Almost from that first night his father knelt at court-side, twisting a towel in his hands, Randy Smithson has been there.
There – just in case the old man needed him.
He was there when his father won. He was there when his father lost.
And now, Randy Smithson, a man with a son of his own, is still there, and he may be the difference between whether his father wins or loses.
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This is the season of his maturity – and it is not the same.
Blood is not thicker than basketball.
“He grew up with my career,” says Gene Smithson, whose Wichita State Shockers officially go to work Friday night at 8 in Levitt Arena against Northern Michigan. “He knows what I expect.”
Randy Smithson always has known. It’s just that it seemed so much simpler when he was a child.
“I’d sit with him on the bench and watch him coach,” says Randy Smithson, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-3 junior guard. “I couldn’t wait for the day when I could play for him.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t realize all the pressures that will be on you.”
“Pressure from the coach. Pressure from the other players. Pressure from the fans. But, most of all, pressure from yourself.
“Life,” Gene Smithson says, “is full of pressures, too.”
Face them now. Or face them later.
Randy Smithson never has veered from them for a moment.
After winning All-America honors at Normal (Ill.) Community High School, he spurned numerous other higher institutions of basketball, including Duke and Kansas, to play for his father at Illinois State.
Then, when Gene Smithson left Illinois State for WSU, so did Randy, with a stop at Cowley County Community College.
“I’m not playing for my father because he’s my father,” Randy says. “I’m playing for him because I agree with his basketball philosophy.”
Of course, he was born to that, too.
“The passing game, pressure defense and running the ball when you have the chance,” Randy says. “It’s all I’ve ever heard in the locker room and on the bench.”
If anyone can run Dad Smithson’s team the way he demands, it is Son Smithson.
So while Gene told Randy to visit any college he wanted, he was not about to lose his son to another coach.
“When it got close to signing time,” Randy says, “he got mad when I mentioned other schools.”
Actually, Gene Smithson, being the good ol’ boy that he is, was only trying to conserve fuel, even before it became fashionable.
“I said, ‘What the Hell? Why should I chase all over the country looking for a playmaking guard when I had just the guy I needed right in my house?’ ”
All was not paradise in the gym, however, when the Smithsons combined at Illinois State.
“That first year,” Randy says,”I seemed to do something wrong every time I turned around. After I broke my foot and had to redshirt, I came back to play with the two guards who had taken the team to the NIT the season before.
“My confidence had fallen, so I tried to make things happen. That’s not my game. I have to go with what’s there. If I try to force a situation, I make mistakes.
“And my father hates mistakes.”
Still, Randy Smithson scored 12.5 points per game and set an assist record (135) his freshman season at Illinois State. He proved that he can play, by using his greatest gift – his mind.
He is not especially quick. He is not a wonderous jumper. But Randy Smithson has guile, and he’s a tireless worker. He also can score, which is the playmaker’s ace in the hole.
“He’s the glue of the team,” Gene says. “His wheels are always turning.”
Those wheels tell Randy Smithson where the line lies between son and playmaker.
“When the season begins,” Randy says, “our relationship becomes coach and player, rather than father and son. We don’t talk about things as much.
“He coaches, and I play. When the season’s over, we talk.”
A simple arrangement, yes?
Well, not quite.
The complexities of the father-son, coach-player relationship are not that easily untangled.
“I can’t remember,” Randy says, “ever calling him coach. “He’s dad.”