Father fan: the last of a dying breed

By Wesley Deberry

In Jenna Smith’s neighborhood, she is both respected and feared. Despite her feminine smile and her love for shopping, she can “put in work” with the best of them. Over the years she has caught some charges and hurt some feelings.

But with a blow of a whistle, Smith – now a star center on the Illinois basketball team – enters a different neighborhood. When she walks off the court, her time to “put in work” is over. Her father, Frank Smith, made it his mission to make sure of that. Every opportunity that he wasn’t given as a child – from living in the suburbs to wearing the latest gym shoes – he tried to give to his children.

An all too familiar story in today’s society is that of a man failing to fulfill the basic fatherly obligation of helping to raise his children. The word father is being replaced with the phrase “baby daddy.” The idea of “family first” is quickly becoming more of a fairy tale than reality.

Frank knows what it is like to grow up without a father. At a young age his father passed away. With 11 children to support, Frank’s mother was forced to work constantly to make ends meet.

“I grew up at a very young age,” Frank said. “I kind of understood the things she had to go through when she couldn’t be there.”

At Des Moines Lincoln High School in Iowa, Frank excelled in basketball and earned the honor of Mr. Basketball in 1977. Through his high school and collegiate career, his mother was only able to come see him play one time. Frank often found himself being congratulated by other players’ parents.

In the back of his mind, he promised himself that when he had children things would be different.

After meeting his wife, Gigi, Frank was given the opportunity to make things different with the birth of his son, Frankie, in 1981 and Jenna in 1988.

“I just wanted to give them a better chance at life,” Frank said.

Having come from the inner city, Frank knew how easy it was to fall victim to the elements in a city setting. So Frank moved his family to the friendly confines of Bloomington, Minn., where he worked at Lunds Bakery. Every morning at 6 a.m. he was out the door and on his way to work.

As his children grew up, Frank noticed a common pattern.

Returning home from a hard day’s work, he would find Jenna and Frankie at the table eating. From sandwiches to macaroni and cheese, they did not discriminate.

“You guys have to do something else,” Frank said to them.

“You got to choose another sport.”

“What do you mean?” Jenna and Frankie asked.

“I’m not going to be working and coming home while you all just eat.”

A special bond

Taking Frank’s advice, Jenna picked up a basketball to fill her time between soccer seasons. Frankie started playing football to keep him occupied between baseball seasons.

Frank and Gigi decided to enter Jenna in the Bloomington Athletic Association where Frank was a coach.

Against co-ed competition, Jenna averaged around 20 points a game as a sixth-grader.

“Right then and there I knew she had talent,” Frank said.

From the first time Jenna set foot on the court as a sixth-grader to the present, her father has helped develop her skills.

The saying “put in work” has a special meaning to the both of them. Jenna said as a young child she never understood what it meant.

Today, however, when she hears her father say “put in work” that means be aggressive with the ball and “show them who you are.”

By her senior year in high school, most colleges in the country knew who she was.

When Jenna became Ms. Basketball in Minnesota, Frank told her “if you stay in the Big Ten, I will be here more for you than if you go out on the West Coast or East Coast.”

True to his word, Frank and wife Gigi traveled more than 40,000 miles during Jenna’s freshman year to watch.

Like many freshmen in college, Jenna often felt homesick, so Frank and Gigi pulled out all the stops to show their support.

“We drive in snowstorms and everything,” Frank said. “Just leave a little bit earlier and take our time.”

In Jenna’s sophomore year they have traveled roughly 20,000 miles.

Despite not making as many games as last year, Frank and Gigi are just a phone call away. Talking with them has become a game-day ritual for Jenna.

Frank gives Jenna some tips and reminders when she calls. Similar to Illini head coach Jolette Law, he too watches film and studies the opposition’s tendencies.

“It’s all about motivation,” Frank said. “Making her believe that she can do the things she can.”

2008 Big Ten Tournament

After Frank has given Jenna all that the advice he could on how to stop 6-foot-9-inch Michigan State Spartan center Allyssa DeHaan, the Illini hit the floor.

At the last moment, Frank decides to go without the pink pom-pom and hands it to his wife.

It wasn’t long before Frank was on his feet as Jenna hits an opening three-pointer.

“It’s your world baby,” he yells.

On the defensive end he hopes Jenna is able to follow his pregame advice and push DeHaan out of the paint.

“Put your work in,” he yells. “Keep her out there. Keep her out there.”

While the players at the Big Ten Tournament had to recover from physical fatigue, Frank’s voice, too, had taken a beating. Often times his yells were directed at the men and women in the black and white pinstripes.

“Call over the back. Jesus Christ, you’re worst than last night,” Frank yelled.

Even with all of Jenna’s notoriety, Frank still refers to her in some instances as “our baby.”

As a child, Jenna would run to her father for protection after an altercation with her brother.

Jenna said he never has responded kindly to someone trying to take something from her.

“I am a big-time daddy’s girl,” Jenna said. “If I want something I go to him.”

And whether it’s money for shopping or White Castle the night before a game, she usually gets her wish.

At the half, Jenna got the start she would have wished for, going 3-of-8 from the field in Saturday’s semifinal contest against the Spartans.

But from his seat, Frank saw a flaw in her shot.

When Jenna came back on the court for the second half warmup, she made eye contact with her dad.

He simply tapped his palm and mimicked the motion of a shot.

Nothing but net was the result of her next warmup shot.

“We have hand signals,” Jenna said. “It’s really weird.”

Frank will hit his palm if Jenna needs to put the ball on her fingertips.

If she needs to put more on it he will point to his fingertips, and if she doesn’t follow through he will mimic a follow-through motion.

While Smith went 1-of-7 from the field in the second half against Michigan State she did manage to get to the foul line and make seven of eight shots.

Late in the game, Jenna’s accuracy from the line helped the Illini close the door on the Spartans.

After she sank two free throws put the Illini up 41-38 with 5:09 left in the game, Frank was on his feet.

“You’re going to have to sit down,” his wife Gigi said.

“I don’t have any time for that right now,” he said, adding that she may be better off standing in the isle.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock on another Illini victory – an improbable third in a row after entering the tourney as the No. 9 seed – he still did not sit down.

The excitement for Jenna and the Illini put a smile on his face as he turned around and gave high fives to the other Illini fans.

While the Illini were happy to make it to the Big Ten Tournament final, Frank was equally happy to have one more opportunity to see his daughter play because he knows, “Once it’s over, it’s over.”