Six years ago, Kelly Smith, a junior guard for the Montclair State University women’s basketball team, was moving onto her sophomore year of high school. While she was busy with studying and playing for her AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team, Smith realized she needed to do something to honor the legacy of her friend, Zach Laterry, who passed away from leukemia on July 16, 2015, at the age of 15.
“I knew I wanted to do something to keep his legacy alive and raise more awareness,” Smith said. “I walked up to my coach and asked him and he was so happy and excited to help out.”
The fundraiser was set up through Memorial Sloan Kettering, the cancer center where Lattery received treatment, and all proceeds and donations went towards cancer research. Many close friends and family of Laterry and Smith came by to support the cause, “Layups for Leukemia.”
“If you were to participate in one of the games you would win some money that would go towards leukemia research,” Smith said. “It was such a cool experience to be able to do something like that.”
The both of them also did the Relay for Life while he was still alive. Laterry loved taking part in the event with his best friend, especially when they raised even more money for cancer research.
“For me to be able to do something a little off that and raise a little bit more awareness, that to me was just so special,” Smith said.
Smith wears a bracelet during her basketball games to honor Laterry. Not only does Smith’s AAU team and friends support the cause for him, but her current teammates on the women’s basketball team have also been there for her.
“Julia Sutton had a similar experience where her friend, Brooks, passed away from cancer,” Smith said. “We’ve talked about it and they have been very supportive of me and they know how serious a disease like leukemia is.”
Her main motive for playing such a fine-tuned defensive game is thanks in part to the girls playing around her more than herself. She gained 14 rebounds in a game against William Patterson University this season, and a week later she acquired four steals against Kean University.
“Coach Harvey says this all the time: you need to be the person that you allow your teammates to feel comfortable taking the shot,” Smith said.
Head coach Karin Harvey also enjoys being around Smith, whether as a player on the team or just as a young woman in the world.
“Kelly is easy to coach,” Harvey said. “She works hard every day and understands what it takes to be successful on and off the basketball court.”
Harvey, who recently surpassed 300 wins as head coach of the women’s basketball program, absolutely loves Smith’s game and what she has done for the team.
“Kelly is one of the reasons we have been able to be so successful this season,” Harvey said. “She is an unselfish player and a great leader on the floor. In simple terms, Kelly is a workhorse. She does all of the little things – dive on the floor, get rebounds, defends and [it goes] on and on.”
Even throughout this shortened season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Smith knows that chemistry and teamwork mean so much more now than ever, with fewer games and practices to create a cohesive system against various opponents.
“Something I think we have done really well is having each other’s back,” Smith said. “We really pull each other up. If I see my teammate down, I’m gonna go over and say ‘Listen, you got the next one.’ This next-play mentality is something we really held onto, especially against Kean. Being down early in the game, we stuck to that and we ended up winning the game because we never gave up.”
Not only has Smith created an inseparable bond with her friends and teammates at Montclair State, but her connection with her family is also strong. She has two half-siblings and a full sibling, but she considers each of them to be a full sibling, along with her mom and dad.
“Throughout my entire life, they have always been so supportive and that regular sibling to me, even though they weren’t that close in age to me,” Smith said.
Her brother Kevin, who is only about a year older than her, is her biggest fan when it comes to her playing basketball, counting her stats in high school and them making their own film sessions.
“My brother played basketball, soccer and golf and he is 6-foot-5, so he would be the person I would play basketball against the outside,” Smith said. “I have been so fortunate and grateful to grow up in the household that I have been in my whole life.”
Smith’s parents are also a huge part of her support group, and while they may get a little rowdy at times during the games, she is forever thankful for them being there for her.
“They are the ideal parents who go to the basketball games,” Smith said. “My mom is screaming, my dad is trying to keep my mom from screaming too much, even though he’s screaming himself.”
Family is one of the most important things to have in life and Smith has that in more than one way.
“With basketball, there is the sports aspect of it, but I have gotten so much more out of basketball and met amazing people and coaches along the way. We’re literally inseparable,” Smith said.