Her records will probably be broken some day, and someone else will wear the No. 21 jersey in coming seasons, but Dione Smith will not be forgotten so easily.
Smith ended her career as the all-time leader in steals for USF and Conference USA, and her off-court legacy is just as memorable. In August 2000, Smith filed suit against her former coach, Jerry Ann Winters, alleging wrongful dismissal from the team and racial discrimination in a suit that, along with 12 others, is still pending.
Smith would rather be remembered for what she did on the court, not in the court.
“For those that knew me when I first came in my freshman year, and that have stayed with the women’s program and that stayed with me, they’ll probably remember me for what I’ve done on the court,” she said.
Smith’s court resume includes 100 starts and a school-record 110 games played, which she accomplished in the Bulls’ 2002 finale Feb. 24 at the Sun Dome. But if Winters had had her way, Smith would have been finished long before that. The former coach dismissed Smith from the team after the 1999-2000 season for allegedly singing a disrespectful song on a team bus. Smith insisted Winters dismissed her in retaliation for her complaining about the racial atmosphere within the program. In her time away from the team, Smith stayed close to the game. She was basketball director for a National Youth Sports Program camp in the summer, instructing 500 kids, and played pickup games when she could.
“Anywhere in Tampa where there was a pickup game, I was (there),” Smith said.
That fall, Smith was forced to watch from the stands as the Bulls started the season. More ex-players had begun to join in the lawsuits, and the case garnered attention locally and nationally through a segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
“Probably (it was hardest to deal with) when it first hit the papers, especially in The Oracle,” Smith said. “Your face is just plastered all over The Oracle, so every bin that you see, you see your face with these big, bold, black letters across it. So you’re in class, and everybody’s getting this paper, and you get all these eyeballs on your face … I wished I could take every paper and flip it down.”
With plenty of spare time on her hands, Smith won the “Strongest Bull” weightlifting competition in the Rec Center that fall, and she won back her place on the team in December when former Athletic Director Paul Griffin reinstated her and fired Winters.
Smith said she was on her way to church in her hometown, Tallahassee, when she got the news. She ended up redshirting the 2000-01 year after undergoing knee surgery, but her biggest problem was reacquainting herself with her teammates, some of whom had supported Winters.
“It became difficult because rumors were going around saying that I hated them for some of the things that they had said in the paper, which was totally untrue,” Smith said. “But I just let them know that I don’t hate. If you hate, you can’t go to heaven, so I don’t hate anybody. I may be disappointed in some of the things that were said, but I never hated anybody.
“It was difficult because I had to see the faces of those people. But as a child of God, you just have to look over that and just keep on going, and that’s what I eventually did.”
Sophomore point guard Melissa Tape said it was a sticky situation, but Smith’s work ethic and leadership ability soon won her and her teammates over.
“For some of the players it was (an awkward situation), even for me,” said Tape. “It was a weird situation to be in, but once you get to know her I wouldn’t have any other person on the team except her. I think a lot of the other teammates feel the same way, too.”
Smith inherited Tape’s starting point guard role in the 2001-02 season and started every game. And her contributions didn’t end on the court.
“Everyone considers her as our mom on the team,” Tape said. “She’s got so much leadership. I don’t know what we’re going to do without her, on and off the court.”
Though she still lists soccer as her first love, Smith carved out a reputation as an intense competitor and unrelenting defender on the hardwood, in practice and in games.
“I can’t go back and really think about one time that I’ve yelled at Dione Smith for not working hard, or not diving on the floor, not taking a charge,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez.
Although she graduates later this semester with a degree in sociology and communication, Dione Smith’s impact will continue to be felt.
“It’s not a secret – she’s been through a tough two years here at the university with off-the-court issues,” Fernandez said. “She’s had some adversity to deal with, but I think Dione has done everything I’ve asked her to do for this ballclub and for this program, for the university, this season.”
- Contact Khari Williams at email@example.com