Finding stability on the court

Henry Palattella

It was a hazy afternoon in June 2007 when Merissa Barber-Smith’s mother sat her four children down in the living room of their house on the South Side of Chicago.

“Kids,” she told them, “we’re going to be moving to Madison.”

“What?” Merissa asked, stunned. While Chicago had its rough parts, Merissa hadn’t known anywhere else in her 11 years.

“What about my friends? What about my school?” she asked.

But, Anita Barber didn’t budge.

She told them they would begin their life there without her.

They’d stay with their grandmother for a few months while Anita stayed in Chicago to tie up the loose ends of their life.

“I don’t want to move,” Merissa said one last time.

But three weeks later, the family sat in their car on the three-hour ride to Madison, Wisconsin. Merissa thought about her friends at school, the basketball team they had tried to start and the hours she spent with her sister, Macrista, in the room they shared.

But she also remembered the night police officers showed up, shouting at her mom, demanding to know where her dad was.

On the afternoon they drove to Madison, he was sitting a jail cell.

Their grandmother’s place was a one-bedroom apartment in a senior citizens’ building.

Merissa slept on the couch while everyone else slept on the floor in blankets and pillows. They ate what their grandmother cooked. They watched the soap operas their grandmother watched. They rarely saw a person younger than 50.

During the day, their grandmother sent them to a park half a mile away, and for most of the day, the park was their babysitter.

Her brothers and sister played on the slides and jungle gym. But Merissa — already 5-foot-9 at 11 years old — was too tall for most parts of the playground. She often sat on the swings, rocking back and forth, somehow at ease. But then she’d jump off and head back to a place she didn’t want to be and a life she didn’t understand.

In August, Anita joined them. There was no way she’d fit in the apartment too.

So, the family packed up their things and moved to a homeless shelter in Madison. For three weeks, all five lived in a dorm-style room, jammed with beds and their possessions.

On school mornings, they bumped each other as they rushed to join the rest of the “shelter kids” on the bus headed to Akira Toki Middle School.

But for Merissa, school was anything but fun. Her height meant that wherever she went, eyes followed. Talk followed, too. “You look like a man,” kids would say, sometimes behind her back, sometimes to her face. It was worse at lunch, where she could never find a place to sit.

Most days she ate in the bathroom. Sometimes she ate in the office of Stephen Harrison, the school psychiatrist. “How’s your day going, Merissa?” he’d ask. Often, it was bad. One day, Harrison handed her a card with a phone number scribbled on it.

“I want you to have this,” he said.

It was the number for Roger Blue, who coached a local AAU basketball team, the Spartans.

Not really thinking about it, Merissa told him, “I’ll give it to my mom.”

That night Anita called coach Blue from the three-room trailer where the family now lived.

A few days later, Merissa climbed into the car of one of her teammate’s parents. They were halfway to practice when she realized she forgot her green and black Nike high-tops. “It’s OK,” she told the driver. “I’ll just wear my boots.”

The driver turned around, and they went back for the shoes.

Coach Blue figured, incorrectly, Merissa had played basketball before because of her height.

Her shots clanked off the rim, and she knew more about the X’s and O’s of math than of a playbook.

But she did hustle. And she did have her height. Merissa had earned a spot on the Spartans’ “B” team.

She began to learn the nuances of basketball. Her layups began to find the hoop more often than the rim. The ball stayed in her hand on the dribble more than on the floor. Merissa’s play now left her opponent more disoriented than herself.

But she never felt quite like she belonged. When her teammates hung out after games, Merissa wasn’t invited. Some days, she didn’t even want to go to practice.

One weekend, Merissa told her mom she wanted to skip a tournament to work her job selling newspaper subscriptions.

“No,” Anita said. “You need to go. God is telling me you need to go.”

This time things were different. When Merissa got in the game, no one could contend with her height. She grabbed nearly every rebound and passed it to a point guard, Ebony, who couldn’t miss.

“Awesome, Merissa!” her teammates shouted from the bench.

By the end of the game, Merissa had more than 20 rebounds. Her teammates swarmed her, offering hugs and high-fives.

Merissa’s basketball skills became more refined through her time with the Spartans, and she was playing on the varsity team halfway through freshman year.

It was about that time her dad, Fredrick Smith, came back into her life after five years in jail. It was for the better.

The 6-foot-2-inch Smith helped Merissa with her post game, and soon, she was beating him one on one. He also helped Anita and the family around the house.

But Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, Merissa woke in the middle of the night to screaming. She stumbled into the living room just as her brother punched a wall.

“He’s gone,” Macrista said between sobs. “He’s gone.” 

Her father was dead, killed in a drunk-driving accident.

At the funeral a few days later, she sat in the front, surrounded by her team and family. Macrista gave a moving speech, but Merissa just stared straight ahead, waiting for tears that couldn’t come.

Her mom kept her home from school and practice for two weeks. Merissa chafed, but her mom wouldn’t relent.

But once she got came back to basketball, life was better.

When the first letter came from a college coach, she put it on the refrigerator. Soon, there had been an influx of those letters.

Merissa’s list narrowed. Then one day. the phone rang.

“Hi, Merissa,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I’m Danielle O’Banion, the women’s basketball coach at Kent State. I think that you’d be a great fit here.”

At this point, Kent State wasn’t a top choice; Merissa wanted to stay closer to home, perhaps at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I think you’d be perfect here,” O’Banion reiterated.

That summer, two of her AAU coaches drove her to Kent.

“Wow,” Merissa said as she first stepped out of the car. The visit was her first college experience. O’Banion took her to the M.A.C. Center, the Student Center and other facilities for student athletes.

Merissa knew she was hooked when she walked through the M.A.C Center halls, adorned with pictures of famous Kent State alumni. She committed to Kent State that day, hoping to one day see herself among those pictures.

In the team’s first practice, O’Banion called out, “Hey Riss, come over here.”

Merissa, whose nickname has been Riss throughout high school, ran to the coach. But she instead found herself looking at junior guard Larissa Lurken, whose nickname was also Riss.

So Merissa became “Mer.” She didn’t like the nickname at first, but that soon became the least of her problems.

Almost every day, O’Banion’s whistle stopped practice. That meant someone had done something wrong, and the team was going to run. Often the whistle blew because of Merissa, who was struggling to figure out the college game.

Merissa grew to hate that whistle. She played only 69 minutes that season, and the team went 6-23.

The mood in the locker room was dismal.

“Coach has been here four years and hasn’t won anything,” she would hear her teammates say. “She’ll be gone by the end of the year.”

O’Banion was. Shortly after the season, she called the team into a meeting and told them her contract hadn’t been renewed.

For more than one month, coaching candidates paraded before the team. Finally, Athletic Director Joel Nielsen told them the new coach was an assistant from Indiana University named Todd Starkey.

When he first met the team after being named coach, he told them, “We’re doing tryouts again.” He told them about how the culture would change, and how things would be different. And they were.

When Merissa messed up in a drill and the whistle blew, she expected to take her place on the baseline with the rest of her team for sprints. Instead, Starkey walked onto the court and showed her what she had done wrong and what she could do to correct it.

Starkey and the team won six games in their non-conference schedule — as many as they had won the entire previous season. But Merissa still wasn’t playing much. She wanted to make an impact.

Finally, at Western Michigan in January 2017, she got her chance.

The Flashes were down 43-29 with 6:35 left in the third quarter when Merissa checked in. On her first play, she scored and was fouled. Six possessions later, she had pulled down two offensive rebounds.

In the fourth quarter, she grabbed an offensive rebound and made a foul shot to tie the game at 55. Two minutes later, she grabbed an offensive rebound and got the ball to Lurken, who knocked down two free throws to give the Flashes a five-point lead.

Merissa had 10 rebounds in the second half of the 71-67 victory.

“We couldn’t have done this without you,” her teammates told her as they hugged her after the game. “Where’d this come from?”

Starkey would say the team wouldn’t have won at least four games without Merissa’s play off the bench. The team’s last game was a 67-60 loss to Michigan in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, but Merissa had 13 rebounds and eight points against a team with an all-Big Ten center.

After the season, Merissa shared the team’s “most improved” award.

This fall, Merissa has worked to become a leader. At practice, she’s quick to call out defensive assignments to her teammates as well as offer words of praise to teammates after a good drill. Her time running with O’Banion has helped too. She can let her teammates know what they did wrong in a way she wishes had been used with her.

Off the court, life has come together. She’s found a major that she loves in social work. She lives with teammate Naddiyah Cross, whose outgoing yin complements Merissa’s quieter yang.

And most importantly, she’s found her place. She’s there for the freshmen when they need it, even if she’s sometimes a little jealous of their joining a winning team compared to her awful first season.

And for the first time in a season, Merissa has what she’s always wanted: stability.

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].