‘Do what makes them happy’: Growing up in an undercover NBA household

Graphic+by+Chelsea+Johanning

Graphic by Chelsea Johanning

When Marquette tennis player Luke Smrek was about 11 years old, he learned something about his father that not too many people can say about their own parents: His dad was previously a professional basketball player.

Mike Smrek played alongside Hall of Famers such as Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Michael Jordan. He was also part of the 1987 and ’88 Los Angeles Lakers Championship teams that featured Hall of Fame athletes Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

Overall, in his eight-year NBA career, he played for five teams: The Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers. He would then play overseas ball up until his last season in 1997.

Even with his father’s experience in the NBA and overseas, Luke said he never really saw his dad as a pro athlete.

“I have always just seen him as my father,” Luke said. “I did not see him on TV growing up, and he never really pushed me to play basketball or anything like that. He always wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do to make myself happy.”

Mike said his intentions never were to have his children follow in his footsteps.

“It was totally up to him as to what he wanted to do,” Mike said. “In my house, you will not see any pictures, posters, basketballs or anything. I had no thoughts of trying to steer them into (playing basketball).”

Prior to starting tennis, Luke said he was involved in other sports such as swimming and soccer. His mother eventually helped him become familiar with tennis.

“My mother, being from Europe where tennis is big there, thought that an individual sport might be better for me, so I started playing tennis in the summers and I liked it right away,” Luke said. “I started playing tennis in the garage and on the driveway. Once I started, I did not really play many other sports after that.”

Mike said he was impressed to witness Luke’s growth in tennis. Luke, a senior in the College of Business Administration, is now a two-time First Team All-BIG EAST honoree.

“It’s awesome to see from the time he first picked up a racket to his time now,” Mike said. “When he first started, he used to hold the racket with two hands and hit upwards, and you wouldn’t believe that is how he used to hit it. He would put his coat on, go shovel the driveway and hit the ball off the garage door for hours.”

At the start of his senior year of high school, Luke moved in with his teammate and coach, since the school he went to was far from where his family lived. At that time, Luke said he practiced every day before school at 6 a.m. and again after school.

Once recruiting started, Marquette was a school with which the Wellend, Ontario, native was not familiar.

“At the summer outdoor nationals, a lot of U.S. coaches come to Toronto to recruit there, and I actually have never heard of Marquette before then,” Luke said. “I was there with my dad, and Coach (Steve) Rodecap was there. I remember hearing something about the Marquette coach watching, but nothing much happened from that.”

After various email exchanges with Rodecap, Luke finally visited campus and said he “loved it right away.”

“The people and the coaching was the biggest reason why I chose here,” Luke said. “It’s a great school with great people.”

Luke saw immediate success in his first year, as he was named BIG EAST Freshman of the Year and was an All-BIG EAST honoree. In his second and third years, he was selected to the All-BIG EAST First Team.

Since his senior season was cut short due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Luke now looks forward to being a graduate assistant coach at Ball State University, which is something that Rodecap did when he was going into graduate school.

Seeing Luke’s success at MU and his daughter Anna’s abilities, who will play volleyball at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 2021, Mike said supporting youth in what they want to do will lead to a future with less regret.

“Let them choose and try to support them the best you can by using the things you have learned in your life,” Mike said. “That way they do not look back with any regrets or wish they have done something differently.”

Luke said his father not pushing him to follow in his footsteps is something that is common among professional athletes.

“They have been through the hardships of their game,” Luke said. “Letting (your kids) do what makes them happy is something, I think, they believe is important.”

This article was written by Andrew Amouzou. He can be reached at andrew.amouzou@marquette.edu or on Twitter @AndrewAmouzou.