Staff Photo: John Bohn Shane Smith, a Wesleyan basketball player, will be attending the United States Military Academy later this year. Smith, a 6-fppt-4 senior forward, is the only starter left from Wesleyan's last boys state championship team.
Shane Smith certainly looks the part.
Buzz-cut. Unwrinkled khakis. Earnest face.
He speaks the part.
Precise. Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Again, earnest.
Far more importantly, Shane Smith acts the part.
On the court and off, he wants to be of service.
"He's a great basketball player," Wesleyan head coach Skip Matherly said. "He's a better human being."
Smith is the leader of the Wesleyan boys basketball team, quantitatively and qualitatively. A 6-foot-4 forward, he's the lone starter left from the Wolves' state championship run two years ago and has helped them win 11 of their last 12 games. The only loss in that span has been to Lovett in overtime and Wesleyan has since ripped off seven straight victories.
"What you see is what you get with Shane," Matherly said. "He's a great teammate. He's a great leader. And he likes to be coached. He's not one of these kids that feels like he's gotten to a place where he knows enough to not need to get better.
"I think he would prefer me to get onto him about more things. Which is hard to do -- because he does a lot of things well right now. He's the whole package."
Constructive criticism won't be in short supply once Smith leaves Wesleyan.
His desire to learn and grow will be fed, perhaps overfed, at the United States Military Academy.
It wasn't his goal to go to West Point. Until he'd been there.
Two weeks after his visit to the campus -- situated on the banks of the Hudson River in New York on what George Washington considered to be the most strategic point in America during the Revolutionary War -- Smith knew it was where he was meant to go.
"I was mostly looking at mid-majors, D-I," said Smith, who has played basketball for more than a decade. "But I only visited a few schools and at the time -- it was before the season started -- I only had two offers. That was from Lipscomb in Nashville and the United States Military Academy in New York.
"I went to Lipscomb first, and I liked it. It's a Christian school."
Wesleyan, a picturesque private school in Norcross, allows students two excused absences to visit colleges. Which meant Smith, having been to Lipscomb, needed to be sure he wanted to use the last one on West Point.
"It was amazing," Smith said. "What it represents and what it teaches and what it stands for is what I'm all about."
Smith is well aware it won't be an easy road.
West Point is legendary for its alumni -- a favorite expression at the academy is "much of the history we teach was made by people we taught" -- and its difficulty.
Smith could have opted to go to a regular college. Places where sleeping and drinking can often replace classroom attendance.
"Any time you take a guy who's 18 years old, who has the foresight to say, 'I'm going to trade four years of a fun college experience in place of a disciplined college experience that's going to set me for life,' I think that's impressive," Matherly said. "Not many kids would do that. But he's never batted an eye at this. He's been committed since Day 1."
Smith wouldn't neglect his studies given the opportunity -- he's just not that kind of kid. Still, he thinks about it. What it would be like if he'd made a different choice.
"It's a huge life change," Smith said. "It's a big difference. When I was picking between Lipscomb and West Point, it wasn't who was better at basketball, but what's my lifestyle going to be.
"What it came down to, the reason I picked West Point, was because of the military life."
Smith also was recruited by Air Force, though not as heavily, and considered that choice carefully,
"I want to go somewhere that's going to help me to grow," Smith said. "I want to be surrounded by people who serve. People who are not interested in themselves, but rather others. In that community, duty, honor and country are above all else.
"That by itself gets rid of all the personal interest I would have in going to a regular school."
Smith's family has a history of military service.
His grandfather was in Army Intelligence. His aunt, the first woman to graduate from the University of Arizona with a four-year ROTC scholarship, and uncle were both in Air Defense.
Smith has done a lot of reading about the academy and has talked to a number of people who have been there. On his campus visit, former North Gwinnett standout Matt Walker, took Smith on a class tour. Smith and Walker played against each other in high school and had the same travel team coach.
He feels like he's got a handle on what he's in for."I don't know anything from personal experience, but from what I've learned, I'm just going to try to adapt as best as I can," Smith said. "But I think it will be interesting. I think I'll be just fine."
The challenges and difficulties West Point presents are well documented. Wilting flowers will quickly be weeded out in that environment. Plebes especially have to be able to put up with a lot.
"They have to break you down before they build you up," Smith said. "It's a learning experience and it's tough, but once you get through it, it's what's best."
Asked if he'd ever gone through anything like that before, Smith talked about his freshman season at Wesleyan.
"As soon as I came out of middle school, I actually ended up starting varsity basketball as a freshman," Smith said. "I was so scared and nervous. But it's just, once again, a learning curve. I was playing against guys that were better than me. It was tough. It was difficult. But once I got the hang of it, it was OK. And it was what was best. Just like West Point will be."
Already being in good physical condition will help enormously. But Smith is quick to point out that other cadet candidates have advantages over him.
"It also means that most of the guys who aren't getting in there for athletics are a lot smarter than me," Smith said with a laugh.
Smith is plenty intelligent, but he doesn't have the same academic resume as some of the other cadets.
"The opportunity that athletics provide is getting a better chance at getting in," Smith said. "I had to apply like every other kid. I had to go to two doctors. I had to do essays."
He's also getting a year to adjust to the new lifestyle before going through the infamous Beast Barracks and plebe year.
West Point has a prep school, formerly housed in New Jersey and now with brand-new facilities on campus. It's a stepping stone, academically and athletically.
"I figure if they were going to pay for that and they're going to give me that option -- another year to mature, get my grades up and get used to the lifestyle -- that's what I want to do," Smith said.
Basketball may have afforded Smith a chance to attend West Point, which requires a five-year service commitment upon graduation, but his decision wasn't based on athletics.
"It actually was almost 100 percent Army," he said. "Fortunately, I was blessed enough to have basketball let me reach that point. Without it, I couldn't have.
"I see my gift of basketball as a blessing. I think that's the best way I can serve God. I think that's the path he's given me. I pray for strength to persevere and get through this. But I want to make sure I take advantage of this opportunity."