The Lynx players of the 2010s are often the players we think of when reflecting on Minnesota’s basketball greats. And rightfully so — they’ve done quite a bit for the sport in our state.
But before Sylvia Fowles was an MVP and Finals MVP; before Maya Moore was known as one of the best basketball players of all time; before Lindsay Whalen returned home to become one of Minnesota’s favorite athletes; before Rebekkah Brunson became one of the fiercest defenders Target Center has ever seen; and before Seimone Augustus became the face of the Lynx franchise, there was Katie Smith.
Sunday, May 3, 2020, marks 21 years since Smith was allocated to Minnesota prior to the franchise’s inaugural season. Back then, in the beginning stages of the franchise, the Lynx were desperate for relevancy. Smith gave it to them — and then some.
The 1999 season was the first since the folding of the American Basketball League, and up to 40 players from the former league were allowed to join the WNBA. Smith had played for Minnesota head coach Brian Agler for two seasons with the ABL’s Columbus Quest and was his selection when the Lynx and fellow expansionists Orlando Miracle were allocated one ABL player apiece the day before the 1999 WNBA Draft.
Agler brought on Smith, a former Ohio State star and a gold medalist with Team USA at the 1998 FIBA World Championship for Women, to join former Stanford player Kristin Folkl as the team’s second allocated player despite her recent knee surgery. Agler believed Smith’s upside of steady scoring, strong ball-handling and competitiveness outweighed any physical limitations she’d have while recovering.
A 1999 Star Tribune article even compared Smith to Celtics legend Larry Bird because “she excels in every offensive category.”
It’s unfair to compare WNBA newcomers to Bird, but Smith didn’t disappoint once she arrived in Minnesota.
In her seven seasons with the Lynx, Smith averaged 17.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists and never shot less than 33% from 3-point range. By 2004, she was shooting 43.2% from deep. Smith was the focal point of the Lynx’s offense as she led the league in 3-pointers made in 2000 (88), 2001 (85) and 2003 (78). In addition, she set a WNBA single-season record that still stands by making 246 free throws in 2001.
On July 8, 2001, she recorded a career-high 46 points in a loss at the Los Angeles Sparks, which topped the league’s former single-game scoring record of 44 points set by Houston’s Cynthia Cooper in 1997. Smith had recorded another 40-point game on June 17, 2001 at Detroit.
Smith became an All-Star in just her second season in the league and would go on to repeat in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005 but not just because of her offensive abilities. Smith became Minnesota’s strongest defender after tapping into her work ethic and grit that soared over most players. Her passion for the game — on both sides of the court — enthused Minnesota fans and showed them what the WNBA was all about.
Smith led the Lynx to their first two playoff appearances in 2003 and 2004, but the team was never able to make it past the Western Conference Semifinals and dealt Smith and a second-round draft pick to the Detroit Shock for a first-round draft pick, Chandi Jones and Stacey Thomas 23 games into the 2005 season.
At the time of the trade, Smith had become the first woman to score 5,000 points in a U.S. professional career, reaching that milestone in the July 13, 2005 win vs. Detroit, and was an easy poster selection for young basketball fans (I know from experience).
As we know, despite their efforts to rebuild, the Lynx wouldn’t make it back to the playoffs until 2011. Who knows what would have happened had Minnesota held on to Smith back in 2005 but had they neglected to part ways, Smith would have never worked with current Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve who was an assistant coach for Bill Laimbeer’s Shock.
In Detroit, Reeve and Smith bonded over their winning mentalities and quickly grew respect for one another.
“Since then, (Reeve has) really been a mentor to me and a person I reach out to,” said Smith in January. “She shoots it to me straight and is somebody who is a real mentor to young coaches and women in the profession.”
Parting ways with Smith in 2005 was difficult at the time, but the move may have allowed for Smith to bring more greatness to the Lynx franchise in the distant future — this time as an assistant coach.
Smith will remain on the sidelines in her next endeavor with the Lynx and won’t be nailing 3s anywhere outside of the team’s practice facility. But no matter what her title is, we’ll always remember what she did for women’s basketball and the Lynx franchise in its early years.
Larry Legend? No. Lynx Legend? Forever.