Centennial basketball player Tori Williams could always tell exactly where her grandpa was sitting at in the stands.
With a bag of popcorn in one hand, a handful of licorice in the other, Dave Smith was easy to pick out in a crowd.
So the reality of not having him in attendance last month for a Dec. 20 home game against Boise was a lot for the senior to bear. Smith passed away three days earlier after a nearly year-long fight with pancreatic cancer.
As a result, Williams is not just playing for her team this season, but for her grandfather’s memory as well.
“I’m dedicating the rest of my season to him because he impacted my life a lot,” Williams said. “He was my best friend, and watching me play basketball was his favorite thing to do. So that’s exactly how I’m going to honor his memory.”
Some of the first memories Williams has involve her grandfather and basketball. She remembers bouncing up and down on his lap while watching her mom, former Northwest Nazarene University star, Kari Smith, play city league basketball as a kid. She recalls her grandpa handling rebounding duty when she first started playing basketball the age of two.
“He was definitely my biggest fan,” Williams said. “When I was a freshman, he started making scrapbooks of me. He made one for me every year.
“He never missed a basketball game, ever. And that meant, literally, the whole world to me.”
With her grandpa cheering her on the entire way, Williams made the varsity starting lineup as a freshman. She’s started every game since, and hasn’t missed a single game in almost four years as a Patriot.
So it made it that much harder on her not having him in the stands in a crucial 5A Southern Idaho Conference game against the Boise Braves, the former No. 2 ranked team in the state at the 5A level.
“They had a very special connection,” mother Kari Smith said. “He knew how to talk to her, sometimes better than I did.
“She listened to him and took his advice. Not only about basketball, but about life as well,” she said.
Williams learned about her grandfather’s illness last April. Despite a grim diagnosis and continuous chemotherapy treatment, he still went to every game, including the first eight games of this season.
Dave Smith’s interest in his granddaughter’s career also enabled him to get close to all 10 members of this year’s varsity team, and first-year head coach Candace Thornton.
“Dave was an amazing man, basketball fan and grandfather,” Thornton said. “He never missed a game and was always interested in the game plan, team stats and above all, the girls’ well being.
“I know it meant the world to Tori to have him at every game, home and away. She played to make him proud. He was always encouraging to Tori, her teammates and even me as a coach. He has been a part Centennial basketball for a long time, and his presence is missed by many.”
The last time Smith got to see Williams play was on Dec. 9 in a road game against 5A SIC foe, Kuna. In that game, playing only 21 minutes, Williams logged 19 points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals in a 63-32 win. But Williams didn’t get a chance to celebrate her performance and victory with her grandfather because health complications forced him to leave at the half.
“He’d always give Tori and I hugs and talks after every game,” senior Lauren Brocke said. “He was at every game, every banquet and really any team thing we had.
“He just loved basketball and loved her, so this hasn’t been easy for Tori,” Brocke said.
Eight days later, on Dec. 17, Smith passed away at the age of 75. Three days later, Williams prepared herself as best she could against Boise High. In what was the first game without her grandfather cheering her on from the bleachers, Williams recorded a season-high 27 points with eight steals, seven rebounds and a pair of assists in a 53-44 upset victory.
“That felt amazing because that was a game my grandpa was really looking forward to seeing,” Williams said. ‘So that game was for him.”
Since the win over Boise, Williams has been on a tear. She’s averaged 23 points per game over the last four games and has the Patriots (13-1, 8-1 5A SIC) in contention for a state championship. Last season, Williams and company came so close with a runner-up finish.
For the season, she’s averaging 20 points, five rebounds and four steals per game. She’s also shooting 81 percent from the free throw line.
With those stats, Williams is ranked the No. 99 high school player in the nation by ESPNW. The site also has her rated as a four-star recruit and the 22nd ranked player at her position. She has also been nominated for the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game.
Williams committed to the University of Utah last summer, a school Dave Smith had hoped he’d be able to watch his granddaughter play for.
“I’ll always be thinking about him,” Williams said. “Even in college, he’ll still be there every game with me. I know he will be.”