Photo courtesy of Hostos Community College Athletics.
By David Cordova
In this day and age, a lot of players go unnoticed. Especially if they go the Division II or III route. In those levels, there are players that could play for low-level Division I programs and give it everything they have.
One kid that did just that is Jemal Smith. The 5-foot-9 point guard from the Bronx wasn’t always the one to gain recognition, but he was always one of the hardest-working players. That drive to work hard earned him NJCAA Division III All-American honors at Hostos Community College this past season.
“Just being an underdog and being underrated it gives me the motivation to do better and succeed in life,” says Smith.
That mentality comes from his upbringing in the Soundview section of the Bronx, in where being tough, mentally and physically is key. “It’s rough, you actually just wake up and want to get out,” says Smith of his area, “It’s just a rough neighborhood to grow up in and there’s a lot of violence and a lot of drug use and it’s hard to get accustomed to.
Due to his family keeping him grounded and on the right path, Smith managed to elude all the pitfalls that plague many young men from his area. Sports was the thing that kept him on the right path, as he played football and basketball in his younger years, but ended sticking with hoops.
As a freshman, he played at the now-defunct Rice High School in Harlem, which was a haven for powerhouse basketball talent until its closing in the spring of 2011. After that, he transitioned to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, where he spent his final three years of high school.
As a senior, Smith helped lead a Cardinals team with five future Division I players to a 23-1 record and a No. 5 ranking in New York State in the 2013-14 season. On his time as a Hayesman, Smith replied, “Those was the glory days. Those was the best days, the best playing days of my life. It was very good, learning from a good coach like Coach [Joe] Lods & playing with good D-1 players such as Shavar Newkirk, Mustafa Jones, Chris Robinson and Nathan Ekwu.”
From there, Smith went on to Hostos, which is a Division III NJCAA school in the Bronx that plays in the CUNYAC (City University of New York Athletic Conference). When asked about his decision to go there, Smith replied, “The coaching, Marquee Poole, he’s been my friend forever, and when I heard he was at Hostos, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go, coming out of Cardinal Hayes, it was just an opportunity to just play my game.”
“When I saw Jemal, I knew I had a point guard, I knew that I had a person that was gonna be our floor general, I knew that was going to be one position that I was not going to have to worry about for as long as he was here and a part of the team,” says Marquee Poole, head coach at Hostos. “When you find a point guard who can score, who can pass, who can defend, they don’t come along very often, so I knew I had something that was special, I’m very appreciative that he decided to come here.”
And things worked out for both parties. In his freshman year, Smith scored 17.8 points and added 8.5 assists per game for the Caimans as he led them to a 15-16 record, in which they finished with an early exit in the playoffs to LaGuardia Community College. For his performance, he earned CUNY All-Star honors.
However, the next year was one for the ages, as Smith doled out a great performance in his sophomore campaign at Hostos with 19.1 points, 11 assists and 4.3 steals per game. The Caimans had a 15-12 season, which led to them advancing to the NJCAA Region 15 semifinals, in which they lost to Nassau Community College. His outstanding performance led him to being named a Division III NJCAA All-American.
“Hostos, it was amazing, because it got me to learn how to balance out my game in scoring and passing. It brought a lot out of me, character-wise, it actually humbled me down. It made me look at the bigger picture.” says Smith of his time at Hostos overall.
On his final campaign with the Caimans, “It was just good to get the recognition that I deserved, being underrated, as I said, my whole life, it was just good to be named an All-American, and to be named Player of the Year, and to be named Region Player of the Year, it was just a good feeling.”
When asked about having an All-American at Hostos, Poole replied, “Fortunately for me, he’s my first All-American that I’ve had for two years. Hostos as been a location for players to come out and receive Player of the Year honors and All-American honors. But I think it’s safe to say that he’s our first-ever first-team All-American, and to be a 5-foot-9 point guard, and most of the guys that have made it from here have been athletic wings, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-4, those are the type of players that are able to dominate in this league and for him to able to be a 5-9 point guard that can go out and battle & compete against those giants and come away with being the top vote-getter in our conference, just tells you the type of player he is. I’m just ecstatic with the fact that he was able to do it with me.”
In two years at Hostos, he scored 1,103 points and added 196 steals, which are deemed to be spectacular numbers for a point guard. But now Smith will be taking his show south of New York, as he has committed to play for Division II Virginia Union University which is located in Richmond, Virginia.
Virginia Union is a perennial powerhouse in the CIAA and has won three national championships from 1980 to 2005 under legendary coach Dave Robbins. Eight NBA players have come through the program, amongst them is former New York Knicks center Charles Oakley and Detroit Pistons forward Ben Wallace.
In the present day, Virginia Union is coached by Jay Butler, who will be in his third season at the helm. When asked why he chose to go the well-known HBCU to finish out his last two years of collegiate eligibility, Smith replied, “The coaching staff treated me like family, they were comfortable speaking to me, they kept checking up on me and everything, so they just made me feel comfortable.”
What will Smith bring to the table at Union? “Just the fact that he’s going to be playing for Coach Butler at Virginia Union, which is a stellar and ideal program, you know, the top of their conference, CIAA, the competition is going to be really intense night in and night out, I know he’s going in there with the wealth of knowledge from playing in the CHSAA. He’s played with the Gauchos on the AAU circuit for a long time, so I know he’s prepared to compete against that top talent because he’s been competing against it his whole life.” said Poole.
His performance at Hostos also shows that any diminutive player can make an impact on the court, given the right opportunity. “The things that he was able to do at Hostos just shows that he’s a better athlete and can compete at an extremely high-level, that’s why he’s able to stand out at a lower level program. Now that he’s going to a top-tier program and higher level of competition, he’s going to fit right in, I’m 100% positive that he’s going to take that conference by storm and be one of the most prolific incoming players to go to that school,” says Poole.
Many times, All-Americans are revered in high school. But even though he didn’t make it to a Division I school, Smith still managed to earn himself a free education, and also a chance to play collegiate basketball at a four-year school through hard work and dedication. His advice for the youth out there, “It doesn’t matter which college you go to, because any college you go to, you’re going to get the opportunity to play. It doesn’t matter which level it is or what division it is, you just have to go out there and play your game.”