Tennis’s Smrek got competitive side from NBA father


Photo by Maggie Bean and Wiki Commons

Luke Smrek (left) competes in a tennis match against Wisconsin in 2016. Mike Smrek (right) stands on the court during an international in Italy.

Freshman tennis stud Luke Smrek’s father is a two-time NBA champion, the first Canadian to ever win a ring and played with some of the greatest the sport has ever seen (he refuses to choose a favorite former teammate between Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan).

But if you followed Luke around, you would never know it.

In the fall, when men’s tennis is mostly just cruising through occasional pre-season weekend tournaments, head coach Steve Rodecap subjected his team to conditioning boot camp twice a week. As the fall season wrapped up, so did the conditioning sessions. On their last day of basic training, Rodecap injected light-hearted basketball drills to reward his players.

If his teammates and coaches didn’t know about Luke’s lineage already, they definitely wouldn’t have realized then.

“The guy took his first shot, and it looked like a shot-put,” Rodecap said. “It didn’t even come close to the backboard. He had no touch. It was like that was the first time he ever shot a basketball. To me, I just found it unbelievably remarkable that he could be that un-athletic at another sport, especially one that his dad excelled in.”

But to Luke, his father and his coach, the lack of specific expectations tied to living up to any kind of legacy is what helped define him as both a burgeoning tennis star and successful young adult, and it’s also what makes the father-son relationship so special.

“He didn’t want to push me into anything. He wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do. I think that was really important for him,” L. Smrek said.

Mike Smrek, a seven-foot giant whose nearly ten-year journeyman career spanned from sharing a rookie season with Michael Jordan to earning two rings with the much heralded late ’80s Lakers, didn’t know much about tennis. When Luke first picked up a racket at a young age, the most tangible advice he could give his son was to mimic the players on TV and not fan at the ball with a two-handed between-the-legs swing. Luke, a noted independent, shrugged this off and eventually figured out standard tennis strokes by himself.

But Mike knew how to be a competitor, and though basketball couldn’t be any more different than tennis, he knew that this is the one area his athletic expertise would come in handy.

“A lot of it has to do with focusing your mind,” M. Smrek said. “A lot of times before games or matches, your mind will start running wild with all these thoughts. ‘How am I going to play? How are my legs going to feel? Will my forehand or serve be ok?’ Your mind can really start going wild. You need to draw it back in to one point. Even if you have it in your imagination, like if there’s a spot when you step on the court and your toe hits that one line, it sort of snaps your mind back into the moment. You have to be calm and focus.”

Watch Luke play one match of tennis and his competitive intensity immediately becomes clear. He has found sure-footing in the elite second singles spot in this spring’s dual action, going 4-2 so far. It’s an impressive feat for a freshman facing off against seriously experienced and skilled opponents.

Off the court, Luke is low-key and soft-spoken. He rarely flaunts his hoops heritage. He’s the type who profusely thanks a group of dorm room buddies for showing up to enthusiastically bellow ‘Luuuuuuuuuuke’ after every nice shot. On the court, he’ll grit his teeth, focus his mind and use his powerful 6-foot-4 frame to strong-arm his opponent into fast-paced baseline battles.

You would never know that the freshman stud with a killer backhand had a dad with two NBA rings. But climb inside his mind on match days, and it’d become apparent that the tips, tricks and advice, not overbearing pressure or expectations, are just what make him so great.