Worth Smith remembers the car ride. Blinding pain, like rusty knives stabbing him through the eyes and into his sinus cavity, while police lights flashed through the windows and his mother put the pedal to the floor, pushing the speedometer north of triple-digits.
“I was really scared — I didn’t really know what was going on. I was really young, and I knew I was probably going to have a really big brain surgery,” says Smith, an 11-year old at the time and now a high-flying, hard-hustling 6-foot-6 senior forward at the United States Naval Academy.
It was an event that has stayed with him ever since. And it’s why Smith was able to keep his composure when, in the first half of the first game of his senior season earlier, a Nov. 14 matchup against 18th ranked Michigan State, he went down with a knee injury and was told that his career might be over.
“Anything can happen at any time,” he says. “You don’t really know when anything is going to happen. You just have to go with it as it comes and whatever life gives you you have to make the best out of it.”
Upon feeling his knee buckle and then pop, Smith’s thoughts immediately raced back to the ride, bombing down North Carolina’s I-77. It was the culmination of three days of sheering pain for Smith, pain so bad that he spent a day at the Bojangles’ Shootout — at the time a premier prep tournament in the Charlotte area and Smith’s favorite event to attend as a child – with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight around his head and over his eyes to block out the light that felt like fire upon his eyes.
Over the next two days, the pain only grew worse. Smith’s mother, Sonja, took him to the hospital in their hometown of Mooresville, North Carolina, twice. Each time she was told that it was a normal sinus infection, and over the counter medication would do the trick.
On the third day, with Smith in unbearable pain, Sonja called a different hospital, the Carolinas Medical Center-Main, in Charlotte, where she was told that Smith needed to get to the emergency room immediately, sparking the frantic 100-plus mile per hour car ride, which spawned a high-speed police chase.
“It was definitely the most surreal experience of my life,” says Smith. “I was just kind of taking it as it came.”
When the pursuing police found out the circumstances behind the Smiths’ mad dash along the nearly 30 mile stretch of highway between their home and the hospital, the cruisers turned into a police escort.
At the hospital, Smith and his mother were informed, after an MRI, that he did, in fact have a sinus infection, only that the infection had caused an abscess on Smith’s brain. What followed was more tests, among them a spinal tap, and grim news that Smith would need to have emergency surgery on his brain to save his life – surgery that could also claim his life in the process.
“I was young, and I had never been scared like that before, and I prayed a lot – a lot,” says Smith.
Sonja was able to convince the doctors to wait through the night to see if Smith improved from another round of antibiotics, during which time he was visited by friends and family, and prayed some more.
In the morning, Smith’s condition had miraculously improved, and the doctors were able to perform a less invasive surgery than initially planned.
“The surgery I had on my head wasn’t as big as they thought it was going to be, they ended up drilling a hole in my eye and draining out the fluid,” says Smith, matter of factly.
Such a traumatic event can have a huge effect on a young child like Smith was at the time, and according to Smith, it is an event that has been with him ever since. Except that where many people would have lived the rest of their childhood – and the rest of their lives – in fear, Smith has done exactly the opposite.
“I’ve always had a real positive outlook on life,” he says of his life post-surgery. “You can’t really worry about the future. You have to live in the present and enjoy life.”
“Worth is a remarkable young man with a remarkable attitude and mindset to be able to deal with and overcome just about every single obstacle you can imagine in life,” says Navy head coach Ed DeChellis.
It’s an outlook on life that helped Smith overcome his parents’ divorce when he was in the eighth grade, and a laundry list of injuries that repeatedly interrupted his basketball career time and time again, starting in high school and continuing through his career at Annapolis.
“I’ve been blessed, really,” he says. “I’ve faced really bad situations, but I’ve come out a lot better than doctors thought I was going to be.”
And it’s an outlook that Smith credits with his decision to enroll at the Naval Academy despite having never before considered a career in the armed forces.
“I figured I would go to a normal college and play basketball,” he says. “When I first talked to the coach, I told him that the military wasn’t for me. But I kept talking to him, and the more people I talked to at the school, I learned about the opportunities that it has. I realized basketball isn’t everything, and if basketball doesn’t work out, you still have to make things happen in life and I figured that this would be a great place.”
Through his first three years at Annapolis, Smith overcame injuries time and time again to emerge as a dominant force in the post, joining NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and former Navy star Sitapha Savane as just the third Midshipman to surpass at least 850 points, 400 rebounds, 80 blocks and 80 steals in their careers. Heading into his senior year, Smith seemed primed for a huge campaign to close out his career.
“He was playing the best ball of his career over the summer and into the preseason,” says DeChellis.
“I felt great and I had a mindset that I was going to end my career playing my best,” echoes Smith.
And when Navy opened its season hosting nationally ranked Michigan State, and Smith found himself staring up into the armpits of the Spartans towering front court, he did just that – through 14 minutes. Worth opened the game with seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, to go with two rebounds, two steals and an assist. Then disaster struck, and Smith crumpled to the floor in pain with a dislocated knee cap.
Smith felt a lot of emotions build up as he writhed in pain.
“Everything really,” he says. “Worry – worried that I wouldn’t be able to play my senior year, that I was going to have to watch the whole year. I kind of figured my basketball career was over as a college basketball player. It’s a feeling of unknowingness. I love basketball, I want to keep playing, so when I realized my season and my career might be over, that really hurt. I just kept praying that I would hear good news from the doctor.”
And although the initial prognosis was not good, for yet another time in his young life, Smith was able to beat the odds and the diagnosis, returning to the floor two days before Christmas Eve.
“It feels great to be back on the court, especially when I thought that opportunity was taken away from me,” he says.
As has been his MO for his entire life, Smith came back hungrier and more dedicated than ever before, and has been a one-man energizer battery for Navy and a wrecking crew for opponents, averaging 15.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 55.4 percent from the floor and 45 percent from behind the arc.
“Sitting out all these games and watching, it really hammers home that your time in college basketball is limited,” Smith says. “That’s why I came back so aggressive; knowing that I don’t have all the time in the world like I had as a freshman.”
“He’s been outstanding,” says DeChellis. “Having him back on the floor has made us a completely different team.”
But according to DeChellis, as big as Smith’s impact has been on the court, he’s made a bigger impact in the locker room and in practice.
“He’s extremely calm, and very collected, and has an attitude that, no matter what, no matter how bad the situation, that we can overcome it and everything is going to be OK and it really rubs off on his teammates,” says DeChellis.
As seems to be par for the course, just when things were looking up, Smith suffered yet another setback, slightly fracturing a finger on his right hand against Colgate, and will now likely miss the next 7-10 days. But, as with every road block and bump in the road along the way, his outlook remains bright and Smith remains driven.
“[I just want] to just make sure that I make the most out of every single second I’m on the court,” he says, excitement in his voice. “Nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed, and I want to make sure that I never take a play off or a second for granted.”