By Jack Smith
As a young boy growing up in Tuskegee, Leonard Smith remembers where his love of the game began.
He watched his father play basketball on the courts at Abbott Park off Martin Luther King Jr. Highway, not far from the broad floodplains of Tuskegee National Forest.
The sound of feet shuffling on the concrete, grown men calling for the ball and arguing over fouls was the background music young Leonard heard as he dribbled on the sideline, waiting for the weekend warriors to take a break so he could race onto the court.
Those moments were magical for Smith, and the memories of those warm days at Abbott Park are even more special in the years since his father's death.
While his father may have sparked Smith's interest in basketball, NBA legend Isaiah Thomas became his idol.
Like his dad, who was only 5-9, Thomas was never the tallest man on the court. But he proved that not only did small, savvy point guards have a place on the basketball court, they could dictate the pace of the game. Or even dominate it.
"It was his dribbling skills and the way he would be able to finish at the basket as a smaller guy," Smith said. "Isaiah was somebody I could relate to in terms of height and size and athletic ability. And he was a very good passer. I loved Magic Johnson, but I knew I wouldn't be 6-9."
Smith grew up to become one of the best players in the state, leading Tuskegee Institute High School to the Class 5A semifinals his senior year. He earned Honorable Mention All-State honors.
Despite making stellar grades and averaging 17 points and nine assists a game, he didn't receive a single offer to play college basketball. He thought his basketball career was over.
At 6-1, recruiters probably thought the smart and scrappy point guard wasn't big enough to play college basketball. They must not have measured his heart.
An unlikely road
Smith ended up taking another path to college when his hoop dreams fizzled. He came to Auburn on a Naval ROTC scholarship.
"When I came to Auburn, I just assumed I would be on a ship after four years," Smith said.
The son of an Auburn professor who worked with the Alabama Cooperative & Extension Service, Smith initially focused on academics and his ROTC service. He decided to study engineering, one of the most rigorous majors on campus.
Yet basketball was still tugging at his heart, so he tried out for a walk-on spot for coach Tommy Joe Eagles. Eagles only promised Smith he could be part of the team, the kind of things coaches say to kids who will be lucky to see the court for a few precious minutes of mop-up duty.
For two years, Smith juggled a demanding schedule most might not find possible. Between Auburn basketball, ROTC and engineering, he had little time for anything else but sleep—and often times not much of that.
Yet hard work was nothing new for the humble young man.
His father owned a cattle farm in rural Macon County. Every Saturday morning, they would load up in his truck and head out before sunrise. After a long morning taking care of the cattle, Smith still couldn't venture out with his friends until all the cars were washed.
He often had to choose his chores over being a carefree teenager.
"When I was in high school, we had games on Tuesday and Friday nights," he said. "After the games on Fridays, a lot of the guys on the team liked to go out and hang out after the game. I didn't do that much because on Saturday mornings, we were in the truck headed to the farm. It taught me the value of hard work."
'You need to do it again'
Once he got to college, he worked even harder to meet the high standards his parents had set for him as a child. He remembers his mother looking over a paper he had written as a young student. She ripped it up.
"You need to do it again," she said. "It's not up to our expectations."
His upbringing and the example his parents set helped prepare him for a rigorous college schedule, but even Smith had his limits. Time was one of them.
"Being in ROTC, engineering and playing basketball, my days were long," Smith said. "I had to be able to manage my time. It came to the point where it was pretty tough to do that and basketball because we traveled so much."
Smith eventually had a choice to make.
"I had to make a decision," he said. "It was either the Navy or basketball."
Eagles was deeply disappointed when Smith walked into his office his junior year and told him he could not keep sacrificing so much time for basketball when he never saw the court.
"I'm a walk-on and I don't see any opportunity to play, so I'm going to have to leave the team," he recalls telling his coach.
He thought his basketball career was over for a second time, but an unusual turn of events gave him another shot. He was still in love with the game and would often play pick-up games at the Student ACT when he had time.
Realizing a dream
Then one day before his senior year, he got an unexpected phone call. It came from an assistant coach who said Eagles wanted to see him. Three players had left the team for different reasons, so Eagles gave him a chance to come back. He also awarded him a scholarship.
Smith sat on the bench early during the season, wondering if his dream would come true. All he wanted was to know what it felt like to have his name called by the PA announcer. He wanted to start.
"I thought I would never hear my name called, but I knew I was pretty good," he said.
Early in the season, the team was in the locker room preparing to play Vanderbilt.
"Before every game, he would write who was starting and who they would be guarding on the board. My name was up there, and I was surprised. He never told me I was starting."
He scored 17 points in his first game as a starter and went on to be one of the most important contributors on the team down the stretch.
"To get to a point where my name was called as a member of the starting five was pretty spectacular," Smith said.
While the team struggled to an 11-17 record, Smith says his college basketball experience was worth the struggles and hard work.
"It still benefits in my career every day, because I don't think anybody is going to outwork me," he said.
It also taught him the value of time management and prioritizing his work, critical skills that helped him thrive when he went into the workforce after earning his MBA He landed a job at Southern Nuclear in Birmingham, and executives immediately noticed his potential. They tapped him for a leadership development program at Farley Nuclear Plant in Columbia, where he has spent most of his career.
'Old man' pivots to law
Despite his tremendous success, Smith set his sights on fulfilling another dream. He wanted to become an attorney.
"My passion has always been to help people," Smith told the Montgomery Advertiser in a story published several years ago. "I could see that as the missing piece in my life. I just wasn't reaching out to the community, lending a hand to those who needed it."
After he and his wife saved up as much money as they could, he was admitted to law school at Faulkner University at age 41. While his own resume was surely enough to gain admission, he had the help of legendary civil rights lawyer and family friend Fred Gray, who wrote a letter of recommendation.
He gained admission and his pursuit of another dream began. Fellow students jokingly called him "Old Man" until they went up against him on the basketball court at the school's rec center.
"I truly enjoyed law school," Smith said. "Being an attorney is a different process than being an engineer. It was a great experience for me."
As he has his whole life, Smith thrived at law school in ways he could not have imagined. He won first place in a moot court competition.
"I knew I wanted to be an attorney and help people, but I didn't know I had the skill of being in a courtroom."
Early in law school, he saw the impact he would one day have as an attorney. He and his classmates traveled to Lowndes County on the "Justice Bus" and spent the day offering legal advice to citizens in the impoverished county who could not afford a lawyer.
His goal is still to open a law practice one day, but with four children at home and a lucrative job, it's not feasible just yet. Smith recently became supply chain director for Gulf Power, splitting time between Pensacola and his family's home in suburban Birmingham.
"The money was not there for me to go ahead and start a practice just yet."
'That's my passion'
His next dream is to open a practice and work with the elderly in estate planning. His dream might be delayed, but you can bet it will not be denied.
"That's my passion," he said.
For years, Smith has remained a part of the Auburn basketball program as a season ticket holder. Games are harder to get to now that he works in Florida, but he enjoys returning to the Plains and relishing the memories of his time at Auburn.
"The biggest thing you miss is the relationship you have with your teammates. We were not that successful as a team, but the relationships we developed were long lasting. The fondest memories I have were the camaraderie on the team. I still talk to guys like Aaron Swinson and Aubrey Wiley."
He credits his experiences as a student-athlete for making anything seem possible.
"The biggest piece of it goes back to the ability to get through it. I knew law school or anything I wanted to do was not going to be harder than that. There was nothing I couldn't do, because I had gone through the rigor of being a student-athlete."
Over time, Smith learned the most important thing he got out of his college experience was becoming a part of the Auburn Family and the far-reaching network of contacts it gave him.
"The biggest asset of playing at Auburn is what happens after you leave the program," Smith said. "You don't get those contacts just being a student. Being a student-athlete at a major university gives you an opportunity for a lot of important contacts, but that's more true at Auburn than most places. There is something special about being there."
The Auburn alumnus enjoys talking up his school. A Gulf Power executive officer pulled him aside to ask about Auburn when he learned that's where his son wanted to attend college.
"He said, 'They talk a lot about the Auburn Family. Is it really like that?' I told him it really is like that. It's just a special place."
Smith has supported Auburn basketball through good and bad times because of what it did for him.
"Auburn fulfilled every dream I had about going to school, majoring in engineering and continuing my basketball career," he said. "It helped me realize other dreams like going to law school, and it showed me that anything is possible."