On her back is a large tattoo of two hands lifting a dove into the air.
It’s so Shalyse Smith remembers her father, James Smith Jr., whose name is etched on her arm.
He didn’t push her to play basketball. He just did dad things like take her to Disneyland when she was in kindergarten.
But to see her now and the person she has relentlessly driven herself to become?
“He would have loved it,” Shalyse said with a smile.
Smith did things on a Bellarmine Prep basketball court that few had before her, scoring 1,246 career points, taking the Lions to the Tacoma Dome in three of her four seasons and earning three consecutive league MVP honors.
She’s The News Tribune’s 2017-18 All-Area girls basketball player of the year, and she’ll head to the University of Arizona on a full scholarship.
At 6-foot-1, she’s not the tallest or the biggest post. She doesn’t have the best jump shot or the best ball-handling.
All she does is play intensely – like when she put herself on the recruiting map with 29 points and 16 rebounds in California against one of the top programs in the nation. Or when she had 16 points and 25 rebounds in a state-berth clinching win over Todd Beamer (despite it having two players just as big as her).
“She reminds me of Brittany McPhee (a Mount Rainier graduate and starter at Stanford University),” Beamer coach Corey Alexander said. “Her jump shot isn’t as good, but she makes up for that by getting after it. It’s just her motor.
“With Shalyse, you’re going to have to come with a 32-minute game plan to stop her.”
So why play that intense, that aggressively?
She said she finds her motivation in a lot of her experiences, starting with the death of her father.
Shalyse was 9 when she learned he had been shot and killed on a street outside a house party in August 2009. She said people often tell her how much she looks like James. She released doves into the air at his funeral, which is why she got that tattoo on her back.
“He motivates me a lot,” Smith said. “I know he’s looking down on me. It means a lot to me.
“A lot of people tell me that I play with a lot of heart. I might not have the talent that other players do, but I play with a lot of heart and motivation. And that just comes from my teammates and my coaches and my mom and dad. Everyone motivates me to play hard and that’s where it comes from – my heart.”
Initially she didn’t like basketball. And it was really tested when her stepbrother stepped into the picture.
Dominic Robinson is a former state-champion point guard for Curtis High School and he now plays at Montana Western, an NAIA school. He isn’t really Shalyse’s stepbrother, but she calls him that. They share a half-sister and they lived together when their parents were dating.
They would practice together outside Robinson’s house using their basketball hoop they got for Christmas. He would have her rebound for him or play him one-on-one, pushing her to her limits.
If Shalyse missed a layup, he’d tell her to run around the cul-de-sac.
“And I’d run until I started crying,” Shalyse said. “And I don’t think he knew because I would go into the house and say I had to go to the bathroom, and then I would cry in the bathroom.
“It wasn’t fun, but it paid off. He helped me out a lot and I don’t think he knows that.”
And he said he never imagined she’d be where she is now, heading to the Pac-12. Not after he remembers watching one of her post-up moves, she she turned and shot the ball over the backboard.
“Oh my God, I never imagined this,” Robinson said. “It’s crazy now. It’s crazy to see where she’s come from, her dad passing away when she was little and us out in the front yard playing and her getting bullied by me going around her, shooting over her and stealing it from her.
“I never took it easy on her, and she was kind of the younger sibling and got everything she wanted. So I had to put her in her place a little bit,” he laughed.
They’re still close today.
“I was more advanced than she was because I had played my whole life,” Robinson said. “But I would bust her (butt) all the time. She said she wanted to play basketball and it really hit me and I wanted to make her better because I was her big brother.
“Things didn’t go the way we wanted it to (with their parents) and it was tough on her and tough on us, for sure. But I’m glad she kept at it and I’m glad she kept the motor she has.”
Smith has always been pushed.
Bellarmine Prep coach Kim West continued what Robinson started when Smith got to high school. West was an assistant coach then, but the former Oregon State University basketball player and Olympian with the Great Britain national team said she spent the majority of the time working with Shalyse.
And she saw that freshman year that Shalyse was capable of big-time basketball.
“She just had this work ethic,” West said. “And this strength and athleticism to go with a will to want to work on her game. As an assistant I would be the one kind of pushing her and reminding her. We would go head-to-head. But I can keep her accountable and I think she trusts me, that I’m going to say and do things to help her get better.
West took over this season for former coach Kevin Meines, who Shalyse has been especially close to.
But this year, West and Shalyse helped lead Bellarmine back to the Tacoma Dome, except Shalyse severely sprained her ankle in the first minute of the first quarter in the district championship game against Kentridge, forcing her to miss the rest of the season.
It came a year after Shalyse led Bellarmine to one of the bigger upsets in state history, when she had the go-ahead score to beat No. 1-ranked Central Valley in the state quarterfinals (her favorite basketball memory, she said). She then opened the season with the go-ahead score to beat defending 4A-champ Kentridge.
Without Shalyse, Bellarmine lost that district title to Kentridge, 55-41, then lost to Kentridge, again, the next week, 68-34, and had a season-ending 72-48 loss to University, which should tell you just how valuable she was to their lineup.
“She’s our catalyst,” West said. “Our on-court leader. She’s our energy. She’s really kind of our heart and soul.”
“Mentally, I’ve grown a lot over the years,” Shalyse said. “Even just junior to senior season I’ve grown a lot. That’s what made me the player I am today and I want to go as far as I can. I want to be the best I can be, and you have to work for it.”
And those who know her best know she will. Something her father would have loved.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677