Basketball / Winner League Playoffs / American Hoopster's Long and Winding Road Leads to Haifa

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Donta Smith has been integral to Maccabi Haifa clinching second position in the Winner League regular season, behind powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. This season, the 2.01-meter ‏(6ft 7in‏) shooting guard has contributed 16.1 points per game.

Smith, who played two seasons for the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA, spoke with Haaretz about his career as a professional basketball player, his time at Maccabi Haifa and the club’s goals as it begins its playoff semifinal series this coming Monday.

What was it like playing high-school ball in basketball country Kentucky?

“We all feel that Kentucky is the mecca of basketball, not New York. It’s special to be from Kentucky because not a lot of people from Kentucky have made it professionally, even though a lot of guys have had a lot of potential. I am one of the few who made it. I didn’t have a big name coming out of high school, I didn’t play in the big high-school basketball showcases. Regardless of what anyone else says, I made it as a professional basketball player and I am blessed. I feel like people from Kentucky all have a good basketball IQ. I’m doing the best I can for my state.”

Why did you decide to not to play for legendary coach Rick Pitino at Louisville and instead declare yourself eligible for the 2004 NBA Draft from Junior College?

“I was one of the leading scorers in the nation in junior college. There was a lot of buzz going around about me and a few teams came to check me out. Being recruited by Rick also gave me momentum. I don’t regret it and I would do it over again. I made it.”

You have played professional basketball all over the globe ‏(including China, Australia, Europe and Puerto Rico‏). Do you feel like that makes you a more experienced player because you have played in so many different styles of basketball?

“In some ways, yes. Some leagues are really tough. In Mexico the league is really physical − someone can slap you in the face and the ref won’t call a foul. Also the locals run the league in Mexico. I take experience from every place I have played. It gets you adjusted to certain aspects of the game. Every league I have been in has helped make me a better player. Each league is different and I run my game no matter what.”

From the first day of the season in Haifa, were you guys confident this team could break franchise records for most wins?

“Of course, during the pre-season we struggled, but after we traveled to the ‘States and played the two NBA teams we started to become more confident. When the season started I realized we could actually make a good run in this league. Not to mention the State Cup gave us confidence. Now everybody in the league knows our abilities.”

How do you stay focused on Maccabi Haifa’s style of play when you have experienced so many styles from different coaches around the world?

“I just do me, at the end of the day. I have lived a successful career for nine years playing basketball the way I have been taught. For the most part, I play my own game no matter where I am. I try and stay focused and do me. I plan my game according to what the coach wants to run. I have four championships, so why change it now?” he chuckles.

Who would you rather face: Rishon Letzion or Hapoel Eilat in the semifinal?

“I don’t really prefer any team, though if I had to pick, I would like to play Hapoel Eilat because my cousin [Larry O’Bannon] plays for them and we could have a special family rivalry. Both teams are great and it wouldn’t surprise me if either of them wins. Most importantly, we have to be prepared to play both.”

You have faced Maccabi Tel Aviv several times this season and have lost every time. Do you believe you can still beat Maccabi Tel Aviv?

“We don’t worry about them − we worry about us. We all feel like we can definitely beat them. We had a couple of games where we could have won but it got away from us at the end. We fancy our chances against whoever we face, even if it is Maccabi. Personally, I want to beat Maccabi because they beat us five or six times and I’ll be damned if they beat me again. I feel like if we can get there, we can make a run and win.”

Have you been watching the NBA playoffs?

“I watch as much as I can. My favorite team is the Dallas Mavericks. We’re home chilling right now, but we’ll be back next year!”

Donta Smith in action for Maccabi Haifa. Credit: Nir Keidar