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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

How a military background and a strong mother helped Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith reach the top flight of college basketball

Nov. 11, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 17, 2022 at 3:08 p.m.

SAN DIEGO – Malachi Smith spent several birthdays while living at Naval Station Rota near the southern tip of Spain. Four of them, to be exact. His mother may not have always been there to wake up with her son on Dec. 6, wipe frosting off his face or snap a mental photo of Malachi’s smile as he unwrapped presents, but Connie Smith never missed one.

“She wrote me a birthday card in advance,” Malachi said. “She knew she was going to be gone for one of my birthdays, so she wrote a card for me before she left. So just having her still thinking of me, like I’m her whole world, that made me feel special.”

It’ll be Malachi thinking about his mom and her sacrifices when Gonzaga’s newest guard steps onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on Friday for the Armed Forces Classic against Michigan State.

Smith may not be where he is today – the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year, Lou Henson National Player of the Year and one of the transfer portal’s most sought-after guards – without a military upbringing that instilled the importance of discipline and structure.

He knows he wouldn’t be suiting up for the second-ranked Zags, potentially one year from realizing a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA, without the selfless devotion of a single mother who made every decision with the singular goal of providing a better life to her son.

“She was able to work, come home and get two degrees by herself, with no help,” Malachi said. “So the fact she did that, she didn’t give up, I can’t give up because I’m letting her down. So that’s how I view it.”

When the topic of Friday’s aircraft carrier game offshore in San Diego is broached, Connie said, “It’s actually full circle.”

Connie was 18 years old and fresh out of high school when she enlisted in the Air Force as a supply chain logistics manager, later working with a military protocol team supporting a four-star general. Connie met Courtney Smith while both were on active duty at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and she was 20 when she gave birth to Malachi while stationed in Evansville, Indiana. Malachi’s 83-year-old great-grandfather, Bobby Ogburn, was also enlisted in the military , serving in the Army as a paratrooper.

Shortly after Malachi’s first birthday, the family relocated to the Andalusia region of Spain and resided on a naval base in the small community of Rota. There could be some nostalgia for Smith when Gonzaga takes the floor for a Veterans Day matchup against Michigan State.

“He had an opportunity to watch his dad play for the local base team,” Connie said, “and that’s probably as much exposure that he had to basketball at that time.”

Air Force assignments sent Connie to Afghanistan and various desert locations in the Middle East. She’d carve out time for Skype sessions once or twice a week, but communication was infrequent otherwise.

“He was tiny, so you just hoped he could remember your voice, and his dad would say, ‘Your mom’s on the phone,’ or ‘Mommy’s on the phone,’ ” Connie said.

They talk on a daily basis now. Chalk it up to making up for lost time.

“We’re bad, we’re best friends now,” Connie said. “We talk every day.”

In theory, things should have been easier when Connie left the military. No more deployments. No more long-distance phone calls. No more birthday cards planned months in advance. Instead, she was raising Malachi as a single mother, entering a new line of work in the corporate world and, in the spare hours that were available, pursuing an undergraduate degree in human resources management and, later on, a master’s in business administration.

“They say you can change the trajectory of your children’s life by being a college graduate, and so I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I can to make sure he can be as successful as he can be,” Connie said. “And now here he is at Gonzaga working on his master’s degree, year five playing high-level collegiate basketball.”

Mom’s busy schedule put demands on a young Malachi, who describes being “the man of the house as a boy.” Even prior to Connie leaving the Air Force, Malachi was mowing the lawn, taking out the trash and pulling food out of the freezer to thaw out by the time his mom got home.

“I was 7, 8, 9 doing that stuff,” Malachi said. “… It just allowed me to mature so much faster, and I appreciate that. A lot of people think it was hard. It wasn’t that hard. It was what needed to be done, so I thank her for that.”

Malachi doesn’t remember it as a “strict” household, per se, “but just a lot of requirements.”

“We’re not coming home with bad grades,” he said. “Me not being here because I’m traveling or I’m gone for work is not an excuse to not act right for whoever’s taking care of you.”

“He didn’t want his military mom to show up,” Connie said, “so he was very responsible, and it shows true today.”

Connie kept up with Malachi’s progress on the basketball court the best she could. Other parents would take video footage of games using camcorders, and Connie would watch the clips back on a VCR machine. A middle school game in which a fifth-grade Malachi knocked down a winner over a taller eighth-grader still stands out as a breakthrough moment in his young career.

“I was like, ‘That’s pretty bold, young man,’ ” Connie said. “That just kind of solidified, ‘OK, you got this and you’re not afraid.’ ”

Bold might also be an appropriate way to describe the leaps Smith’s taken as a college basketball player. Among the scholarship players on Gonzaga’s roster, he’s the only one who wasn’t considered at least a four-star high school prospect. Lead recruiting service 247Sports didn’t bother giving the Belleville, Illinois, native a star rating at all.

Determined to get noticed, Smith parlayed the success he had at Wright State, where he averaged 5.4 points and earned All-Horizon League freshman honors, into an offer from Chattanooga. He scored 1,115 points in two seasons with the Moccasins to earn Southern Conference Player of the Year honors in 2021-22, grabbing the attention of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has a proven track record with guard transfers dating all the way back to Dan Dickau.

“I think he’s getting better each time out,” Few said after GU’s exhibition game against Warner Pacific. “He’s definitely a guy I would say stepped it up from last game, and he’s been stepping it up in practice. I think that happens with transfers.

“He’s played a lot of minutes and he’s a really, really nice kid who wants to be a great teammate, so I think he’s conscientious of blending in, doing the right things.

“Sometimes when you do that, you forget your game and being aggressive. We got him back being aggressive, and I think we’ll continue to see him get more and more comfortable.”

Connie resides in St. Petersburg, Florida, describing her motivation for moving as, “Malachi stopped coming home to shovel the snow. Shoveling sand is a lot better than shoveling snow, so I had to go somewhere else.”

She doesn’t resent her son for moving to the other side of the country to play his final college basketball season, but made sure to let him know, “you didn’t make this one easy on me.” Fortunately, they know a little something about this long-distance deal.

“I think the military is what has prepared us for that,” she said. “Having to be independent, having to just be separated for extended periods of time.”

Connie was in Spokane earlier this week to see Malachi score 15 points and grab six rebounds off the bench in his Gonzaga debut.

Whether it’s as a starter or key reserve, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard is expected to be an offensive cog for the Bulldogs with his versatility as a scorer, strong build and 3-point shooting.

Connie still checks in on a daily basis, normally running through a list of questions that hasn’t changed from when she was Skyping in from military deployments. How was school? How was practice? Did you make your free throws?

“I’m big on, ‘You missed your free throws, huh?’ ” she said.

Malachi continues to carry himself in a way that makes Connie proud.

“Anyone that knows me knows I work super hard and I work myself into the ground,” he said. “It’s because I saw her do it. She was able to work, come home and get two degrees by herself, with no help.”

When those words are read aloud during a phone interview, Connie can’t avoid choking up.

“I’m just so proud of him, and he’s seeing the fruits of his labor,” Connie said. “I’m glad what seemed like a hard time for me is paying off for him.”

Malachi honors her in other ways, too. The back of the senior’s Gonzaga jersey reads “Smith,” but some time ago he changed his Twitter and Instagram name to “Malachi Knight-Smith” as a tribute to Connie’s maiden name.

“I love it. I think it’s cool, and Knight is a pretty cool last name,” Connie said. “Smith is the No. 1 last name in the U.S. and Knight’s pretty cool, so the fact he’s proud to showcase that, it’s exciting.”

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