Sunday, October 07, 2001

Catching up with Mark Smydra

XU basketballer plays on U.S. defense now

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark Smydra
(Xavier photo)
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        Mark Smydra spent his entire collegiate basketball career banging with Xavier's big men in practice, including such stalwarts as Brian Grant (Miami Heat), Aaron Williams (New Jersey Nets) and Larry Sykes (formerly of the Boston Celtics) from 1992-96.

        Few Xavier fans knew; fewer cared.

        Smydra was a 6-foot-7, 230-pound mountain of a young man from Detroit. He'd overcome double-knee surgeries — the same day — as a freshman to go out for the team as a sophomore. “I learned to limp on the left leg on Mondays, and the right one on Tuesdays,” he said.

        He played four years as a walk-on, including one while in graduate school. He didn't get much playing time, except for in practice. His incredible work ethic, and heart, kept XU's big men edgy and ornery. When the horn sounded for the real game to start, they were just glad they weren't having to bang up against Smydra.

        Anybody who was there at Schmidt Fieldhouse that day will never forget that scrimmage when Grant — Smydra's road roommate — went up once against Smydra for a dunk only to have him block it, then went up a second time only to have Smydra block it. Finally, on the third try on the same possession, Grant rammed the ball through the cylinder with such force, the backboard shook like there was an earthquake on Victory Parkway.

        “That was one too many jumps for me to make,” Smydra remembers.

        Then-XU assistant coach Louis Orr — seeing Smydra's frustration at being a gang-of-one on superstar Grant while the other reserves just stood and watched when they should have joined in — pulled him from the scrimmage. Smydra gave one of the blue-padded backboard supports such a forearm shiver, it almost ripped the support from its moorings. That brought a rebuke from head coach Pete Gillen, who banished him to the showers.

        After practice, when Grant entered the locker room and saw Smydra sitting at his locker and still fuming, the superstar said to the workhorse: “Give me that same thing tomorrow.”

        And, of course, Smydra did.

        It's what he always did.

        He cared.

        He still does. Only now, the backdrop is different. Anybody who read the 1995-96 XU media guide may not have thought twice about reading Smydra's senior-year bio: Is scheduled to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps Officers Candidates School in fall of 1996.

        But five years later, on Sept. 11, when four commercial jetliners were hijacked and three of them crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and war was declared on the terrorists, the contribution of Mark Smydra has far greater significance.

        Smydra, 28, is a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has served in Kosovo and recently returned home from Latvia. He leaves soon for Croatia. He can't say a lot — or with much specificity — about what he did in Bosnia. He is an intelligence officer.

        “I applied reconnaissance and surveillance training in that environment,” he said.

        He must be good. Somebody wanted him back. He was home in the States only three days from Kosovo when he returned to Bosnia, that time to be part of a multinational command task force.

        “We were assigned strategic missions sometimes that we had to get up and be ready to go within six hours, and the assets were all over Europe that we had to pull together,” he said.

        You want a guy on your side who went into the infantry officers course (similar to Army Rangers training) weighing what he thought was a fairly chiseled 255 pounds, and 10 weeks later — after many patrols with 100 pounds of gear on his back walking 15-20 miles a day on one hour of sleep and one MRE a day (3,000 calories if you ate every morsel of it) — came out weighing 235 pounds.

        Maybe no 6-7 guy ever had less fat and more muscle on him than the day Smydra graduated from infantry officers school.

        You want a guy on your side who made it through another gut-check school for snipers (a school that has a 95-percent attrition rate) when you'd have thought a 6-7 guy couldn't possibly escape detection from the mock-enemy observers ahead of him whose only job it was to detect his movement. One would think Smydra would have been as easy to detect as a buffalo, but he wasn't. He compensated by using his head, by doing the crawl exactly by the textbook. It worked.

        You want a guy on your side who laughs at the recollection of how he was always the guy who wound up carrying the biggest parts of the machine gun on his shoulders because, well, whom do you think would carry the biggest parts when the 150-pound grunt is already carrying the same 100 pounds of gear on his back as the 235-pounder?

        So how did Smydra wind up choosing the Marines, anyway?

        It may have been more that they chose him.

        “The lure of pro basketball after college wasn't an option,” he said. You could sense the straight face from 250 miles away in Detroit, where Smydra was on leave last week.

        Smydra was born June 24, 1973 — just about the time the Vietnam War was wrapping up and entering the analysis room of American history. Smydra's father was a police officer.

        “A friend of mine who graduated with me from Xavier was considering the Marine Corps, so I thought that sounded interesting and I went to see a recruiter,” Smydra said. “I talked to the guy about five minutes, and I ... was a Marine. I guess I was a recruiter's dream. He said to me, "I never had a guy as easy to recruit as you.' I don't know what happened to that friend of mine who first put the bug in my head. His father was a doctor. I lost touch with him.”

        Maybe this is what Marines talk about when they refer to the Corps as a “calling,” the way priests do. Smydra felt it. He remembered the Marine Corps commercials on TV when he was a kid. He went from the small family of Xavier basketball to the bigger family of the few and the proud.

        “I joined the Marines because I wanted something that would at first be challenging physically and would later be a challenge intellectually,” he said. “I wanted to travel and go around the world and be involved in the world. It's certainly worked out that way.”

        But there is a difference.

        “I had to mature quickly,” he said. “You have to do that because people's lives are depending on it. There are no "Whoops, I need a do-over.'”

        He leaves soon for Zagreb, Croatia.

        “The Balkans have had trouble for quite some time,” he said. “It's not going to fix itself by the time I get over there.”

        Nothing against the career accomplishments of former XU big men Grant and Williams — and before them, Tyrone Hill (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Derek Strong (Los Angeles Clippers), and since them, James Posey (Denver Nuggets) and Torraye Braggs (Sacramento Kings).

        But whom are you pulling for now?


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