INTO THE DUST
David Kiefer / GoStanford.com
THE FLIGHT FROM Darwin, the last city of consequence on Australia’s north coast, to Melville Island and the village of Millikapiti takes about 25 minutes on light aircraft.
The airstrip is carved into the tropical landscape of thick vegetation inhabited by bandicoots and tree rats. Alanna Smith was about 8 when she reached this settlement of Aboriginal people.
Her father felt she was ready.
Trust is not a privilege easily given in the Northern Territory. When Europeans settled Australia in 1788, there were examples of genocide against local Indigenous tribes. Through the years, the Australian government commissioned a law in which Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in 'white' homes to ‘anglicize’ them. They are known as the 'Stolen Generation.’
Feelings remain so unsteady that ‘Australia Day,’ honoring the arrival of first fleet of settlers from the United Kingdom, is referred to by many Aboriginal people as “Invasion Day.”
Into this delicate world stepped young Alanna.
She had little understanding of the work her father, Darren Smith, a former pro in the Australia’s National Basketball League, did with Red Dust Role Models, promoting health programs in remote Indigenous Australian communities. For a decade, he forged relationships that eventually allowed entrance, often to private lands requiring permits or approval by the tribes and elders just to travel there.
On trips that could last days or weeks, Darren brought athletes, musicians, doctors, teachers, business people, to build their own relationships, conduct clinics and build social bridges.
Alanna couldn’t understand the language, but that didn’t stop her from making friends. Soon, the locals were showing Alanna the best trees to climb, the best creeks to swim in, and teaching her words and where to find animals.
When it was time to leave, Alanna reluctantly boarded a pickup before it lurched forward onto a dusty road.
“All the little kids were sprinting after the truck,” she said. “I was hanging out of the window, waving goodbye and crying.”
MOMENTS LIKE THESE have shaped Smith’s life. Her father was the CEO of the Red Dust charity and her mother, Simone, is a psychologist who works with mothers with mental health issues.
“I’ve grown up in a family where helping others is the norm,” she said.
Does that explain why Smith is one of the most unique basketball talents in the NCAA, with a burgeoning international career? In a way … yes. Her remarkable individual stats as a 6-foot-4 senior forward are achieved with her Stanford teammates in mind.
The Cardinal is winning and Smith is having a historic season. She is on pace to join Elena Delle Donne is the only collegiate player 6-4 and taller over the past two decades to shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range (Smith is shooting .481). She also can join Delle Donne, Maya Moore, and Breanna Stewart – basketball royalty -- as the only players this century to assemble careers of 1,600 points, 150 made 3-pointers and 200 blocks.
“I love her game, because she’s old school,” said 40th-year collegiate head coach Tara VanDerveer, Stanford’s Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women's Basketball. “She does whatever your team needs.”
Smith is the only player in NCAA Division I averaging 21 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game. She’s on every major award watch list and already has played on international basketball’s biggest stage, the 2018 World Cup final.
Smith seemed destined to play basketball when she was born in Hobart, Tasmania, a large island off the mainland of southeast Australia. Darren was playing for the Hobart Devils and making a name for himself with his signature dunk, a 360-degree Statue of Liberty, that got him second in the 1996 NBL slam dunk contest.
“I showed our girls some highlights once when they were still pretty young and they seemed totally disinterested!” Darren wrote in an e-mail. “I haven't bothered again.”
Alanna grew up in gyms like the Devils Den in Hobart and the Sydney Kings’ Olympic Park. The family settled in Melbourne, where Darren’s playing career to an end in 2003. There never were hoops in the driveway. Darren never wanted to force his daughters into the game, though Alanna once played on a boys team that never passed her the ball.
Because of her size, local basketball coaches encouraged her give to up other sports. Alanna was 14 when she began to take the game seriously, though that transition was not always smooth.
“I was a wreck because I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “My first basketball practice, everyone was doing two-ball dribbling and I burst into tears.”
"Stop. Why are you crying?”
“Dad, I can’t even dribble one ball, and everyone’s doing it with two.”
She was raw, all right.
“But I was tall,” she said. “I was an athlete. I had really good coaches around me who invested time in me and saw my potential. And, I’ve had my dad, who has been like my own personal coach. I can’t even put into words how awesome he is.”
PERHAPS BECAUSE SHE got into the game so late and missed nearly two years with knee and back injuries, her improvement has been rapid. Australia has a strong developmental system and there’s evidence of it whenever Smith takes the court in Cardinal red.
For one, her toughness.
“You can’t be Australian and be a wimp,” VanDerveer says.
There may be something to that. Australians embrace toughness as their identity in basketball.
“Our juniors are taught how to work hard and be physical while still executing X’s and O’s,” Darren Smith said. “Having such a small population in comparison to many other countries, we have to learn to be extremely competitive and outwork other players to get opportunities.”
For another, it’s shooting. Alanna shoots with a feathery touch, with the ability to catch-and-shoot with a quick high release that’s accurate and nearly unblockable.
At Australia’s Institute of Sport, Smith ran drills daily that trained her to shoot quickly: running to the corner or wing to receive a pass and shoot while others raced toward her to block her shot.
“She’s phenomenal on those quick-release 3-point shots,” said Stanford teammate and close friend Shannon Coffee. “The ball’s barely touching her hands. That’s how you know she’s in a groove. When she’s really feeling it, nothing really can stop her.”
Her size makes her a post player, and she can handle herself in the paint, but that wasn’t how she grew up. Before a growth spurt at 15, Smith developed the skills of a smaller player. The combination makes her a matchup nightmare -- a big player who can play on the perimeter.
“The ability to face up and score, put the ball on the floor, play with your back to the basket, play with pace … It’s huge,” VanDerveer said. “Her versatility is one of her greatest strengths.”
THERE'S A PUSH in the Australian basketball community to keep players in the country, rather than go to U.S. colleges. That’s what happened to Darren. He signed with UC Irvine, but was convinced by a young coach in Melbourne to turn pro with that team. That coach was Brett Brown, now the head coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
That didn’t mean Alanna was meant to take the same route. She was getting great coaching in Australia, but the level of play in the NCAA and a Stanford degree were goals that would benefit her the most in the long run. Alanna made a list of schools she was most interested in and Stanford was on top, even if sometimes she doubted whether it was possible.
She received about 40 inquiries from U.S. coaches, but not from Stanford. For three months, Alanna sent unsolicited e-mails to Stanford, without much luck.
“We’re going to e-mail them again,” Darren told her. And they did, eventually getting a response from associate head coach Amy Tucker. Stanford would be willing to give Alanna a tryout during an unofficial visit. The Smiths then planned a trip to visit her top three choices – Stanford, Texas, and Wake Forest. Stanford was the first stop.
Smith took to the practice court in front of VanDerveer and her staff. None had seen her play before. A scholarship was in the balance. Smith found out later that assistant coach Kate Paye is known for her tough individual workouts and Paye was in charge.
Alanna had 30 minutes to impress.
“I was so jetlagged,” said Smith, who spent 16 hours on a plane the day before. “I was struggling. I was struggling to breathe.”
When it was done, Alanna didn’t have any clue what impression she made.
“That was OK” she recalled thinking. “It wasn’t my best, but it was OK.”
Darren felt more confident. He said VanDerveer acknowledged to him during the workout that Alanna had the skills to be a Stanford student-athlete, and the staff would later steer her through the application process. When she was accepted, the decision was easy. What Smith didn’t anticipate was the hardship she experienced after leaving her family.
“As a kid, I was very attached to my parents and I’d get homesick a lot,” Smith said. “I’d go for sleepovers at my friend’s house and not be able to last through the night. I’d have to have my parents come get me because I’d wake up in a panic.”
The separation anxiety lasted until she was about 11 and seemed to go away. But, as she got older, other fears began to take hold, especially in relation to basketball.
“I remember in a high school game, I was the main player and we lost the game,” Smith said. “And I just felt this pressure that I put on myself -- having panic attacks after a game because I felt that I had lost the game for my team. I put it all on myself. That carried over when I came to Stanford.”
She thought she was ready… but clearly was not.
A FEW THINGS put Alanna at what she considered a disadvantage: Most basketball freshmen arrive in the summer, take a class, and work out informally with teammates while slowly getting acclimated to the school and new environment. Alanna, playing with the junior national team, didn’t have that luxury.
When the fall term began, Alanna hadn’t been to school in eight months because she had graduated early. She didn’t know anybody, and the Pacific Ocean seemed immense.
“I came in very confident, like, I’m going to be fine,” she said. “And it all just crashed down on top of me. I remember being upset after every practice. ‘I don’t know why I’m here.’ I considered going back home and not coming back.”
On one particularly rough day, her father called. It was what she needed at just the right time.
“’Lan, I’m so proud of where you are,” he said. “You’re climbing this huge mountain and you’re struggling right now and you might fall, but there’s always something to grab onto to help you up. You’ve just got to keep climbing. You’ll get there. You have to get through the rough parts.”
Alanna agreed to stay the rest of her freshman year. After that, she could change her mind. She indeed got through it and was excited to start fresh as a sophomore, only for the anxieties to return.
At a Thanksgiving tournament near Cancun in 2016, Smith felt the onset of a panic attack during a game and stepped off the court during play, as coaches and teammates watched in bewilderment.
“What are you doing?” Alanna demanded of herself.
When VanDerveer approached, Alanna could only manage: “I’m sorry … I’m really trying.”
It was a pattern. Alanna felt the pressure, didn’t know how to cope, and beat herself up for it, “making things a hundred times worse,” she said.
There is unquestionably an anxiety epidemic among young people today, and parents have as much difficulty negotiating the landscape as those who suffer. Anger and frustration take hold because there is no obvious solution, and screaming and ultimatums can be the worst possible reactions.
Darren Smith may not have realized all that when he received a call from Alanna after the game, but he provided the response she needed.
“He was always supportive,” Alanna said. “Always uplifting. Never bringing me down. Validating me and my skills and abilities.”
Anxiety is mostly in her past now. She learned how to calm herself with breathing exercises, how to be mindful of the present and to focus on what’s in front of her rather than dwell on doomsday thoughts that will never happen.
“As you get older and mature, you learn how to cope with it,” said Smith, a psychology major. “I still get anxious sometimes, but I know how to deal with it now.
“It can be embarrassing and, at the time, it’s hard to see it get better, because you just don’t see any end. But it’s OK to feel that way. You just have to accept it and lean on the people around you.”
Smith was heartened when NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love opened up about their mental health issues last year, as did teammate Mikaela Brewer. Until then, admitting such thoughts was seen as a weakness.
“Other athletes’ testimonies are really important,” Smith said. “Because it means that you don’t feel alone. You might be suffering, but you’re definitely not alone.”
As for that mountain, the one Alanna slipped off in her darkest moments, and dug in on her best …
“I feel like I’m almost there. Almost at the top,” she said.
“You come out a better person when you persevere through the really hard times. After everything I went through my freshman and sophomore years, I feel like I can do … not anything … but I feel like I can endure a lot. I stuck with it, didn’t go home and didn’t give up.
“I came out stronger.”
LAST SUMMER, Smith heard four words she thought she’d never hear: “You’re guarding Delle Donne.”
Smith’s play at Stanford caught the eye of Australian national team coach Sandy Brondello, who first brought Smith into camp for a spot in the Asia Cup in 2017. Smith arrived late to that camp because of a Stanford commitment and didn’t make the team. But after an injury to another player, Smith was named as a replacement and has been on the squad ever since.
Playing for the Opals is the ultimate achievement for an Australian. Smith, who is targeting the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, might be seen as ahead of schedule, but that’s not the case.
“It’s never really about the age,” Brondello said. “It’s about the way you play. She’s always been a great shooter, but she’s got so many other things there. Her biggest strength is she does all the preparation before the ball actually arrives. It seems effortless.”
Smith is in the gym every day and often at night. Maples Pavilion locks automatically at midnight, so she must get inside before then. She stays until she makes a certain amount of shots from different spots, or a certain number in a row.
“She’s just a worker,” Coffee said. “That’s how she’s come so far in her game. She’s persisted through tough times, tough mental times. She’s really just toughed through it and it shows.”
In preparation for the World Cup, the Opals played an exhibition against the U.S. She came off the bench and promptly gave up a basket to Delle Donne, the player she patterns her game after.
“I was fan-girling,” she said. “Oh my God, she scored on me. She’s so good!”
It took a couple of games before a jittery Smith settled down, with help from Brondello: “You’re here for a reason. I chose you because of your talent. I know what you can do. You’re here because I want you to be here. You belong.”
Australia reached the World Cup final against the U.S. in San Cristobal de La Laguna, Spain. Though the Opals lost, 73-56, Smith scored 10 points, blocked two shots, and hit a pair of 3-pointers. She held her own against the world’s best.
Smith didn’t consider herself worthy of asking Delle Donne for her jersey, but when asked if Delle Donne might consider swapping with her …
“One day,” she said with a laugh.
Smith returned to Stanford for her senior season on a high. She was confident, “fully invested” in conditioning and “the fittest I’ve ever been,” she said. She has led Stanford to a 17-2 record, No. 8 ranking, and into a four-way battle for the Pac-12 regular-season title.
But that doesn’t mean Smith is not subject to the demands of VanDerveer. In a 79-73 loss to Gonzaga on December 2, Smith committed five fouls in 24 minutes and made poor decisions, continuing a foul-committing trend.
As the team convened for its next practice, VanDerveer said Smith was on the verge of losing her starting position.
“You cannot play like this,” VanDerveer said. “You’re not dependable right now. We cannot depend on you to stay on the floor and that’s what we need you to do. If I keep you on the floor, I’m doing you a disservice.”
Smith was shocked.
“But I didn’t disagree with anything that she was saying,” Smith said.
There were 10 days until the next game, and Smith took the scolding as a challenge to prove herself in practice. VanDerveer was especially demanding, feeling like she didn’t coach Smith enough to be more disciplined defensively. It was hard to endure, but the process had the necessary effect.
“It’s a change of mentality,” Smith said. “I’m really grateful, because, otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
AS HER PROFILE rises, so does the reach of her platform as a role model. And Smith welcomes it.
In the fall, Smith took History 105C: Human Trafficking: Historical, Legal, and Medical Perspectives from Katherine Jolluck. A guest speaker was Betty Ann Hagenau, the public address voice of Stanford women’s basketball and founder of the nonprofit Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition.
Smith recognized the voice, if not the face, and began to talk about the issue after class. She learned human trafficking and sex slavery are not just issues in low-income areas, but occur in places like Hillsborough as well as East Palo Alto.
They talked about the possibility of raising awareness during a basketball game. Smith presented the idea to the athletic department and worked with Shelley Heward, assistant athletics director of fan experience and community relations, to create an educational program. A group of human trafficking survivors, called Love Never Fails, danced at halftime and was invited into the locker room afterward.
“Seeing her passion and inventiveness in bringing the issue before the public eye is rewarding for me, as an educator,” wrote Jolluck, in an e-mail. “We need more of that to make the problem of modern day slavery a priority and mobilize people, particularly of her generation, to come up with innovative approaches to this complex system of exploitation and abuse.”
Smith scored a career-high 34 points and had 15 rebounds that night in a victory over Washington State, in Stanford’s first Human Trafficking Awareness game.
“From the moment I met Alanna, I knew that she was already thinking of the issue at another level,” Hagenau said. “She said, ‘I get that this happens here. What can I do?”
Not surprising, her father said. It’s in line with her passion of helping the vulnerable, especially children.
IN KINTORE, a remote settlement of 454 in the Northern Territory, the Pintupi people are awaiting the Smiths return. The place was borne on heartbreak. Indigenous Australians were forced from the area decades ago by weapons testing and essentially were in exile until 1981, when they resettled old lands.
From Alice Springs, smack in the middle of the Outback, Kintore is a 6-7 hour drive west in arid terrain with roughly half of the journey on a dirt road accessible only with a reliable 4-wheel drive.
Consider years of meetings in delicate situations, travels to places while not being welcomed, and learning and observing lifestyles so closely as to not make a fatal cultural error. After all this -- the blind steps forward -- the reward is Kintore.
“I have to go back there,” Alanna said. “That one is really special.”
The family is so respected there that Alanna was given a name by the Pintupi people: Nampitjinpa.
“It’s one of the eight ‘skin names’ offered to women as part of the kinship system of their culture,” Darren explained. “They allow everyone to understand what their roles and responsibilities and cultural obligations are to ensure the strength of the community.”
Considering the bad blood that lingers between cultures, does this speak highly for Darren Smith and his family to penetrate those barriers?
“Massively,” said one observer, Alex Brown, founding publisher of Australia’s PlayersVoice.com.au. “We need many more Darren Smiths down here.”
Alanna aspires to follow her father’s work.
“I’m proud to say, ‘My dad did this,’” Alanna said. “My parents led the way for me. I want to be that parent, that person. Helping other people is the legacy I want to leave.”
Along a dusty road.