To hear your basketball coach say that you are the best player he has ever coached is quite a compliment.
Desmond Rowley has been in the business for nearly two decades, coaching several quality Canadian hoopsters who have played at the Division One level in the United States.
However Eric Smith, who made the Durham College Lords team as a walk-on three years ago, is at the top of Rowley’s list.
“I remember this guy showing up at the gym in 2008 and our team was small at the time,” recalls Rowley whose elevation to the head coach job after being an assistant for four years coincided with Smith’s arrival. “I had no idea if he could play or not, but all I knew at that moment was that he was a big guy we could use.
“Once he hit the floor, I realized he was good and he could be a significant contributor to our program.”
Rowley was bang on with his assessment.
Smith was voted the top male college athlete in the province in 2010-11, becoming just the second Lords athlete to clinch the coveted award since Ontario College Athletic Association (OCAA) Hall-of-Famer and basketball player Bill Crowdis in 1998-99.
The OCAA Athlete of the Year program was launched in 1996-97.
In his final season, Smith led the province in scoring (21.6) and rebounding (10.3) in 20 regular season games. He was also sixth in assists with 56.
“He’s the most talented player I have ever coached,” said Rowley who spent eight seasons with Eastern Commerce as an associate coach and then head coach. “I have had guys who could score, those who could rebound and others who could pass. He does all three very well. That’s how versatile he is. I didn’t think he understood how good he was. Somehow, the light switch in his head went on this season, and he was a dominant factor. He averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds, but I thought he could have averaged 30 and 20. He’s that talented.
“At times, he lost focus and motivation, but that happens sometimes when things come easy to you and you take them for granted. It has been an extreme pleasure working with Eric, especially since he was the hardest worker this season.”
Smith, who played high school basketball at Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary in Scarborough, made an impact in his first game for the Lords, scoring 21 points and pulling down 11 rebounds in a resounding 80-53 win over the Loyalist Lancers.
This season, the 6′ 5″ centre led his team to a 15-5 record and a berth in the OCAA men’s national championship in the Lords gym last March. He posted 47 points and 31 rebounds in his side’s three contests.
The OCAA men’s Basketball Player of the Year also made the OCAA East Region All-Star team three years and is one of four Durham players – the others are Anthony Batchelor, Augusto Duquesne and Crowdis – to be selected as Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) All-Canadians.
“I really enjoyed my time at Durham,” said Smith who studied Law & Security. “The coaches helped me on and off the court and it was a delight to have great teammates. Coach Rowley showed confidence in me and allowed me to grow as a player and become the best in the province at the college level.”
Smith plans to attend university and then pursue a semi-pro basketball career in Europe.
“I want to add a criminology degree to my diploma, play ball in university and then look at options in Europe,” he said. “Those are my goals as I move forward.”
With Rowley by their side, Steve Smith accompanied his son to last week’s OCAA Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Athletes of the Year awards.
“I am happy with what Eric has accomplished,” said the proud father who came to Canada from Jamaica in 1974. “When he started playing the sport, all he wanted to do was dunk. He has however developed as an all-round player, thanks to all the early morning gym, and the various tournaments he took part in and the coaches he has had. He has come a long way.”