One of the hardest decisions Caleb Smith ever had to make was leaving Wichita.
Back in 2012, Smith was just 15 years old and had just completed his freshman year at Southeast when he convinced his mother to allow him to move to Texas. Smith reasoned he would have a greater opportunity for his basketball career.
That decision kicked off what has become a winding journey. Basketball has led Smith to seven different schools in the last eight years, taking him to Madrid, Spain and Athens, Greece. He’s played for legendary coach Larry Brown and represented the United States on an international level. And along the way, Smith has become a husband and a father with his high school sweetheart.
Smith’s journey will return to Wichita on Tuesday when he leads Northeastern State of Oklahoma against Wichita State in a 7 p.m. exhibition game at Koch Arena. Smith, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, led the Division II school in scoring last season at 16.7 points.
“There’s still a part of me that loves and cherishes Wichita, Kansas and will always consider it home,” Smith told The Eagle. “It’s just another little chip on your shoulder. All of my friends and family will be there and I’m sure they’re going to be watching and wondering, ‘Did he really do the right thing moving away? Did he take advantage of the situation he was in?’
“It’s definitely going to be special to me and something I’m looking forward to.”
The first time Margaret Smith, Caleb’s mother, knew she had done the right thing allowing her son to move five hours and two states away was when Caleb led Bridgeport High School to the 2015 Texas 4A championship and earned MVP honors in the title game.
“He came off the court and hugged me and thanked me for letting him leave the house and take it to this level,” Margaret Smith said. “There were a lot of really tough moments, but I knew then that this was his passion and it was going to pay off in the long run.”
Before that championship game, Smith also questioned whether he had made the right decision.
“In the back of my mind, I was worried about if this was really what I was supposed to be doing, was this really my calling?” Smith said. “But now I can look back and I’m still grateful for the decision I made and that my family was willing to support me in that decision.”
Smith admits it was never in his plan to bounce around to as many different schools as he has. He played for four different schools in high school, then started his collegiate career in the SEC at Texas A&M before transferring again. He spent his sophomore year at Ranger College in Texas, then has found a home at Northeastern State in Tahlequah.
It may not have been the path he envisioned, but he believes it has been the right one for him.
“I’ve learned so much about myself and so much about becoming a better basketball player,” Smith said. “I’ve played for so many different coaches, different programs, different systems. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve enjoyed the process and I’ve enjoyed going to all of the different places I’ve been able to go. I really do feel blessed.”
Entering his senior season, Smith is juggling the responsibilities of being a full-time student, the go-to scorer for Northeastern State, a husband to his wife, Bailey, and now a father to their daughter, who was born in August.
“If there’s one person who can handle all of that, it’s Caleb Smith,” Northeastern State coach Mark Downey said. “You never know what will happen when life happens like that. Some people go another way and basketball doesn’t become as important. But I think the marriage, the baby, it’s all made Caleb a better leader.
“He handles his responsibilities with us and he still does extremely well in school, then goes home and takes care of his duties as a father and a husband and does so gracefully.”
Smith plans to become a physician assistant after his competitive basketball career ends.
Before that, though, he hopes his play this season will catch the eye of scouts and offer him an opportunity to play professionally. That journey returns home on Tuesday when Smith will play in front of friends and family to kick off his last season in college.
NORTHEASTERN STATE AT WICHITA STATE
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Koch Arena (10,506), Wichita, Kan.
TV: Cox HD 2022
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
Note: All stats are from the 2018-19 season.