Wellington Smith Giving Back To The Game He Loves
MORGANTOWN — Basketball gave a lot to former West Virginia player Wellington Smith, a key part of the Mountaineers’ Final Four team of 2010.
Now he’s giving back to the game … and making a living out of it.
It has been a long and winding journey, to be sure, from Summit, N.J., halfway around the world to Japan, then back home again, where today Smith is running Unity Legends, a program that runs camps, clinics, teams, leagues and offers individual training to young basketball players.
“I’m doing the whole gamut,” Smith said when he was able to take a few moments out of one of those many busy summer days that come in the camp and clinic and league seasons, while he also is coaching three of the teams.
“I’m working with a group of really good coaches, people who care about what I care about, which is the kids but also about making a dollar for themselves as well.”
So how do you get from an eager young player, just out of a Final Four run that WVU upset Kentucky, yet run out of steam in part due to injuries, point guard Truck Bryant going out with a broken foot before the Regional semifinal against Washington and then star Da’Sean Butler seeing his career sidetracked late in the loss to Duke with a severe knee injury?
JAPAN – Smith had grown up in Summit, N.J., the same town that gave WVU what well may have been its all-time greatest punt returner in John Mallory back under Jim Carlen.
Smith could have gone right on to college out of high school, but instead he opted for a year at Blair Academy even though a number of major schools were already interested.
“I need to get a bigger body and mature physically,” Smith said in 2005 of his decision to go to Blair, showing a whole lot of what sent him off in the direction he took.
The 6-foot-7 forward built a strong career as a role player at WVU, playing 140 games while he scored 696 points, grabbed 454 rebounds, shot 45.7 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from three-point range, in addition to blocking 62 shots.
“People definitely overlook him more than anybody,” Da’Sean Butler said of Smith during the Final Four run. “He brings so much energy. He does all the dirty work. If he wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be able to guard any big person. Last year, he was the guy who had to guard (Pittsburgh’s) DeJuan Blair and (Louisville’s) Samardo Samuels and (Connecticut’s) Hasheem Thabeet and everybody.”
After finishing his college career, Smith wasn’t heading for the NBA, but he wasn’t ready to give up basketball, either, so traveled halfway around the world to keep his career going in Japan, a decision he believes was an important one in his life.
“It was a great life experience, first and foremost … and the paycheck wasn’t bad,” Smith said with a knowing laugh. “To have that life experience as a 23-year-old, you just can’t write that unless you go into the military or find a job that will take you out there.
“That’s basically what I did. I found a job I was passionate about and it gave me that experience. I wouldn’t call myself the Dennis Rodman of basketball, building a bridge between us and Japan.”
It did not, however, have a happy ending.
Three or four weeks into his season, he suffered the same broken foot injury that took Truck Bryant out of the NCAA Tournament that March.
“It was tough to accept, but like most things I stayed optimistic,” he said. “Realistically, it was a year long recovery, but I tried to get back in about four months. I was able to play six games, but then I re-fractured it.”
That hit hard and wound up giving him a life’s lesson that he passes on now to those kids under his guidance.
“The decision for me was a quick. I always tell the kids I train now never to make a quick decision because that’s what I did then. Right after the injury I decided to go home, thinking I could not deal with not playing in a foreign country and not doing what I’m supposed to be doing while I’m there,” he said.
“But I slept on it. I said to myself, ‘Why did I say that?’ I wanted to retract my decision, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to.”
And so he returned home.
GETTING RESTARTED – Back in New Jersey he took a job selling insurance, something he did for about a year and a half, but he had that basketball itch.
“I decided to create my own business, which was called Wellington Smith Basketball Academy,” he explained.
At the same time he went to work for a sports tech company called Game Changer, doing that along with working with his teams.
“Then a gentleman reached out and asked me if I wanted to do this full time,” Smith recalls.
He proposed a deal where he bought the company, did the behind the scenes work while Smith could work with the basketball end of it.
It sounded like a good idea.
He worked at that for two years, then joined Unity Sports Group, a move that just didn’t work out as he had hoped it would.
“I realized I was doing all this work that they were supposed to be doing … all the marketing, promotions, all this stuff that my employer was supposed to be doing and I was giving them money. It made no sense,” he said.
He knew the only way he could satisfy his need was to go out on his own, driven by the flow of basketball through his blood.
“Basketball is something I really, really care about. It’s my first true love. It’s something I always turn to whenever things are going right or wrong,” Smith said. “So when I decided to move into that space, I wanted to do s for fun, change some lives and make some cash, in that order.
“I understood what my coaches did for me. I was getting older, going through recruiting, having people help me like in lifting weights. Coaches have a huge impact on kids’ lives. I felt what I coaches did for me, I could do for kids.
“I have the ability to work with kids. When mother’s day care was getting up and running, I worked with kids so I knew I always had that ability.”