Brittney Smith is the kind of athlete who makes you forget the fragility of the human body.
A true physical specimen, Smith has made her excellence look easy, playing basketball with a seemingly effortless elegance that awed crowds throughout the Northeast and resulted in impressive numbers and a host of accolades.
Yet despite being in the self-described best shape of her career, Smith fell victim to an injury that has befallen even the strongest and fittest athletes, particularly female basketball players, when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
On Dec. 1, as Dartmouth was en route to victory over a solid Northeastern squad, Smith made a trademark play, emphatically blocking an opponent’s three-point attempt and taking the ball the length of the court for a layup. Smith stopped to put up a shot and was fouled by a trailing Northeastern player. Sometime in that sequence, her knee buckled as the ACL tore and Smith crumpled to the ground as a stunned crowd and bench looked on.
She described the injury that ended her promising senior season as an out of body experience. “I don’t remember any contact I just remember hearing a pop and then cries and not even realizing it was me crying,” recalled Smith.
The days that followed were understandably overwhelming for Smith, who had to wait several days before confirming the severity of her injury as teammates and coaches struggled to know how to help and rumors swirled around campus and the entire town of Hanover. Once the diagnosis was made, Smith had a successful reconstructive surgery in January and is currently in the midst of the extensive rehabilitation process that generally takes six to eight months.
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But that injury should not, and will not, define Smith’s tremendous career at Dartmouth.
To look back on Smith’s time at Dartmouth, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the role that older sister Margaret ’10 played in Brittney’s recruitment and decision to join the Big Green all the way from Fort Worth, Texas. After Margaret enrolled at Dartmouth in 2006, Brittney’s recruitment followed and though she was swayed by the chance to play and live with her sister again, she made sure to go on multiple official visits to explore her options. She ultimately turned down scholarship offers from the likes of New Mexico, Nevada, Denver and Washington State.
“In the end I couldn’t find any other school that had both great academics and athletics,” said Smith. “I came to Dartmouth during homecoming weekend and there was such a great sense of community that it felt like home to me.”
Smith certainly made herself at home when she joined Chris Wielgus’ team for the 2007-08 season, taking the Ivy League by storm and helping the Big Green win a share of her first Ivy League Championship. As a freshman, she averaged 10.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, was named Ivy Rookie of the Week seven times and eventually earned unanimous Ivy Rookie of the Year honors.
“Even as a freshman she knew she was not going to take a secondary role and she has wanted the ball in her hands to win the game since that season,” said Wielgus.
The accolades poured in during Smith’s sophomore year, when she led the Big Green won an outright Ivy Championship and earned an NCAA Tournament bid. She averaged a career-best 14.1 points per game along with 8.2 rebounds. Not surprisingly, she was named the Ivy League Player of the Year and a unanimous first team All-Ivy choice. She also won Dartmouth’s Class of 1976 Award for the top female athlete and has been named to the Wearers of the Green.
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Though Smith clearly exuded confidence from a young age, it was a degree of humility that drove her to get better each season. “Brittney is extremely confident but also very coachable and she works on her game quietly and without fanfare,” said Wielgus. “There’s not a thing I’ve asked her to do that she has not done. Brittney doesn’t understand anybody’s second-best and I’ve clearly never seen hers.”
As a junior, the weight of the team was fully on Smith’s shoulders — not to mention the eyes of the entire conference. Though she averaged a double-double of 12.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, Smith was pushed in ways that did not always suit her game, leading Dartmouth in every other statistical category. Bearing such a load would be a burden on any athlete and as a team Dartmouth struggled to rebuild and went just 11-17, 7-7 in Ivy play.
Despite earning first team All-Ivy honors again as a junior, Smith was dissatisfied with the 2009-10 team’s performance and entered her senior season with a renewed resolve. Expectations were high for the Big Green as a team too. “Last summer I pushed myself even harder knowing that I would be a senior and a captain,” said Smith. “I wanted people to see me as an example for how to do things and be a real leader on the court.”
It paid off when she started her senior year averaging 13.1 points, 9.7 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 49 percent from the field. With 1,172 career points (11th all-time) and 830 rebounds (fourth all-time), she did more in three years than most do in four. Her defense was often overshadowed by her offense, though she amassed 156 steals and 129 blocks in her career and Wielgus called her perhaps the best defender she’d ever coached.
Yet as we know, fate dealt a cruel blow and Smith was cut down after just seven games. Starting point guard Nicola Zimmer ’14 was also lost for the seasons and the shorthanded Big Green — down to just nine healthy players — has limped to a 7-20 record. Though the injury took away Smith’s chance at another player of the year award and clearly hurt the Big Green’s Ivy title dreams, she has not allowed it to soil her memory of Dartmouth basketball.
“I think this would have been one of my better years, but it hasn’t changed how I feel about this experience,” said Smith. “It’s been a great run and I’ll always look back on the good times with my teammates and how fortunate we were to win two Ivy titles.”
Watching the game from the sidelines has helped Smith see a different kind of future with basketball — coaching. After doing an internship with XMester, which exposes underprivileged youth to the college experience, Smith was inspired to work for Teach for America. With hopes to eventually go into education administration, Smith will first spend two years in Los Angeles teaching high school and likely serving as a basketball coach. Having watched Smith enhance her natural talent with hard work, Wielgus believes she could also excel in coaching.
“Brittney came in here and had to learn the teaching progressions so she has been through what she would ask her players to do and knows how to teach it,” said Wielgus. “She understands the game, has an incredible work ethic and is going out of here a beautiful, polished product on and off the court.”
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Brittney Smith’s Dartmouth career can truly not be measured by statistics, games won and especially not a season lost. There’s no question of her place in Dartmouth history or the influence she has had on the program. On par with the greats in the Ivy League, her playing style literally changed the entire conference, setting a new recruiting standard across the board.
For those who truly know Smith, there’s no doubt she’ll set the standard wherever she goes, using her determination, passion and the game she loves to impact countless young lives.