Journeyman Ish Smith finds a home with the Sixers

CONCORD, N.C. Gwen Smith thought her childbearing days were over.

At the time, she and her then-husband, Larry Smith, had two daughters. The older one, Lativia, was around 7 years old. The other, Serlethea, was closing in on 5. Content with the two, Smith was set to have tubal ligation to ensure that she and Larry wouldn't have anymore children.

"But I was going down the road one day, and of course I was in the church - not just attending, studying and reading," Smith recalled. "As I was coming down the highway . . . the word came to me, 'You are going to have a son.' "

The thing is, she wasn't expecting at the time.

"He said he will have the meekness of Larry," Smith said of the voice she heard. "But he said he will have your strength. And he said his name is Ishmael."

On July 5, 1988, Ishmael Larry Smith was born in Charlotte, N.C. He's now 27 years old and known to most as Ish, the 76ers' dynamic and fun-loving point guard. The 6-foot, 175-pounder was reacquired by the Sixers from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for two second-round draft picks on Dec. 24.

Poll

Can the 76ers move forward with Ish Smith at point guard?

He's the same player the Sixers opted not to re-sign despite last season's successful stint. The move broke his heart more than he allowed outsiders to know.

But he is used to overcoming disappointment and adversity.

As a freshman at Wake Forest, Smith had to be talked out of quitting basketball and moving back to his family's home in Harrisburg, N.C. He went undrafted in 2010 after a successful yet injury-plagued career with the Demon Deacons. And Smith has had a hard time finding a permanent home in the NBA, playing on nine teams over six seasons.

So the name Ishmael fits him perfectly. At least that's what Gwen has come to believe.

You can find that out by reading Scripture, about his namesake. Genesis 16:11-12:

And the angel of the Lord said to her, "Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen."

"So when I conceived I knew it was him," Gwen said. "I knew I would never carry another girl."

Baffled by the Sixers

Perhaps the biggest trial Smith has endured occurred over the summer.

He and everyone associated with him were under the impression that Sixers were going to re-sign him to a lucrative deal. That's because he had a very successful stint in Philadelphia after being claimed off waivers Feb. 21.

He averaged 12 points and 6.1 assists in 25 games with 14 starts as a Sixer. Most important, Smith made Nerlens Noel a better player.

"I wanted to be back here, to be honest with you," he said. "I just didn't know what was going on."

Smith was under the impression that the Sixers, too, wanted him to return. So he left it up to his agent at the time to work out a deal.

Confident that Smith would get a market-value offer from his desired team, the agent turned down a $2.9 million deal from the Phoenix Suns. Then he turned down a $1.5 million offer from the Sacramento Kings.

"He was like, 'Yeah, Coach, it's going to be good,' " said Scott Brewer, who coached Smith at Central Cabarrus High School here. " 'I'm going to be back with the Sixers. We should be signing in weeks or so.' "

One problem.

"There was no negotiation [with the Sixers]," Smith said. "I'm just going to leave it at that."

Smith's only remaining option was to sign a nonguaranteed training camp contract with the Washington Wizards.

He was waived Sept. 24 and picked up two days later by the New Orleans Pelicans. The Sixers passed on the opportunity to claim him off waivers.

"We had two point guards on the roster in Isaiah Canaan and Tony Wroten, and we signed four others, Kendall Marshall, Pierre Jackson, Scottie Wilbekin, and T.J. McConnell. We felt good about those bets," Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie said. "[We also felt] some set of those six would be able to help us this season, and some of them have. He just wasn't among that six."

The Sixers have since waived Jackson, Wilbekin, and Wroten.

Meanwhile, Smith was an early candidate for the league's most improved player while Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole were sidelined in New Orleans. He had 17 points and nine assists in a nationally televised season-opening game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. He compiled five double-doubles and was among the league's top five assist leaders before Evans returned for the 18th game of the season.

"No, he seemed a lot like that Ish that we had last year," Hinkie said. "He played well down the stretch. He probably had his first extended-minutes opportunity with us last year, and got another one briefly with New Orleans this year. He's played well in both. That's how I look at it.

"And he's got even more extended-minutes opportunity since Christmas . . . and he's played really well since that stretch."

The season's savior

Not all Sixers fan are in agreement with Hinkie. But they're happy that Gwen and Larry's third child was indeed a boy. He is recognized around the Philadelphia area as one of the main reasons behind the Sixers' improved play.

The Sixers (7-39 as of Friday) had lost 30 of their first 31 games before he returned. Since his arrival, they were 6-9 heading into Saturday's matchup against the Warriors at the Wells Fargo Center.

Smith has averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 3.0 turnovers in his 15 games during his second stint with the Sixers. He has had five double-doubles and dished out 10 or more assists on six occasions.

"I played with him. I know how good he is," said Orlando Magic power forward Channing Frye, a teammate of Smith's with the Suns during the 2013-14 season. "He is one of the greatest guys to be a part of. You know he just inspires his teammates. You can see that. He's a quick little sucker, and he just plays the game the right way."

Folks in the Charlotte area have been marveling about Smith's quickness since his time playing in the Victory Christian Center Youth League as a 6-year-old.

His family moved from Charlotte to the suburb of Harrisburg in nearby Cabarrus County when he was around 11 years old. Larry signed up Ish and his brother, Gerald - 11 months his junior - for the Harrisburg Youth Association League. Ish was turned off by the idea, because that league played with eight-foot baskets instead of the regulation courts he played on at Victory.

"He had 65 points in the first game when we moved out to Harrisburg," Larry said. "He averaged around 40 points that season."

His success and playing ability grew as he got older.

The term "Ish with a dish" originated with the Charlotte Observer while he compiled 1,775 points and a school-record 687 assists at Central Cabarrus High from 2002 to 2006. Smith's retired No. 5 Vikings jersey hangs from the rafters in Central Cabarrus' gym. He's also the only player from the county to compete in the NBA.

"You could tell from his ninth-grade year that he's special," said Brian King, who was a Vikings assistant coach while Smith played there. "I'm not just talking about on the basketball court. I'm talking overall. . . . He's one of those kids that's different."

King, who hails from Washington Township in Gloucester County, also taught Smith U.S. history in the 11th grade. He still refers to his former student and player as a role model.

"You know how athletes sometimes separate themselves from everybody at the school and star athletes get preferential treatment," King said. "Well, he didn't need it. Everybody loves him. Teachers loved him. Cafeteria workers loved him.

"I mean he's just one of those kids that everybody gravitates to. His positive approach comes from his upbringing and his faith."

A blessing for everyone

For those who have spent any amount of time with Smith, his mother's revelation might go a long way to explaining who he is.

Smith has become a dream come true for Larry, who, like a lot of North Carolinians, wanted to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference and then the NBA. He's also a pregame prayer partner to Gwen, an unofficial best friend to his brother, Gerald, comic relief to Serlethea, and a sounding board to Lativia.

"I can really get on the phone and discuss some deep issues with Ish," Lativia said. "I can talk about a lot of things [that], to be honest, maybe a couple of years ago I wasn't trying to divulge in a conversation with him about."

Smith still holds prayer meetings with his mother before every game. They often critique his performances afterward. Gerald is his right-hand, man, who helps out with a lot of his day-to-day things. And Serlethea - now Serlethea Williams - pokes fun at her brother whenever they're on the phone.

"He's also an encourager," she said. "We see him go through different trades and stuff, and he always makes it a point to encourage. You feel like you got it and don't let anything bother you.

"But we can still be on the phone calling each other names."

All those traits are the reasons Smith is beloved by most of the people he meets.

He doesn't carry himself as an NBA player, and he's even denied it on occasion.

Once in Charlotte, Smith told a young woman that he worked at the ticket both. Another time, in Phoenix, he introduced himself as the scorekeeper to a woman intent on meeting a basketball player. She even asked him whether he could introduce her to one of the Suns.

Yet, while working out at Concord First Assembly Christian School, where his father teaches elementary physical science and coaches junior varsity, Smith once gave his NBA-issued merchandise to a fan.

He'll hold his fourth annual weeklong Ish Smith Development Camp in Concord in June. Proceeds go to charity.

"He's so respected as a young man, and not only does he have these God- given abilities, but he's interested in reinvesting in where he came from," said Frank Cantadore, headmaster at First Assembly. "So the pride the community has, even our small community, is that we are so appreciative that things are going well for the guy. You are talking about a journeyman.

"What he's living out in the game is tremendous hope for the kids here. The right work ethic, the right priorities. Of course he comes back and does camps.

"Ish is loved, because Ish loves others."

Turning point

There was a time when Smith was about to give up his love for basketball.

He was named the starting point guard at Wake Forest as a freshman. He tore a ligament in his right thumb in the seventh game. Demon Deacons coach Skip Prosser, who died the summer after Smith's first season, gave his rookie two options.

"Coach Prosser was like, 'Either you get surgery and we'll make it a public announcement or you'll get no surgery and you suck it up and not make it public,' " Smith recalled. "That's a Pittsburgh guy. So you suck it up. And I sucked it up."

He struggled with the injury. So much so that several fans voiced their displeasure with his performances. And for the first time, the lovable Smith was being criticized in the media.

So, after one turnover-plagued game, he hopped into a vehicle with his mother and siblings and began to cry.

"He said, 'I can't do this,' " Gwen recalled. " 'I want to go home.' And I looked at him and said, 'Boy, shut up! You wanted this. We are here to support you. So go and fight for what you want and don't come back anymore in tears. Go and get what you want.'

"From the day on, he grew up."

So he didn't complain when a foot injury cost him his starting spot his junior season at Wake. Nor did he complain about going undrafted despite being the only player in Demon Deacons history with 1,000 points (1,114 points) and 600 assists (612) in his career. He also finished his four-year career second all-time in assists in school history.

Before becoming a Sixer in February, he had stints with the Houston Rockets, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors, the Magic, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Suns, and the Thunder. Oklahoma City traded him to New Orleans on Feb. 19, But the Pelicans immediately released him.

"He wants to make Philadelphia home," said Larry Smith, who remained active in his kids' lives after he and Gwen divorced while Ish was in the seventh grade. He even served as a Central Cabarrus assistant during Ish's 11th- and 12th-grade seasons.

"He wants to be a part of uplifting this team to get where it wants to be," the father added.

But the Sixers will probably have to compete with other suitors during the free-agency period, because his stock has risen.

"He's figured out how to use his strength, speed, athleticism, quickness to his advantage," said Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, a Philadelphia native who played with Smith in Houston. "I think that he's just becoming such a good part of a young team. And I think that he's learned that no matter what, he can still do his job by getting to the basket, creating and collapsing and feeding."

kpompey@phillynews.com

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