Photo by Tayhlor Sims
Larry Smith joined teammates from the 1989 Illini Final Four team at a recent University of Illinois reunion. Smith, a 1986 graduate of Alton High, was a key player on the 1989 team and led the team in assists.
ALTON − For former University of Illinois standout Larry Smith, basketball has been a lifelong love affair.
"My mom bought me a little basketball hoop with a bell when I was 3 years old," he said. "You knew it was good if the ball goes through the hoop. The sound of that bell will resonate with me the rest of my life."
At 45, Smith doesn't play anymore, but he often having dreams about his time on the hardwood.
"I dream of playing professional basketball or being in an Illinois game and scoring 30 points," the former Alton High and Illini basketball star said.
Recently, the University of Illinois held its 25th-year reunion for the 1989 Illini Final Four team. Joining Smith were Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Stephen Bardo, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, Erving Small, P.J. Bowman, Andy Kaufmann, Rodney Jones and others. Smith, a 1986 graduate of Alton High, was a key player on the 1989 team and led the team in assists.
The Alton native said being at the Illini reunion was like being in a time machine, as well being an opportunity to relive some of his previous childhood dreams.
"Everyone looked the same, while some gained a little weight," Smith said, laughing. "I was able to see how their careers are now developing and many also brought their kids. It was a great atmosphere."
The reunion highlight for Smith occurred when the group emerged from the tunnel to be introduced to a massive Illini crowd.
He said it was like he and the others were still playing, with everyone jumping and cheering as they walked out onto the court.
"I hadn't spoken with Kendall Gill in a while and he said he thought I was doing good things in Alton," Smith said. "He told me I should have been a 10- to 15-year pro. That was nice to hear."
Smith was part of a 21-5 Alton High team that was ranked No. 4 in the state, averaging about 26 points per game.
As so many young people do, Smith made some bad decisions in his life following his stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). With the help and guidance of respected sports figures and support of Andy Hightower in the Alton Housing Authority, Smith turned his life around.
About 15 years ago Hightower, executive director of the Alton Housing Authority, extended Smith a helping hand to join his program and work as program director with after-school kids in the Reach Program. He also coordinates the Future All-Star Basketball program in Alton, taking youth to tournaments and leagues.
"I work with two of the project areas − Alton Acres and Oakwood Estates, where after-school kids come in and I help them with their homework, anything going on socially and help them grow," he said. "We want to let them know we are there for them."
Hightower said Smith works well with participants of the Future All-Stars Program.
"Our message to program participants is 'Athletics Start in the Classroom' and Larry has done a tremendous job in helping us to share this message with community youth."
Smith said he should have played in the NBA, but unfortunately he didn't.
"I played with several people who were pro players," he added. "It could have been in God's plan, but it wasn't."
For now, Smith plans to work to inspire Alton youths who need that small push toward success.
"I have been to the top and been to the bottom," he said. "Adult figures were there to support me. A lot of kids don't have parents that support them in what they are trying to do. I will talk to them about anything; academics, social things or sports.
"I really think this is my calling," he said.