles, got to the playoffs every year, but you kept hitting that roadblock in the playoffs. Being able to win it all this year, did that make it that much sweeter in the end, knowing you had to experience some disappointment along the way and not make it a few times in order to get past that hump?

KS: It really did because in my entire time [at Prep] I don't know if we got past the second round [of CIF], we always hit that wall. I knew this was different this year even from the beginning, but I also did feel something when we won our second playoff game. We got that second game and just started making our way through. I remember this feeling after the second game like, "OK, we got this done, let's just keep going and take this all the way."

GR: You said you felt it from the beginning of the season and also early in the playoffs, but what do you think was the difference for this team? You had talented teams before, but what was the difference this year?

KS: Every year we would lose players and I would think, "OK, there goes a little bit more of the chance of us making the playoffs next year or us doing as well." But the one thing I think that was really crucial this year was the team chemistry.

There's definitely been a lot of chemistry the past years, but I think it's really been at its highest this year. There's like brotherly bond on the court and off, maybe even more off the court, which I think really translated well to when we were playing.

GR: What about for you personally? What was the difference? Were you maybe more motivated than before because it was your senior season?

KS: I think I was definitely motivated because not only was this my senior year, it was like the year I was the sole captain, so I felt an obligation to lead this team and help motivate them to do as much as they can and do the absolute best job they can.

GR: Your Achilles' heel over your first three seasons seemed to be getting in foul trouble in big games. You didn't have that problem this year. That must have felt good to get past that.

KS: It really did. I guess the one thing I actually started doing after three years of people screaming at me was just keeping my hands straight and keeping my feet on the ground.

I just keep remembering after the first two fouls of every game, after the second foul, I would be on the bench and I just hated being on the bench early in the game watching the other team just take advantage of opportunities I really thought I could help prevent and just realizing it was my own fault because I was making silly fouls. I was very frustrated with myself.

GR: Playing the position that you do, it's more physical down low and you're playing against bigger players — how hard is it to have that balance of playing hard, playing aggressively, but at the same time keeping your body under control and making sure you don't cross the line and commit a foul?

KS: It's very difficult because I go from in the summers and playing AAU basketball where there aren't as many refs and there's a lot less ticky-tack fouls being called. It allows us to just be more physical with each other.

It's just club basketball and people just going at it and then having to come back to a more structured environment like the Prep League or any regular high school game and having there be two or three refs that are just watching everything and being a little more strict on the calls, it is a little bit more difficult to control what you're doing.

GR: While you were at Prep, you had a lot of great teammates over the years you were playing varsity — looking back, who would you say is the best you've played with, or who taught you the most about competing and winning?

KS: I guess there were definitely two players who I remember and just really loved playing with. I remember Aaron Fried and Edmund Chow. From day one they were like big brothers to me. They were always there to just have my back whenever I messed up on the court, tell me what I could do to help improve my game or help the team do better overall. They were just a true pleasure to play with.

GR: Talk to me about the fans at Flintridge Prep, your classmates, basically. They're some of the more rabid and animated fans around at the high school level. What's it like to have such a passionate fan base at such a small school, no less, and to kind of be at the center of all that adulation from your peers?

KS: I honestly can't describe the feeling, it's amazing. It's kind of the same thing I thought about our team every year. I thought the same thing about the fan section — we're losing guys, we're going to lose energy, we're going to miss them next year, it's probably not going to be the same.

But I was wrong. Every year our fans come back bigger and stronger than ever and louder than ever. It just seemed like more grades would get involved in the fan section. By this year, it was almost the entire school, everybody from every grade. It was absolutely amazing to have that kind of support.

GR: You've had the opportunity to play for two veteran coaches with a proven history of winning and teaching in Coach Ohara and Coach Beattie — how much of a role did they play in your athletic success at Prep and also how much did they help you as just role models and mentors?

KS: They are both great coaches and great role models. They're always the first people I can turn to whenever I make a mistake and they're always the first people to say hi to me just walking around campus. There's always a friendly hello or a greeting.

What I really like is that doesn't really change when it's time to play the sport, there's still that same kind, but very strict and motivating person I see in the hallways. I really admire both of them.

GR: When you started playing volleyball, it was more of a hobby or something you did for fun. After playing varsity at the level you did, I think most people would consider you a legitimate volleyball player with the things you've accomplished. Talk about your development as a volleyball player and going from more amateur to playing at a high level.

KS: When I first started in middle school and my first couple years of high school, my goal was always to just hit the ball. I really didn't have any form or any sort of perspective on how to play the game really. I didn't have any concept of having to learn plays for volleyball. I wanted to just hit it as hard as I possibly can and just block whatever comes over.

But over the years, [Coach Beattie] just helped me develop a better understanding for my technique in hitting and developing an actual approach and then having actual form when I go up and block that really makes the game a lot easier and more fun, too.

GR: As much fun as you had playing volleyball at Prep did it ever come close to equaling basketball for you?

KS: No, basketball's always been No. 1 because it was always my main sport and always what I wanted to use to get into college. Volleyball was always fun. I may even try, after the basketball season in college to maybe join a club team, but basketball's always been No. 1.

GR: And you were able to do just that, getting to move on and play at Harvard. What made you want to continue your basketball career, as well as your education, there?

KS: For me and my Mom, a huge thing growing up was always let's get to college. [I wanted] to just do what I can and provide the best future for myself and the best future she could try to provide for me. Due to financial constraints and everything, using sports was probably the only way I could have gone to college, so for me it's always been that motivation factor — the one thing I would strive my entire life for.

It was the greatest feeling when I started to see all this work pay off, when the offers started coming in my Mom and I were just so happy. We realized all this hard work, all this sacrifice we both had to make was finally paying off.

GR: You've had so much experience playing basketball on the travel circuit and in high school. Do you feel confident you're ready to take that jump to the next level?

KS: I think so. Ever since I made the commitment to play a college sport, I've always been trying to develop myself for the next level, just working as hard as I possibly can, working out, conditioning, on-the-court training. I've actually joined a pro-amateur league for the summer that combines a whole bunch of college students and pros who are coming back looking for somewhere to play. It doesn't get any better than that.

GR: As far as the basketball season, are there other moments along the way that stand out in your mind.

KS: Definitely. Before the title game, our first game against Poly, beating them at home, that was great. A lot of the team trips were a lot of fun, but in terms of on-the-court stuff, I don't think anything could possibly beat the CIF championship game. Just that feel of euphoria after the game, everybody was like floating.

GR: One moment that I remember just because it was kind of funny and surreal was after the first round of state when you beat Tranquillity in a blowout. After the game, all the players from Tranquillity asked you to pose for a picture with them and they all mobbed around you smiling and holding up the No. 1 hand signal. What was going through your mind as you were being given the celebrity treatment by a team you just beat?

KS: Nothing like that has ever happened before. I guess I was just confused more than anything else. We just won by more than 60, and now we're posing for pictures with them. You can't say they were sore losers or anything.

GR: Looking back at the season as whole, in basketball and volleyball, you were able to win some pretty prestigious awards — from league MVPs to All-CIF — not that you play to win awards, but does that kind of thing give you a feeling of validation when it's all said and done?

KS: They're all definitely just really great blessings and I really don't think they represent just me as a person and what I've done in the season, but just everything my team and I have been able to accomplish. It's not just me, it's about me and my team because without them this season would have been nothing and all these awards would be nothing. It's really just validation for all the hard work we've put in over the season, all the dedication to playing this sport and to wanting to become the best we can.

GR: You also received the John R. Wooden High School Player of the Year Award for CIF Division V in basketball. As far as a commendation of character and ethics, as well as of course athletic excellence, how special is that one for you?

KS: For me, that was probably top notch, that was probably the most prestigious among them for me. I felt incredibly honored. I was honestly in shock, I didn't even know what to say. At first I don't even think I recognized what a huge honor it was. Then I just learned about it more and thought about it and just realized this is truly a great honor, it's such a blessing.

GR: What are you going to miss most about the life you're leaving behind now that you're going away to college?

KS: I'm definitely going to miss the people. Not just my teammates, but all my friends. They've been a part of my life for the last six years since I've been at Prep and we've spent so much time together and gotten to know each other so well. I know they're all going on to different lives now and trying to be as successful as they can, but I know I'm going to miss every single one of them.

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