Down two points. One possession left. This was the situation in which the Chicago men’s
basketball team found itself in St. Louis after being up by as many as 18 points in the second half against conference rival Wash U. Presumably, No. 16 Chicago would win an overtime contest, so tying up the game seemed to be the goal. It also seemed obvious that the visitors would go for an easier last possession shot—something closer to the basket. But with a player like fourth-year Jordan Smith on his team, coach Mike McGrath knew that he could go for the win.
Before even arriving at Hyde Park, Smith was used to being the big man on campus. As a senior at Whitney Young High School, he was ranked No. 11 in Illinois, a state filled with talented players. Any young athlete dreams of playing at the collegiate level, and Smith certainly had the opportunity.
However, there were other factors at play for the then 17-year-old basketball star. “Once I did my research on the school it was pretty much a no-brainer: a place where I could continue to play ball at a high level and at the same time get a phenomenal education,” Smith said of UChicago.
In a time in which college athletes are celebrated nearly as much as professionals, it’s not often that one hears of a promising high school player making the decision to turn down a potential athletic scholarship.
Having the foresight to choose a stellar education has made a difference for Smith. “I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who are not only willing to help, but are invested in my journey,” he said.
Chicago prides itself on developing a student’s “life of the mind,” and the University has found a convert in this fourth-year. “I always tell people that regardless of what technical skills I gain from my experience here, they are all trumped by the ability of Chicago to teach you how to learn,” Smith said.
Once arriving at Chicago, Smith made himself known almost immediately on the basketball court. As a first-year, he started five contests and achieved recognition as the UAA Rookie of the Year. Most first-years don’t even get the opportunity to play, let alone be recognized as a player to watch on scouting reports. Smith’s trajectory only pointed upward. As a second-year he led the team in scoring and was Honorable Mention All-UAA, and as a third-year he made the All-UAA First Team, was a UAA Athlete of the Week, and was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ Honors Court.
While such accolades certainly display Smith’s skill as a player, there is one statistic that says more about his leadership abilities. The talented player was coming to a Maroon program that was down on its luck: the squad hadn’t sniffed the post-season since 2008. Even though Smith’s first-year team record, 11–14, was underwhelming, the guard never gave up on the squad. They have since gone 15–10, 16–9, and now stand at 10–2 and are ranked 16th in the nation.
“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve always had the talent to be one of the best teams in the country. It’s just been a matter of us coming out every game and playing to our ability. We just have to stay consistent and play together,” Smith said. “Being my last season and probably the last time I ever play organized basketball again, the other fourth-years and I are looking to go out with a bang. We just hope to keep playing ball the way we know we can and ultimately win the UAA and make a tournament run.”
His comment about this year being the last chance he has to play basketball hits hard for every athlete facing his or her fourth year. Luckily, Smith is already set for his near future and doesn’t have to face the additional stress of trying to find a job on top of working to finish the season as strong as he started. The economics major will be working at J.P. Morgan in New York as a Credit Research Analyst.
Chicago is world-renowned for its economics program, and Smith knew he would take advantage of it from an early age. “I was lucky enough to secure an internship with one of my high school teammates’ father’s investment firm after my senior year of high school,” Smith said.
The fourth-year was also lucky enough to take a trip to Australia and New Zealand this past summer with the basketball program. “There were so many memories that were created over there that I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life,” Smith said.
As far as basketball, Smith’s favorite memory so far was defeating Emory his second year. “My freshman year, Emory beat us pretty bad on both occasions, and to say the least, I wasn’t a big fan of the players on their team,” he said.
While the takedown of the Eagles certainly felt sweet, this weekend at Wash U had to feel equally satisfying. Chicago had a 19–48 record against the Bears before Saturday. Before Smith hit a game-winning three-pointer, the team only needed two points to send it to overtime. If nothing else, the fact that the team trusted the fourth-year to lead them to victory showed the impact and legacy that Smith will leave behind.