By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Travon Smith saw the ball kick out to the corner, where Ballou's Eugene Watkins was squaring up for a three-pointer. The Anacostia senior left his man in the lane and rushed out to defend Watkins. The 6-foot-3 Watkins gave a head fake, crouched a bit, then looked up to see Smith soaring clear over him.
"I couldn't see nothing," Watkins said. "All I saw was his body flying at me. I knew it was [Smith]. Nobody else would jump like that. He's got the biggest hops in the city."
Meet Travon Smith, or, as he's known among coaches in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, "Travon Fifty." The moniker refers to the 6-3 guard's nearly unfathomable vertical leap, which may approach 50 inches (with a little schoolyard exaggeration factored in). Smith says his leap has never been precisely measured.
Smith is a modern-day rarity -- a young athlete with a mind-blowing physical skill who has stayed beneath the radar despite the countless youth leagues, combines and scouting services that seem to leave no prospect uncovered.
Smith is the first player -- boy or girl -- in Anacostia history to amass more than 1,200 career points, according to Anacostia Coach Frank Briscoe. He is averaging a team-best 15 points and 10 rebounds, yet has no offers to play college basketball next year. If the Indians (13-6) should lose tomorrow night at Dunbar in the first round of the DCIAA tournament, his basketball career could be over.
Smith's ability hearkens back to basketball legends of decades past whose stardom was limited to asphalt courts, documented through playground fables.
"He caught an alley-oop against us last year with his neck over the rim," McKinley Coach Eric Brockenberry said. "I know you wouldn't believe it, but I saw it -- neck over the rim."
Smith, 18, flashes a grin of embarrassment whenever a friend or observer comments on his ability. He acknowledges he has become somewhat of a novelty act, ready to perform either at the end of Anacostia's practice or just when he's hanging out with friends near a hoop.
"I've been doing it since middle school, so I'm used to it," said Smith, who dunked in the DCIAA middle school championship game as an eighth-grader. "A dunk, it makes the crowd go wild. That's what the crowd wants to see."
With a 3.8 grade-point average, Smith also is atop the Anacostia senior class, primed to be the school's valedictorian at graduation this spring. For good measure, Smith has also won the high jump -- not surprisingly -- at two of the past three DCIAA outdoor track championships (he won with a jump of 6 feet 4 inches last year).
Troy Mathieu, athletic director of D.C. Public Schools and formerly the athletic director at Grambling State University, saw Smith play this season and immediately called a few of his contacts at schools in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to tell them to give Smith a hard look. Mathieu, who calls Smith "a YouTube kid" for his ability to generate stunning highlights, noted to them what many who have sat courtside at Anacostia games already know: Smith has plenty of entertainment value.
Teammates like to argue about their favorite Smith dunk. Mark Milline, a 6-6 center, said Smith was the first of his friends to be able to grab the rim when they were sixth-graders at Hart Middle School. Smith said he was about 5-8 at the time.
Milline also recalls a fall league game in 2006 at Jericho Christian, where he was trying to box out an opponent nearly 7 feet tall for a rebound. Smith, meantime, soared over both of them from behind for the rebound and jammed it in with both hands.
"No, no, no," junior guard Sean Johnson said. "The one against [Theodore] Roosevelt" in December.
On that dunk, Johnson said, Smith took off from near the foul line, his tight red braids in a shaggy ponytail flopping, and finished with a tomahawk jam.
"The crowd went wild," Johnson said. "It was right in [the defender's] face."
McKinley's Brockenberry, a D.C. native, said he has never seen anyone like Smith.
"The boy can write his ticket with those hops," Brockenberry said.
Smith, however, is learning that the hops alone don't write the ticket in basketball. An 18-year-old who stands 6-5 and weighs 300 pounds or who can run the 40 meters in 4.3 seconds likely will find a football scholarship opportunity simply because coaches know they cannot teach someone to be that big or that fast. A baseball program will take a chance on a left-handed pitcher who can't find the plate but can throw 90 mph.
Aside from height, though, basketball is not a sport that chases raw skills.
"There are some positions in football where strength and speed can overcome a lack of skill or technique," said Chris Caputo, an assistant basketball coach at George Mason, speaking in general terms because NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from discussing potential recruits. "In basketball, it's ultimately your skill set [coupled] with your athleticism. When we look at strength and jumping ability, we also look at a skill set. Can he shoot? Can he pass? The athleticism is certainly a nice piece of the puzzle, but there's more to it.
"At our level, it's hard to teach technique, and that's what makes the difference. In basketball, they really don't care about your 40 time."
Smith is playing a bit of catch-up learning that skill set. Because Anacostia lacked much interior height in recent years, Briscoe said he had to play Smith on the inside, simply because his leaping ability allowed him to defend players much taller than him.
Smith shifted to guard this season, because that's where he likely would play in college. Now, he's working on his ball-handling and outside shot.
"I just want to go to college," Smith said, "Yeah, I'd love to play, but I really want to go to college."