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Josh Smith reflects on his time at Union


BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - As Union College men’s basketball player and Corbin graduate Josh Smith counts down the days until his final collegiate home game, he recollects back on the path he has taken the last few years to get to this point. The path Smith has taken to Union has been an unusual one, to say the least.

He harkens back to his days at Corbin High School, where in his senior year of 2009, he led the Redhounds to the KHSSA Sweet 16. The day that Corbin was eliminated was a sad one for Smith for obvious reasons.

“When we were eliminated, I thought I’d be done with basketball for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “I went to play baseball at Georgetown College, but it wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I ended up moving back [to Corbin] after two semesters.”

So, after moving back to the tri-county area, Smith came in contact with then-Union head men’s basketball coach Sean Gillespie, who attended the same church as Smith. Smith was looking for a program to join, as he got the itch to maybe return to the hardwood while still at Georgetown, where he took part in campus intramurals.

Gillespie, knowing of Smith’s decorated high school career, decided to give him a chance, and invited Smith to the teams open gym sessions during the summer months. Smith made the most of his opportunity.

“I came back here to Union and I worked hard,” Smith said. “But, I broke my hand. Because of that, I was put on the JV team for the early part of my sophomore season. That was frustrating because I had never played JV before in my career.”

Regardless, Smith made the most of his time on the JV squad, and impressed Gillespie so much that he promoted the local product to the varsity team for the second half of the 2010-11 season.

The season was a historic one for the Bulldogs, as they won the Appalachian Athletic Conference Championship, earning the program a spot in the NAIA National Tournament for the first time in 43 years. But, Smith didn’t see much action on that team, playing in just seven games.

“I was happy with [winning the AAC title], but I really wanted to play,” Smith said. “That’s why I don’t wear my [championship] ring that much. I know that I didn’t really do anything to earn it, and I didn’t get in the game much.”

This desire helped Smith into the next season, a season he envisioned would be just as successful as the 2011 season was. However, the season turned out to be a tumultuous one from the start for the Bulldogs, as they limped to a final record of 8-23, bowing out in the first round of the AAC Tournament.

“Early in the season we weren’t as bad, but then we started falling out as a team,” Smith said.   “We had people quitting, people transferring left and right. And by the last six or seven games heading into the conference tournament, we had seven or eight guys on the entire team.”

To cap it all off, Gillespie, the man who brought Smith into the program, left Union shortly after the season to take a high school coaching job in Florida.

Enter this season, under a new head coach, veteran Kevin Burton, who previously was the head man at Lambuth (Tenn.) for seven years before the school closed its doors in 2011. For Smith, the learning curve was evident right from the start going from Gillespie to Burton.

“Coach Gillespie liked to slow it down and ran pick and rolls,” Smith said. “That’s where I fit in, but Coach Burton’s style is a whole lot different.  He wants to get the ball out and run it. If not, we just need to take good shots. He’s all about percentages.”

Slowly but surely, Smith has adjusted to Burton’s coaching style, and has become the team’s leader, a role he knew he would have to take on right from the first practice.

“Coming into this season with a new coach, I knew someone would have to step up and be that leader because we’re all new guys to each other,” he said. “We never played with each other and you needed someone to glue the team together. That’s what I try to do in games.”

Smith’s hard work over the last three years has paid dividends this season. With an entirely new roster, the Bulldogs have already won more games that it did all of last season, and has surpassed its win total in the AAC from a season ago. Smith has seen action in every game on the year, scoring in double-figures in 13 games. He also leads the team in steals.

However, all of it will be coming to an end soon for Smith, as he will walk out onto the floor at Robsion Arena for the final time on Feb. 16, where he will honored before the final regular season game of the season versus Bryan (Tenn.) for his contributions to the program.

On that day, Smith will be flanked by his family and friends, who have supported him every step of the way on his long, strange journey to basketball peace.

“It’s going to be an emotional game,” he said. “It’s been a long haul, and I know I’ll probably never play another competitive basketball game once the season is over.

“I know for these last few games, and the conference tournament coming up, I’m going to give it all I have, because it’ll be my last shot.” 

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