TAMPA — When University of Tampa women's basketball coach Tom Jessee talks about freshman Kamari Smith, the first thing that comes to his mind is what he calls her basketball IQ. "She's learning like a sponge," he said. "We have sophomores and juniors in the program that still don't have the knowledge she already has of the system." That's one reason Smith has been a big spark off the bench for the Spartans, who are off to one of the best starts in program history at 10-1 and are ranked No. 12 in Division II. But there's another reason for her advanced basketball insight. Smith grew up around the game with her father, former NBA player and current Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith. She has watched many Magic practices and games, asked tons of questions and gotten tips from players such as Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson.
"We're really close," she said. "They act like older brothers. I like being around them."
The big-brother behavior include teasing, from Nelson joking with Kamari that she can't dribble with her left hand ("He can't either," she quipped) to her nickname, "Odessa," because they think she looks a lot like her dad. But the relationship also includes teaching. Kamari will sit with her dad in the stands, peppering him with questions, learning from watching professionals at work.
"She has a great understanding of the game," Otis Smith said. "She can see the game coming quickly and pick up stuff … not so much the X's and O's but the little, small detail stuff that to the naked eye goes unseen."
Otis said his daughter also reads more things about the Magic than he does, from newspaper clippings to Internet rumors. "My harshest critic in the Vince Carter trade was her," said Otis, who got Carter from the Nets last summer for three players. "She didn't talk to me for a week or so because she was a huge Courtney Lee (who went to the Nets) fan."
Like her dad, who chose Jacksonville University before beginning his six-year NBA career, Kamari saw Tampa as a place where she could make an impact right away. The Spartans have a veteran core, including top scorer Tiara Cook and twins Catriana and Gianna Messina (from Academy of the Holy Names). But Jessee said Smith — who averages six points in 15 minutes per game and is one of his best defensive players — is expected to be the starter at small forward next season.
Kamari could be playing more had it not been for a knee injury she suffered before the season. She tore the meniscus in her left knee but after consulting with her dad and coaches decided to play with it. She took a cortisone shot to help soften the pain; sitting out hurt more.
She has since sprained the MCL in the same knee and aggravated her patella but plans to put off surgery until after the season. She said watching Nelson, who is coming back from a meniscus tear, inspires her.
"I think being around (the Magic) helps keep me going," Kamari said. "Because if they can push through injuries — I know they're at the professional level — but it still motivates me."
So did attending the Magic's playoff games last season. Kamari hopes the Spartans — who racked up a school-record 26 wins last season before falling in the second round of the Division II Tournament — can go deeper in the postseason this spring.
Otis plans to be in the stands as much as possible. And Kamari won't miss an opportunity to see the Magic and her "big brothers" in action from the stands.
"They can see me; they can't hear me," she said. "I don't really yell."
She smiled. "My dad does that."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.