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Smiths life takes an odd bounce

On Sports • Former Wilson star, hoop journeyman overcomes challenges
by: Courtesy of Keith Smith Once a state champion and pro basketball player, Keith Smith scores today as a store supervisor at the Goodwill headquarters in Portland.

Keith Smith ambles down the aisle at the Goodwill Industries SuperStore on Southeast Sixth Avenue, his lithe frame looking very much the same as it did 25 years ago when he was pounding the hardcourt for the Wilson High Trojans.

The 6-4, 180-pound Smith is 43 now, the only hint of the aging process coming with a slight limp, a result of knee surgery during his pro basketball career.

Smith has covered a lot of ground since his years at Wilson, where he led the PIL school to a state championship as a junior in 1985 and was a first-team all-tournament and all-state choice his last two seasons.

A lot of it has been good ground. Some of it has been treacherous terrain.

It's what life is all about in America these days, and even a former first-team all-Pac-10 selection with a degree from Cal-Berkeley isn't immune.

Smith has a job, as a supervisor at Goodwill's Portland-area headquarters store - one of the company's 10 most successful retail stores in the country. He is glad to have it after being out of work for a year.

When Smith lost his management job at Target in 2008, he looked at it as a mixed blessing. After nine years in managerial positions at Fred Meyer and Target, he suddenly had more time for his wife, Sharon, and their three children. He began training to run a half-marathon. He became a NASCAR fan ('It's like a man's soap opera,' he says).

'I got a chance to do some things I couldn't do before,' says Smith, who lives in Vancouver, Wash. 'I spent more time with family. Got more involved in community and church stuff.

'At 40 years old, how many opportunities do you get to have time to pick my kids up from school, to help them with their homework? I looked at it that way, too. Being a person of faith, I figured the Lord has always taken care of me. I wasn't going to panic. I was relaxed in some ways that I wouldn't have been if I'd had a job.'

On the other hand, though Sharon worked as communications coordinator at Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, Keith was used to being the breadwinner.

'The nagging part is,' he says, 'as a father and husband, you want to have a job.'

Staying positive

Smith hadn't faced a lot of adversity in his formative years, growing up the son of Greg Smith, the former Trail Blazer who had been a starter on the 1969 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

If he had a privileged childhood, Keith was a hard worker, too, and it showed on the basketball court, where he combined skill with passion for the game. That led him to Cal, where he was a three-year starter for coach Lou Campanelli and helped the Bears go 22-10 and beat Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 1989-90.

Undrafted, Smith was the last player cut as a free agent by the Los Angeles Lakers that fall. That began a pro basketball odyssey that lasted nearly a decade, beginning with a year in the Continental Basketball Association, where he played for George Karl in Albany, N.Y.

Smith had two tours of duty with the faith-based Athletes in Action and played a season in a lesser minor pro league before returning to Cal in 1993 to get his degree in political science and economics. He played professionally in Taiwan for four seasons, coached a fifth and then - at age 30 - returned home to join the real world in 1998.

Unsure what to do - 'I never thought I'd work in retail,' he says - Smith entered the management training program at Fred Meyer and wound up working there for six years. He spent three years at Target before he found himself out of work.

After applying for unemployment, Smith began the process of putting together a resume and the search for a job. He didn't realize how difficult the process would be.

'I applied for maybe 100 (management) positions,' he says. 'Didn't get a lot of response. Not a lot of return calls.

'It got to the point where I'd get discouraged. I'd been applying for everything I could. For what else was I supposed to apply? That was the hardest part.'

It reached the point where Smith re-evaluated his value.

'At first, you're kind of excited to be not working,' he says. 'You don't have to stress about the job, and maybe it's a chance to change the course of your life.

'But after a while it kind of hits you. You're out of a job, and you're used to working. It's part of who you are? It's like, 'Damn, am I bad? Why does nobody want me?' You're tired of getting turned down.'

For a year, Smith got about 10 telephone interviews, 'and maybe five where you got to sit in front of somebody,' he says.

One of those opportunities came with Goodwill, which gave him pause. Isn't that a secondhand store? Isn't that a charity? What would people think?

'But it's all about perception,' he says. 'It's retail. It's similar across the board to what I'd been doing.'

Smith made enough of an impression to get the job. And he continues to make an impression 18 months later with his coworkers, many of whom consider him a role model.

'A lot of folks believe if he can work here, they've arrived,' says Dale Emanuel, Goodwill's public relations representative. 'It elevates them.

'He makes everybody feel good. He's inclusive. He gives an easy smile, every day, all day long. It's unusual to not see him smiling. And this is a hard crowd to please. We have a lot of expectations, from customers to employees to donors.'

Smith is in charge of 10 cashiers at his Goodwill store. He is right in there working alongside them, too, opening and/or closing, setting up production, dealing with customer complaints and, says Emanuel, doing it all with aplomb.

'You can't imagine what our retail management team has to do to keep things going,' she says. 'It's pretty amazing. We have millions of donors and shoppers.

'Keith is constantly putting out fires. He is very good at keeping level and positive. He is such a good role model for people with barriers to employment - to all of us.'

More than two-thirds of the 2,000 people employed by Goodwill in the 14 counties and 43 communities surrounding Portland fall into the 'barriers to employment' category, for reasons ranging from poor work history to criminal records to language to age to illiteracy to physical disabilities. The retail program in which Smith works supports the largest mission-related payroll of any Goodwill system in North America.

Times are rough

Smith learned a lot during his year among the 10 percent of Oregon citizens who are unemployed. His life is less glamorous than he might have imagined growing up the son of an NBA player, or through his time as a high school and college star, or during his years playing professionally. If he has changed at all, it's for the better.

'I've always been relatively humble, even when I played,' he says. 'I always felt that, for every player on the basketball court, there is someone who's better. I've looked from that perspective and tried to keep it levelheaded.

'But when you lose your job, it can be humbling, because people ask you why. That was the hardest thing about it as I traveled through the journey, as I talked to interviewers. Because it hadn't happened to them, they didn't quite understand the other side.

'It was, 'Why are you still out of work? Twelve months? What, are you just messing around?' They didn't understand how hard it is to get in front of somebody, because they had a job. Nothing had happened to them economically.'

Smith pauses. Then he smiles.

'I didn't want to make it sound like, woe is me,' he said. 'But I wanted them to understand what was going through my head. All across the country these days, there are people out of work two, three years. Times are really rough.'

Smith's immediate goal is to become a store manager at Goodwill. Work hard, stay positive, and it's going to happen, he figures. The people who cope best with the world around us handle things that way.