By Ed Johnson
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
This is a story about daughters and mothers, but not in the way you think. It’s about how you define a home and a family.
It’s about a little girl named China Smith who wanted to know someone cared, wanted to know if someone could possibly be proud of her — hell, she just wanted a little attention from her mother.
It’s about that little girl who grew up to be a young woman — someone who had built walls around her, but found a safe place where she could take a couple of them down.
It’s about a big-city girl who became a Cowgirl.
China Smith plays basketball for New Mexico Highlands and does so with fierce abandon.
She’s had to learn to temper some of that anger she developed on the streets of her native Los Angeles, and is averaging a double-double (10.6 points, 10.4 rebounds) a game for the 5-6 Cowgirls. She had a conference-record 28 rebounds in this season’s opener against University of the Southwest.
The 6-1 senior post is working on a master’s degree a long way from where her life started. She was redshirting at Cal State-Northridge when the coaching staff was fired. She figured it was a sign that she should give up basketball, give up college.
But on the day she got her release from Northridge she got a call from NMHU assistant Richard Bridgewater. He convinced her to fly out for a visit. She was not sure why, but she said yes. Somehow, she thought Highlands was in Albuquerque. “I can do another city,” she thought. But after her plane landed, she was told they would be driving a little farther north. She fell asleep on the way.
“I woke up in this small town,” she says. “I thought, this could be very interesting.”
She told the Cowgirls’ coaches she could dunk a volleyball. They didn’t believe her, so she showed she could. And she got along fine with the other recruits and NMHU players.
“Can you see yourself here?” Highlands head coach Tiffany Darling asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I can,” Smith told her. “Where do I sign?”
Back in LA, people thought she was crazy.
You’re going to Mexico? No, New Mexico. Vegas? Nevada? No, Las Vegas. New Mexico.
In the late summer of 2010, she boarded a Greyhound bus with 20 duffle bags and rode 22 hours to Las Vegas, N.M.
She rarely goes back to Los Angeles.
“I don’t consider Los Angeles my home anymore,” she says. “This is my home.”
Escape from LA
China Smith was “8 going on 9” when her dad was murdered.
She says her mother, who had a heart condition, became depressed and withdrawn.
“When I hit age 10 or 11, I felt myself going out of control,” Smith says.
She had anger problems, she says. She hated going to class, was always getting into fights.
“When I was younger, everything I got, I bought myself,” Smith says. “I had to hustle to get what I wanted. Stealing, playing dice, whatever.”
One day, she was hanging with her cousins — “gang bangers,” she calls them. Shots were fired at her. It had become part of her environment.
“When you don’t get attention from family, from your mom, you’re going to get attention from whoever will give it to you,” Smith says.
She had played some prep basketball, but she was constantly getting into trouble and was benched. She crossed paths with a high school coach who told her she should come play for him. He told her she could earn a college scholarship. No one in her family had ever spent more than a year in college.
“I started going to class,” Smith says. “I decided I wanted to be on the basketball court rather than go home and be outside the liquor store.”
Her brother’s keeper
China Smith’s Highland adventure has not been without its bumps.
“It’s been a journey,” coach Darling says. “It hasn’t been perfect. It hasn’t been without rough times. The neat thing about China is that she allowed us to coach her. You never had to worry about China quitting. If you show that you care about her, she will run through a brick wall for you.”
Smith says the Cowgirls are her family now.
“Coach Darling, she’s that mother figure,” Smith says. “At first I didn’t know how to react because I never had it. … I love that lady.”
Smith rattles off the names of her teammates, past and present — especially Allysa Lopez, the Cowgirls’ leading scorer last season as a senior.
“To this day, those are my sisters,” she says. “Those are my best friends.”
But she now also has a blood relative with her — little brother William, a freshman at Robertson High School.
When she left LA, William would write and call her. He wanted to be just like her, he told her. He loves baseball, but plays basketball because China does. Smith’s mother had moved to an even more dangerous neighborhood, and China could hear how afraid he had become.
She decided last summer to bring him to New Mexico.
She thought maybe her mother would balk, but there was no hesitation.
“Normally parents would fight for their kid,” Smith says. “She didn’t fight for him.”
Between financial aid and jobs, such as those at a golf course and the campus bookstore, Smith gets by. She makes sure William eats right and makes good grades. More than one C and he gets grounded. When she’s on the road with the team, some of the Cowgirls who don’t travel will check on him.
Meanwhile, Smith got her bachelor’s degree last spring. Now she’s working on a master’s in counseling, and last fall she carried a 4.0 GPA.
Reason to trust
China Smith doesn’t worry about getting shot while walking around town. Instead, she gets shout-outs.
“I could walk into Wal-Mart in my pajamas and people will recognize me,” Smith says. “Little kids, 6, 7, 8 years old, will come up to me and say, ‘China, I like to rebound because I watch you.'”
Darling believes Smith has the potential to play pro ball overseas if she can establish a better perimeter game.
“I’ve told her from day one she has the potential to be the most dominating player in our conference,” Darling says. “Her quickness and leaping ability are second to none in our league.”
Darling writes notes to Smith, tells her to work hard. She tells her how proud she is of her.
“She’s a very emotional person,” Darling says of Smith. “Part of it is growing up the way she did. She’s had her battles with referees, had some battles with people who don’t quite understand her because she puts up a guard until you give her a reason to trust you.
“But once she loves, she loves real hard. There have been so many people in her past who haven’t been there for her.”
Smith says: “I would never know the feeling of someone loving me if it were not for my friends here. They allowed me to love somebody. I have a family.
“I used to think I was in a dark tunnel and I couldn’t find myself. I couldn’t find the switch, couldn’t find the light. Now, I’m in the light. I’m not living in the dark anymore.”
Smith wants to work with juveniles.
“Kids who come from bad backgrounds, basically kids, who were me,” she says. “You may think nobody has your back, but there’s always somebody. It’s not over until you want it to be over.”
When China Smith took her graduation walk last spring, no one from her family came.
But the Cowgirls were there.
Tiffany Darling was there.
Some tears fell. Today