City College boys basketball coach Omarr Smith enjoys watching his son, Omarr Jr., play the same sport at Archbishop Curley.
The older Smith may not have that feeling Saturday. Smith’s fourth-ranked Knights will meet Curley in the final match of the 25th annual Basketball Academy at Dunbar.
“I want to see him do well, but I don’t want him to beat me,” said a conflicted Smith. “I can’t want him to play well because him playing well might mean a victory for them.”
Omarr Jr., a 6-foot-3 wing, is arguably the top player on a young Friars team. City is one of two undefeated teams (Parkville is the other) remaining in the Baltimore metro area entering this week.
The Basketball Academy returns after the 2022 and 2021 event was cancelled due to coronvarius pandemic. The silver anniversary event will have only four games, played inside Dunbar’s fabled gym, because many teams - who’ve previously participated - had filled their 2022-23 regular season schedule.
Friday’s slate starts at 4 p.m. with Randallstown taking on Dunbar, followed by No. 6 Edmondson playing Woodlawn. Saturday at 1 p.m., Prince George’s County’s Oxon Hill takes on fifth-ranked Lake Clifton, followed by City and Curley.
The youngest Smith is “excited” about playing his father’s team. The Knights played Curley at the St. Frances League in the fall, but the older Smith watched from the bench.
After the game, Smith Jr. found out the Friars were going to meet City at the Basketball Academy.
“He knows me basketball-wise probably better than I know myself,” said the younger Smith. “He’s been there every step of the way.”
Lauren Gates-Smith knew her oldest son was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, wanting to go with his father to the basketball court when he was a toddler.
“His dad has a basketball history…he (Omarr Sr.) was praying he would love it,” said Gates-Smith. “It was nothing forced...he just loves it naturally.”
Omarr Smith Sr. starred at City as a senior, leading the Knights to their first state semifinals in 1996-97. He helped Bowie State University to its first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament championship and first Division II Final Four berth in his senior season in 2002-03.
After playing professionally in Germany for six years, Smith stopped to focus on Omarr Jr., who was born in 2006.
Smith was able to see his son’s birth after Gates was induced into labor.
“She was induced on Sept. 13 and I left Sept. 17,” said Smith. “The next time I saw him was three months later at Christmas.”
“I’m missing milestones and that was tough. I knew I had a lot left (playing professionally), but I needed to give that energy to Omarr.”
Oliver Smith, Omarr Sr.’s father, spent a good portion of his son’s organized playing days behind bars.
“He made a lot of bad choices,” said Omarr Sr. “He always talked to me. I knew he wasn’t a bad guy, he made poor choices.
A lot of guys I grew up with or went to school with who were incarnated with my dad always said he looked out for them and would talk about me. For him to reach me from there, it let me know he cared. I never felt a void. But it also told me nothing replaces time.”
Omarr Sr. started coaching his son in second grade in the Team Thrill AAU program. He coached Omarr Jr. through fourth grade, scaling back due to his coaching commitment at City where he became head coach in the 2017-18 season.
The Smiths admitted the father/son, coach/player relationship was often blurred.
“I didn’t want basketball to be the only thing, it was rough and stressful. Traveling every summer, basketball practice every day,” said Gates-Smith, who married Omarr Sr. in 2010, and shared another son, 8-year old Isaiah. “I would often tell Omarr can you turn off the coach part and just be dad right now.”
The older Smith, 5-foot-9, realized his son, who stands 6-3, had the potential to excel in basketball.
“We see the long term back then and the certain steps you have to take, when to push, when to back off,” said Smith Sr.
The older Smith “didn’t want to force” his son to play for him at City. Omarr Jr. said going to Curley, where several of his friends and Team Thrill teammates attend and is close to his Northeast Baltimore home, struck the perfect “balance” in the father/son/basketball relationship.
Darnell Hopkins remembers the many times the younger Smith jumped out of his father’s lap and played with the basketball as he and the Smith Sr,, then City assistants under Daryl Wade, observed potential recruits in gyms around the city.
Now head coach at Curley, Hopkins said Smith Jr., a second-year starter, has matured on and off the court.
“He’s accepted the role as a leader, outside of putting the ball in the net,” said Hopkins. “He’s a sponge.”
Hopkins, who starred at now-defunct Towson Catholic in the early 2000s, and played with the older Smith in pro-am leagues in the region, said the younger Smith has his father’s shooting touch and competitive streak.
“He’s on the path to being better than ‘Big O,’” said Hopkins.
Smith Jr. is averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists for the Friars, who’re in contention for a MIAA B Conference playoff spot.
The younger Smith “definitely” feels pressure to be better than his father, but says the older Smith, “has helped with that a lot because he sees the confidence.”
“He’s told me consistently he was one-dimensional when he was my age. He never forgets to tell me how well-rounded a player I am,” said the younger Smith, who garnered early scholarship offers from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Morgan State and Towson.
“He sees it now for himself. It is his life, not mine, not his mother,” said Smith Sr. “Whatever you want out of it, you chase it, not because I played, not because I want you to. He still has growing to do. His ceiling is high.”
The older Smith feels he’s gained some validation from his wife for challenging their son.
She’s more proud of their son’s 3.6 grade-point average at Curley.
“She helps balance out our relationship. She’s the reason I never let up (academically),” said the younger Smith. “My father never let me forget that basketball can take me far, but it won’t take me farther without the grades.”
Though father and son are relatively quiet off the court, there’s been some playful banter the past few weeks.
The older Smith was excited to see his son dunk in a recent game.
“I told him I hope you don’t think you’re going to run that play against me and you’re going to dunk,” said Smith. “He looked at me and said ‘we don’t have to run that play for me to get a dunk.’”
“Sports are life lessons that can be interlocked. It is a segway to talk about other things and other life experiences,” said Gates-Smith. “It’s great to see them have this relationship because they both love it (basketball) so much.”
25TH BASKETBALL ACADEMY
When: Friday, Jan. 20 & Saturday, Jan. 21
Where: Dunbar High
Randallstown vs. Dunbar, 4 p.m.
Woodlawn vs. No. 6 Edmondson, 6 p.m.
Oxon Hill vs. No. 5 Lake Clifton, 1 p.m.
Archbishop Curley vs. No. 4 City, 3 p.m.