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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paolo Banchero’s smooth game? The Duke star gets it from his mom.

Duke's Paolo Banchero learned the game from his mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, who played at Washington and professionally. (AP, University of Washington)
8 min

The Seattle summer of 1992 saw her spiral into a tailspin only a churl could condemn. She became that accomplished basketball player who declined to play basketball. She drank. She lived away from her mother. She gained enough weight that when she returned to the University of Washington in late September, well: “My teammates, they tell me they were going around: ‘Have you seen Rhonda? She is so fat.’ ”

Yet Rhonda Smith’s self-destruction had stemmed from some deeply human form of honorable protest, because life had clobbered Smith with one of its glaring unfairnesses, 10 years before she would become the mother and first basketball architect of Duke star Paolo Banchero. It involved her great chum Travis Spring, whom she had known since middle school and who would tease her about her height (which would reach 6-foot-2) — “He was relentless,” she said — until high school, when they overcame those rapids and reached a sterling friendship.

In a way, Spring epitomized the humanity of Seattle, having reached the United States alongside a nurse in the mid-1970s at 18 months as a boy half-Vietnamese, half-Black American, arriving for adoption by White Seattleites. He had become both widely adored and a freshman wide receiver for the Washington Huskies, the 1991-92 national co-champions, bolstering Rose Bowl practices by playing the role of Michigan’s Heisman Trophy wide receiver Desmond Howard. On the flight home, as Blaine Newnham would write in the Seattle Times, he couldn’t breathe through his nose. “He always had what seemed to be allergies,” Smith said. “And really what it was, it was the mass.”

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A malignant lymphoma had spread to the bone marrow by the time of diagnosis in February 1992, and by late April when Smith made another visit to Spring, he had done two things in recent days: attended Washington’s spring football game and had his latest “blast of chemo,” she said. “I remember he was really ill and didn’t talk much.” Yet his death walloped the community, and his funeral on May 2 filled the church and wrought a procession the Associated Press numbered at around 750.

In that church and in the car, Smith and “my 19-year-old mind,” as she put it, reeled and wailed. “A song they played at the funeral, and I remember they kept looping it” — a song she can’t quite pinpoint now but which she has on Spotify — haunted her such that she said: “I remember the song was just seared in, and I couldn’t listen to it for years. When I’d hear it on the radio, I’d go, ‘Nope.’ ”

The time came for Washington Coach Chris Gobrecht to behold the post-summer Smith, who remembers: “I would say that I just didn’t care what was going to happen. . . . I think if Coach G had said, ‘You cannot come back,’ I would have said, ‘Okay.’ ” So: “ ‘Coach G’ looked at me, and everybody looked at her looking at me, and she said: ‘I’m not going to say anything about the way you look. If you can keep up the conditioning and keep up with what we do, then I don’t care.’ ”

Somewhere in there, Gobrecht must have understood that something else within the big post player could prevail. Maybe she would get all the way to 2022 as coach at Air Force and say of Smith, “I love her dearly,” and, “One of the all-time favorite people I’ve ever coached,” and, “In addition to being a player who got better and better and better, she just had a delightful personality, a big personality.”

For one “big step” as Smith put it, sometime that season, she overcame her aversion to visiting the gravesite. Her mother drove her but stayed in the car. “I finally went, had a good cry by myself,” she said. Day by day she turned toward life again and, as a notable little part of it, scored 2,948 points with 803 rebounds across four seasons. Washington went to three NCAA tournaments, ran across Sheryl Swoopes (uh oh) in 1993, reached the Sweet 16 in 1995 and won the 1994 preseason NIT at Texas Tech in a final during which Smith had 38 points with 11 rebounds.

“When she was a senior,” Gobrecht said, “she had 13 percent body fat [excellent for women according to the data]. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do. She had done such an incredible job of getting herself in shape.” That shape carried on into the pros from 1995 to 2001 with the Seattle Reign, Portland Power and Sacramento Monarchs. She later coached at a high school and a community college. Now she works at DESC, a Seattle nonprofit striving to end homelessness and positing it’s better to treat mental illness and addiction when people have shelter. “We’re not in the business of getting them sober,” she said. “We’re in the business of providing housing. It’s hard to treat somebody in a doorway.”

And then, along the way, Rhonda Smith-Banchero came to epitomize a phenomenon turning up across the American generations: male basketball players with their mothers as first architects. She and husband Mario Banchero, who was a walk-on tight end at Washington, parent their three children — the first being Paolo, the 6-foot-10 Duke freshman heading for the Final Four in New Orleans with his sublime combination: a body you wouldn’t want to crash into, a silkiness you wouldn’t want to miss seeing and what his mother calls “an old soul.”

“Yeah, she was definitely the main basketball influence in my life,” he said last week at the West Region in San Francisco.

Then, asked about the still-flowering respect for the female athlete in the country, he said: “I definitely think women’s basketball still needs more recognition and more, you know, just more viewing from the public eye. I love watching women’s basketball, you know — college and pro. My mom always was watching it, so I grew up watching it. My mom coached women’s basketball, so I always watched it. They play — I think women play a lot more fundamentally sound brand of basketball, and it’s really sometimes better to watch than some [men’s] games you see. So, definitely, I’ve been tuned in for sure to the women’s game.”

Fundamentals can yield to gaga in the men’s game, of course, “because they’re so athletic, jumping out of the gym,” Smith-Banchero said in a telephone interview. “The women’s game is, we still use a ton of fundamentals, right? Bounce passes, backdoor cuts. These are key elements. Setting good picks, form shooting.”

She declared: “Expose your male child to the female game.”

She could tell him things, little things that become big things. If she spotted the lad at one of her practices, over on the side trying trick shots, she could go over there and say, “No, if you’re going to practice, practice it right.” “It’s important to perfect the fundamentals first, before you start flipping it behind the head,” she said.

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Don’t move around a lot in the post. Don’t be a jumping bean. Because then a guard doesn’t think you look set. . . . Always show the guard your entire jersey number. They should be able to read the number and the name of the school — that way they know you’re open. . . . If you face the post player, he doesn’t know how to defend, because he doesn’t know which way you’ll roll. . . .

“The notable thing,” Gobrecht said, “is how good he is at such a young age. That says he was in the game a lot growing up. He was around the game a lot.”

Then he was around it Saturday night in San Francisco to climb a ladder and snip a net, as Mike Krzyzewski’s 42nd and final Duke season found a Final Four. (“I coach that guy!” Krzyzewski marveled to CBS. “Holy mackerel!”) He looked from the ladder to his mother, and soon on the interview dais he told a story about how she got to climb a ladder when she won a state title but he didn’t because they lowered the nets for cutting that night, so this ladder mattered to both.

Gobrecht watched on TV and noticed Banchero goofing around behind Coach K, and in that moment she thought she saw also his mother. “They take playing basketball seriously,” Gobrecht said, “but never take themselves too seriously.” And Smith-Banchero thought of just about everything, her thoughts so often including her stepfather and her grandmother and her great friend who absolutely would have been part of Paolo’s life: “I know they’re watching over my kid. I think about the personalities and what they would say.”

Paolo Banchero is 19 these days, so what might Spring have said? The friend who mourned him so deeply put it this way: “He would have just made sure Paolo kept things light.”

What to read about college basketball

Men’s bracket | Women’s bracket

Way-too-early top 25: Kentucky, North Carolina, Houston, Gonzaga, Arkansas and Duke should be in the mix again next season.

Rock Chalk, Jayhawk: Kansas forged the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date to beat North Carolina and win the men’s national title.

Gamecocks dominate: The women’s national championship is officially heading back to Columbia, S.C., for the second time in program history after a wire-to-wire 64-49 victory by South Carolina over Connecticut.

Mike Krzyzewski’s last game: Coach K’s career ends with joy and agony in college basketball Armageddon.

One day, two title games: A decade after Title IX, a battle for control of women’s basketball split loyalties and produced two national champions.