Makenzie Smith pushes her basketball career forward, signs with South Carolina Aiken
By Jeff Gilbert
While the world around her struggles to move forward, Makenzie Smith pushes.
Pushes herself to be a better basketball player. Pushes herself to be a better student. Pushes herself toward the next phase of life.
Smith wants to play her senior season at Broadalbin-Perth High School in upstate New York. But whether a full season, half a season or no season happens, that is out of her control because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Smith pushes.
While college recruiting limps along, the player known as Beast Mode found a way to get recruited to a school and team she’s sure she’ll love. Smith signed with NCAA Division II South Carolina Aiken recently, and she’s never been to the school. In normal times, it’s almost unheard of not to make college visits. But these are extraordinary times.
And Smith, says those who know her well, is an extraordinary person.
Smith caught the attention of some Division I programs, but she wanted to go south. When Aiken found out about Smith – a 6-foot forward who averages a double-double and has expanded her game from the paint to the perimeter – an assistant coach called her. After that first four-hour phone call and many more to come over the past year, including FaceTime calls with Aiken players, Smith was convinced.
“I felt like they had so much confidence in me, and it felt like the place I should be at,” Smith said.
Other coaches, however, thought they had another year to recruit Smith. Aiken asked the 16-year-old Smith to reclassify as a senior and graduate a year early. The promise was a full scholarship. Smith will start college at 17.
“I talked about it with my mom,” Smith said. “I had enough credits to graduate this year, and it just felt like an opportunity I couldn’t give up.”
Smith’s first opportunity
Smith has always been ahead of her time and began taking advantage of opportunities as a seventh-grader. She tried out for Scott Alvarez’s AAU team and a special player-coach bond was formed.
“When Makenzie walked into the gym and executed a pick-and-roll, finishing between two defenders, my assistant coach and I were like, ‘Who is that?’” he said.
Alvarez thought Smith must be a high school sophomore. When she said she was a seventh-grader, his expectations for her future increased.
“In their first meeting he comes up to her and says, ‘You are going to sign a scholarship one day and I’m going to be there when you do it,’” said April Smith, Makenzie’s mother. “And he literally kept his word.”
Makenzie Smith believed Alvarez. Her love for the game grew that summer, and she said he became like a third dad to her. The basketball world she had known before was replaced by a world beyond her imagination.
“I went from modified basketball in the seventh grade to playing with 16-year-olds at the age of 13,” she said. “But I feel like it was better for me to learn at such an early age because I grew with it instead of growing against it.”
Smith’s style of play earned her the nickname Beast Mode from Alvarez and assistant coach kevin Winney.
“When you take six charges in three games against kids five years older than you, and are consistently the leading rebounder, playing without any fear, that earns you a nickname like that,” Alvarez said. “We don’t pass out nicknames, they earn them.”
The year meant so much to Smith that she wrote a thank-you letter to Alvarez. He framed it.
Smith discovered the power of camaraderie in her second AAU season. Alvarez put together an international team with players from nations like Poland and Lithuania. That experience of getting to know players from different backgrounds will serve her well as a 17-year-old college freshman 900 miles from home.
Smith has stayed in touch with two of her teammates from that summer. And she will never forget van rides to tournaments and learning Polish rap music.
“It made us a better team getting to know each other like that,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Opportunity No. 2
Smith’s next step toward Aiken began in the eighth grade because New York allows middle school players to play on the high school team if they pass physical fitness and maturity tests.
Tucker Gifford took over the girls program at Class B Broadalbin-Perth in Smith’s eighth-grade season. He is the longtime boys coach at B-P and now coaches both teams. The girls program had been the bottom team in their league, so Smith was important to Gifford’s building project.
“As an eighth-grader she was a leader, and you could tell she was going to be the best player on the court,” Gifford said.
Smith averaged 12.1 points and nine rebounds in her first varsity season. As a freshman she averaged 14.2 points and 10.1 rebounds, and last year as a sophomore she averaged 15.7 and 10.3.
“She is an extremely hard worker,” he said. “For the past three years I’ve watched her develop and grow not only as a player but as a person and a leader on the court. She wants to be the best. There’s no doubt about that.”
Smith’s workout habits are extraordinary. She has spent many days after practice putting in another three hours of shooting while Gifford ran the boys practice. She has a habit of coming to school at 7 a.m. and shooting for up to an hour.
“I’ll drive by the school and she’ll be out on the turf football field working out,” Gifford said.
Smith has been in gyms since she was six years old watching her two older sisters play. The constant force the past 10 years has been April Smith. She has driven Makenzie to countless practices, games and tournaments.
Smith loves her coaches, but she said her mom has influenced her more than anyone else.
“She pushed me to go to the gym even when I was having one of the worst days of my life,” Makenzie said. “She told me that this is always what I wanted and that I can make it big. She was my top supporter.”
High school basketball has had its ups and downs for Smith. B-P has risen from the bottom of its league to the middle, but there have been many losses to endure.
“A lot of the girls I played with didn’t care about basketball as much as I did,” Smith said. “Mom would always make me feel better. She always knew what to say to make me stop crying and feel better about the whole situation. My mom’s my best friend.”
The next push
Makenzie Smith and Gifford would love to have the power to push this high school season into existence. They’ve heard maybe January, but no one knows when or if there will be a season. So Smith will continue to go to the gym and shoot, shoot, shoot.
She’s usually the biggest and strongest player on the floor and does most of her scoring in the paint. But that will change somewhat in college. There will be 6-2 and 6-3 players on her team and the teams Aiken plays against.
“I feel like when I go into college I’ll be more universal,” she said. “And I don’t mind that. I love shooting.”
Smith might not get to enjoy senior night with her team and family, but she made sure her senior teammates last year enjoyed theirs with an extraordinary gesture. She passed up open shots with passes to the seniors.
“The players said, ‘What are you doing,’” April Smith said. “Makenzie said, ‘It’s your senior night. You have to score.’ That was so important to her that all of the seniors on her team got to touch the ball and got to score.”
Smith hasn’t played in a basketball game since the high school season ended last winter. She practiced with an AAU team this summer but there were no tournaments to play in. She might not get a senior night. Her next game might be as a college player.
She wishes for more, but she pushes on.
“Basketball is kind of like my nirvana,” she said. “I could go without playing basketball for a week, and when I get back on the court everything comes back to me. It’s like my safe place.”