hen residents of Central and Eastern Massachusetts attempt to describe where they live to an out-of-Bay-Stater, what inevitably comes out of their mouth is: "Just outside of Boston." It is probably a good bet, then, that when Winston Smith received a UMass sweatshirt as a gift in eighth grade, he thought that the Amherst campus was probably "somewhere outside of Boston."
But eight years later, Smith, 22, a fifth-year senior at the school he will soon call his alma mater, serves as a tri-captain for head coach Bruiser Flint's Minutemen, and definitely knows that UMass is nowhere near being outside of Boston.
"Choosing what school to go to was a very tough decision for me," said Smith, who was also courted heavily by Boston College, Connecticut, West Virginia and Rutgers. "But after I met the coaches, I knew [UMass] was where I wanted to go."
Smith at a 1996-97 pre-season practice.
"There were a lot of college coaches who came to see me play in high school," Smith said. "But after Coach Cal came, I knew UMass is where I wanted to go. He showed me a video of UMass highlights from the season and I started crying. He told me not to rush my decision and to sleep on it, but I already knew."
Smith enjoyed a solid freshman campaign in Flint's inaugural season as head coach in 1996-97. He appeared in all of UMass' 33 games, starting seven, and led all frosh in minutes played while averaging 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Though the Minutemen lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Louisville, it was apparent that Smith had only begun to scratch the surface of what was going to be a very promising career.
In the third game of his sophomore year against Purdue, however, Smith experienced a nightmare that has become all too familiar for athletes in all sports during the past decade. He had re-torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee and was sidelined for the rest of the year. In one split second Smith had lost everything he had worked so tirelessly for during the summer and in the pre-season.
While the injury and impending rehabilitation was devastating (ACL tears typically take between five and seven months to fully recover), it was something that Smith had somewhat expected would happen. During his brief time at UMass, every time he landed awkwardly or pushed off his knee the wrong way on the court, Smith would think back to the day as a junior in high school when he had originally torn his ACL.
"I tore it during my junior year," Smith said, "but I didn't get surgery on it because I knew I had to go to camps that summer and show that I could play at the Division I level, which I did."
So Smith managed to fight through the constant agony of a serious injury, and had a breakout senior year at New Jersey's St. Patrick's High School. He averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and three assists a game while leading his team to a 21-4 record and earned honorable mention All-America and second team All-State honors.
"I continued to play on it [during my senior year] and nothing happened," Smith said. "Then when I got here to UMass, I told [basketball trainer] Ron Laham about it and he said just to keep playing on it until it popped."
Then on November 28, 1997, nine minutes into UMass' second game at the Great Alaska Shootout, Smith's season came to an abrupt and painful end versus Purdue. It had popped. Again.
"I knew it was going to happen one day, but I didn't think it would happen so early in my career here," Smith said. "It was really tough. I was really down and depressed. It took me a long time to get back to the level that I am playing at now."
"Winston has had some frustrations along the way," said Flint. "But he worked hard after blowing his knee out and put himself in a position where he is having a good year for us."
Through nine games in 2000, UMass has limped out to a 2-7 record but Smith has to be considered one of the bright spots in an otherwise forgettable first third of the season. Smith matched his career-high with 10 points, all in the first half, and added four rebounds in a home loss to Providence on Dec. 7. A week later, he collected eight points (2-for-4 on three pointers), four rebounds, four steals and two assists in the Minutemen's 68-52 win over Boston University.
"It makes a big difference when he plays the way he has been lately," Flint said. "He has been one of the most improved players in the conference. He's knocking down open shots, diving on the floor and hustling."
With UMass' usual suspects on offense struggling to put the ball in the basket, any spark that Smith can provide is welcome news for Flint and the rest of the coaching staff.
Smith often draws the assignment to defend the opposition's primary threat.
Smith's basketball career has certainly had its ups and downs, and with the Minuteman staring down a very tough Atlantic 10 conference schedule in the coming months, it will be essential that the 6-5 swingman maintain the focus and discipline that has brought him through adversity in the past.
"I'm really a laid-back type of guy away from basketball," Smith said with his familiar smile. "I like to crack jokes and goof around. But when I step inside [the Mullins Center] I don't talk to anyone. I'm focused on the opponent and my job, and when I get out on the floor I'm a very serious player."
Hopefully, this attitude will bring some excitement and, more importantly, some wins to UMass fans in the new year.