From the Sports editor: Smith never set out to be a hoop star

Tyresa Smith is still second on the Blue Hens’ all-time scoring list with 1,632 points and she was twice named the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year. She was named UD’s outstanding female athlete, as well as the state’s top athlete, in 2007 when she helped the Hens go 26-5 and reach the NCAA Tournament. (University of Delaware file photo)

Tyresa Smith had always been a Delaware kid.

She grew up in Dover and played basketball at Polytech High and then the University of Delaware.

So heading to Russia to play professionally after college was an eye-opening experience.

“It was kind of a big culture shock,” said Smith. “It was the longest plane ride I’d ever been on.

“When I got there, no one spoke English. It was very competitive. I had one teammate who spoke English, so it was a lot to adjust to.”

For a youngster who didn’t grow up with big basketball dreams, Smith’s skills took her to stardom at the NCAA Division I college level and then a pro career that took her from the WNBA to stops in Russia, Israel and Germany.

And now Smith’s basketball skills have put her in the Delaware Basketball Hall of Fame.

Smith will be one of five people in the Hall’s 12th annual induction class, which will be honored on Jan. 26 at the Sheraton Wilmington South in New Castle.

Now 33, Smith works as a grade-school physical education teacher in Washington, D.C. Her competitive playing career ended in 2011 after she spent a couple seasons in Germany.

When she first stopped playing, Smith said she tried to keep her distance from the game for a while.

“After I came home from Europe, I kind of didn’t even pick up a basketball for a long time,” said Smith. “It took me a while. Not that I was upset, because I came home with the intention of going to grad school.

“I don’t know, I guess there was a fear to pick it up — like that I was going to miss it a lot. So I kind of stayed away from it. But I started to miss it so I started to play (recreationally).”

But Smith says she has nothing but good memories about playing basketball — even if she never had it all planned out.

The state Player of the Year after leading Polytech to the state title in 2003, she ended up getting a scholarship to Delaware at the last minute.

“I didn’t even know what the plan was if I didn’t get a scholarship,” said Smith.

The transition to college wasn’t easy at first, either. As a freshman, Smith had the mechanics of her shot totally revamped.

That, however, didn’t stop her from having a career that put her in UD’s Athletics Hall of Fame not to mention earning her a spot on the Colonial Athletic Association’s silver anniversary team.

Smith is still second on the Blue Hens’ all-time scoring list with 1,632 points and she was twice named the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year. She was named UD’s outstanding female athlete, as well as the state’s top athlete, in 2007 when she helped the Hens go 26-5 and reach the NCAA Tournament.

That year, Phoenix made Smith the No. 18 pick in the WNBA draft.

Smith said it’s all pretty amazing how her career unfolded.

“You know how, for some people, basketball is everything for them?” she said. “It was never everything for me. It was something I enjoyed to do. I was able to get better at it and worked hard.

“That helped me get to places that I probably never thought I would go. It helped me realize that I wanted to teach. I feel like this is just another part of the journey.”

When she does play basketball occasionally, Smith said she finds she still has a competitive streak. She does work with youngsters on their skills.

Mostly, though, her life revolves around school these days.

“I think I’ve found another love in teaching,” said Smith. “That has been a huge thing for me. I feel like this is my way of giving back because I’ve always had an amazing group of teachers who have always supported me and been there and helped build interest in what my future was going to be.

“It’s great to be around such amazing kids and wonder what they’re going to be and help build that interest for them.”

Smith said her parents, Dover’s Kevin and Terry Smith, are pretty excited about her latest basketball honor.

Of course, they’re a big part of the journey, too.

“They’ve always been very supportive of everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Smith. “And they always enjoyed watching me play basketball. If they had to leave work early or make accommodations to get there on time, they made sure they were there. My brother and sister as well.

“For them to hear this (about the Hall of Fame), it like having that same feeling of being proud.”

Rest of the class

The other downstater in this year’s Delaware Basketball Hall of Fame class is Smyrna’s Marianna Freeman.

A three-time all-Henlopen Conference player for the Eagles, Freeman was a starter for Division II power Cheyney before coaching Delaware State to the MEAC regular-season title in 1981. Freeman was an assistant coach at Iowa for a decade and then the head coach at Syracuse for another 10 years.

Among the Orange’s biggest wins during her tenure were victories over Connecticut and defending national champion Notre Dame in 2002.

Joining Freeman and Smith in this year’s class are former Conrad All-Stater Pete Cloud, who starred at UD in the early 1960s; Mark Harris, who led Brandywine to the 1977 state title before starting for three years at Harvard; Decoursey Jamison, who was an All-Stater on Howard’s state championship team in 1996; and John Fiorelli, who coached St. Mark’s girls’ program to six state titles and a 356-139 record in 12 seasons.

Tickets for the Hall induction brunch, which starts at 10 a.m., are available at https://debbhof.ticketleap.com/delaware-basketball-hall-of-fame-2019/.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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