Feb. 10, 1998
BERKELEY, Calif. -- While it's been a frustrating season for the Cal women's basketball team, few have had to endure as much as junior guard Sherrise Smith. While the Bears have struggled to a 5-14 overall record, Smith has had to overcome two serious injuries and a death in the family. And that's just in the past year.
As a sophomore last season, Smith inherited the starting point guard spot left vacant after the departure of former All-Pac-10 player Eliza Sokolowska. She did not waste much time before making her presence felt, scoring a career-high 17 points in an early season game against Saint Mary's.
But three games into Pac-10 action last season, tragedy struck. Hours after watching his daughter play at USC, Homer Smith suffered a fatal heart attack. Despite her grief, Sherrise suited up and played the next day against UCLA. Less than two weeks later, Smith hyper-extended her right knee in a game against Washington State. She continued to play, finishing out the season as strong as possible, considering the circumstances. All in all, Smith started 22 games at point guard and ranked seventh in the Pac-10 in assists (4.0 apg). With her body and mind rejuvenated by the off-season, Smith approached her junior year with renewed anticipation.
But during pre-season conditioning this fall, Smith sustained another knee injury, this time to the left knee. "I came into the season with a lot of confidence," Smith said. "I had worked hard all summer, was playing well in practice and then I had the injury.
"The coaching staff, trainers, and I all agreed that I should have the scope early in season rather than trying to play through it and maybe not being able to finish out the season."
Smith underwent a surgical procedure called a lateral release, in which doctors took connective tissue from the side of her knee to facilitate the movement of her kneecap back to its proper place in the center of the knee, as opposed to its former "off-to-the-side" position.
The rehabilitation went well and allowed Smith to return to the hardwood earlier than expected. She suited up for Cal's season opener at home against Cal Poly SLO, and she scored seven points and dished out four assists in 17 minutes of action.
Smith continued to recuperate from the injury, and broke out with 11 points off the bench against Ohio State in the championship game of the Oakland Tribune Classic. In reward for her performance, she earned her first start of the season for Cal's next game against then-10th-ranked Virginia. She did not disappoint, tallying nine points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out four assists, numbers reminiscent of her solid sophomore season.
But Smith's season was once again interrupted at week later against Oregon State; this time the injury was a dislocated left elbow.
"It seems like every time I try and get back into the groove of things, something else happens," Smith said. "Before I injured the elbow, I was very excited. It seemed like we were clicking."
In fact, in the game that Smith was injured, Cal went on to post its first Pac-10 win of the season, a convincing 77-64 win over the Beavers. "Things were coming together, we were playing more like a unit," Smith said.
But since that victory, the Golden Bears have lost seven straight games, including three losses to Top-25 opponents. After missing five games with the elbow injury, Smith returned in late January to start in Cal's loss at #10-ranked Arizona and saw action against Arizona State. But, that's not to say that Smith is back on top of her game. Her left elbow is heavily bandaged during games, limiting her dribbling prowess substantially, and even her knee is not yet back to 100 percent.
"It (the knee) feels better and I'm not in as much pain," Smith said. "I'm still in pain but I can play through it. All I need is time and to play more - that's the only way things can get better. I just have to adjust to it and it's going to take some time."
With so many obstacles, one wonders why she perseveres. The answer is simple: "It's the love of the game that keeps me going, despite all the other obstacles that get in my way," Smith said. "I'm a fighter. And it takes a lot to get me down to where I want to quit. Under the circumstances, with the things I've been through, I think I've overcome them, for the most part, to try and be at my best. I'm not one to give up easily."
With a rigorous stretch ahead in the second round of Pac-10 play, the rest of the Golden Bear team is going to need some fight as well.
"All we can do at this point is give our best effort, and give our all. We just have to let the chips fall as they may," Smith said. "I feel if we try our hardest and play the best defense we can, hopefully the results will be in our favor."
Despite her injury-riddled season, Smith has tried to contribute as a positive force for the Bears large freshman class, many of whom are seeing substantial playing time this season.
"For the freshmen coming from winning programs, the first time you experience a losing season, it's naturally going to get you down," Smith explained. "As veterans, we all have to step up and keep everybody's hopes up."
If there's one thing that Sherrise Smith can show us, it's that a lot of things can happen over the course of a season...a lot.