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Friendship with Jimmy Butler helps push Fenwick grad Mike Smith to Michigan

The former Friars star, who has developed a close friendship with the Miami Heat star, will play his final college season in Ann Arbor.

Mike Smith playing for Columbia.
Mike Smith playing for Columbia.

On the to-do list of a teenage Mike Smith were many things you would expect as he entered Fenwick as a freshman in 2012.

The 5-10 point guard led Fenwick to heights not seen since the Corey Maggette days nearly two decades earlier.

He fueled the Friars to the tune of 28 wins and a Chicago Catholic League championship as a senior. The compact lead guard became a mighty force as a senior, including a signature moment that season when he was unstoppable, scoring 38 points in beating Simeon.

The individual honors and accomplishments came right along with the team success.

Four-year varsity player at Fenwick? Check.

Chicago Catholic League Player of the Year? Check.

All-stater? Check.

Emerging as top a candidate for state and Chicago area Player of the Year awards? Check.

Division I player? Check.

Become one of college basketball’s leading scorers in the nation and earn an Ivy League education while he’s at it? Check, check.

Play in the Big Ten? Check. (Well, it’s coming).

Befriended by a NBA superstar that has helped ignite his career? Ummm, hold on …

Let’s explain.

Fenwick was one of a handful of schools in the Chicago area that wore Jordan Brand during Smith’s senior year in 2015-16. At a Jordan Brand event, a flashy presentation where the teams’ uniforms and gear were unveiled, Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler played host and handled the introductions.

It was there where Smith struck up a conversation that has led to a very close friendship with the NBA all-star.

Smith asked his coach at Fenwick, Rick Malnati, if he should go and ask Butler if he would work out with him.

“I told him, sure, why not?” said Malnati, who was hired at Fenwick prior to Smith’s sophomore year. “All he can say is no.”

Smith said it was out of character for him to walk up to a celebrity or superstar sports figure. But he was quite aware of Butler’s maniacal work ethic, and that’s what led him to ask a huge figure such a simple question.

“I went right up to him and asked, ‘Hello, Mr. Butler, would you ever want to work out with me?’” Smith says of that life-changing day.

The two exchanged phone numbers. Butler’s trainer called Smith the next day and said to meet the NBA all-star at the Bulls practice facility.

“He didn’t have to tell me twice,” says Smith with a laugh. “I was ready to go sit in the parking lot for four hours and wait for him. There was no way I was going to pass up that opportunity.”

As Smith played out his senior year at Fenwick, Butler became a fan — a fan of Smith and the Friars. He attended a few games and kept in contact with Smith, who had a dynamic season carrying his team with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds a game. Butler even came to the Oak Park school and spoke to both the Fenwick boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.

“It was like Mike was Jimmy’s little brother, keeping tabs on him,” said Malnati of the budding relationship.

The courage to strike up that conversation with Butler at that Jordan Brand event aided in Smith’s development and rise as a player.

Mike Smith (21) of Fenwick runs his offense verse Hillcrest.
Mike Smith (21) of Fenwick runs his offense verse Hillcrest.
Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

Smith has spent the past four years working out and training with Butler, who Smith calls a “mentor” and “great friend.” Prior to his sophomore season at Columbia, Smith moved out to California and lived with Butler for some time in the summer. He’s continued that in the off season and gained an invaluable experience of training with Butler and other NBA players.

And anyone who knows anything about the NBA is aware that Butler’s off-season training regimen and overall work ethic has become stuff of legend.

Smith stays in Butler’s home in Southern California in the summer, often chauffeuring the Miami Heat guard around in Butler’s minivan. The big brother/little brother relationship grew. The perks of hanging with a star in Hollywood were obvious, including meeting other NBA players and A-list actors like Butler’s good friend, Mark Wahlberg.

But the high-intensity workouts and training, getting better as basketball players, is always the focal point when the two are together in California. Smith has had the fortunate opportunity to gain an up-close look at one of the most well-trained professional basketball players in the world, which includes double training sessions at places like Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.

“It certainly can’t hurt you or your confidence when you have the opportunity to work out with one of the best players in the world,” says Malnati of Smith’s time training with Butler.

Smith doesn’t take it for granted. He knows he’s in a unique situation that most aspiring high school and college players could only dream of when figuring out who to train with.

“Being around Jimmy has showed me so much in terms of what it takes to be great,” Smith said. “Seeing how he works, you realize how much work you have to put in. He’s always working out. You see how to take care of your body. You see how to eat right, sleep right and work out the right way.

“To me, he’s like a big brother, a best friend. In my position as a player, there’s nothing like an NBA player as your best friend, someone you can reach out to and to see how he does it.”

Smith’s friendship with Butler also played a big part in why he committed Friday to Michigan and coach Juwan Howard.

Smith has been one of the hottest names in the NCAA transfer portal since he went the unorthodox route of announcing his intention to transfer before the start of this past season. Let’s repeat that: Smith announced he was transferring before the season began.

By missing most of what would have been his junior season with a torn meniscus in 2018-2019, it allowed Smith to graduate with one year of athletic eligibility remaining. Plus, the Ivy League’s archaic rules virtually forced his hand.

Unlike other Division I conferences, the Ivy League doesn’t grant medical redshirts, nor does it permit graduate students to play athletics. So with an Ivy League degree in tow following the 2019-2020 season — and immediate eligibility the following season — Smith knew he was going to leave as a graduate transfer. Thus, Smith felt no need to wait.

“I was criticized and a lot of people didn’t think I should do it,” says Smith of his decision. “People thought I would be less focused and looking ahead to what was in front of me rather than my team. But I was never going to give up on a season. I put the team first, and I hoped and thought the character I had in doing that would show and coaches would see that.”

Mike Smith playing for Columbia.
Mike Smith playing for Columbia.

He also believed it was a way for coaches to evaluate and see him play. Columbia coach Jim Engles had to take calls during the season from other coaches who were already in recruiting mode when it came to Smith.

“You never know who might be watching,” says Smith of a full season playing for the Lions while coaches across the country were aware he would be on the open market in the spring.

While Malnati admittedly was one of those people who thought Smith should keep quiet about his intentions and wait to announce he would transfer, he gives his former player a ton of credit.

Malnati states Smith had options to play higher-level basketball than the Ivy League, both as a high school prospect and after he averaged 13.6 points a game as a freshman and 17.6 points a game as a sophomore at Columbia. But he stayed the course and stuck to his initial goals.

He stuck to the plan even after the coach he was going to play for at Columbia took another job. Coach Kyle Smith left Columbia to be the head coach at San Francisco in March. When that news hit, Mike Smith opened the door to other schools and the likes of Vanderbilt, Minnesota, South Carolina and others showed interest.

Smith stayed with Columbia and Engels.

“Mike is a bright kid who had a 40-year vision and not a four-year one,” says Malnati. “A lot of guys are shortsighted, care a whole lot more about what level and who they are playing for. He showed maturity with his vision. He chose Columbia and stayed when he could have gone somewhere else. He now has an Ivy League degree from an unbelievable school with an unbelievable alumni base.”

Smith played out the year and averaged 22.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He also knocked down 62 three-pointers on the year. While Smith put up impressive individual numbers and carried Columbia, the injuries ravaged the team and the Lions struggled, finishing last in the Ivy League and winning just six games on the season overall.

A growing list of high-major suitors were piling up when the season ended. Although he had his options, there was always something he heard from his good friend Butler that resonated. Butler always spoke of the “Miami Heat way” in their conversations and how the team and organization is run, along with the consistent success of the franchise.

“He always would go on and on about the Heat culture,” says Smith. “So when Michigan and Juwan Howard started talking with me, I couldn’t help but think of how he was part of that organization for so many years.”

Howard played the final three years of his playing career in Miami and then spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the Heat.

Smith remembered watching Michigan jump off to its fast 7-0 start, beating Creighton, North Carolina and Gonzaga to open the season. The Wolverines climbed into the top 10 in the national rankings and Smith took notice.

“You could tell they had that Heat culture in that they would always just find a way to win,” says Smith. “I like that a lot. You can’t beat that, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Michigan’s other significant advantages in Smith’s eyes included a stacked incoming recruiting class and available minutes at the point guard position. Howard signed a top 10 recruiting class in the country, headed by 6-10 five-star Isaiah Todd, and the graduation of star point guard Zavier Simpson opens up 34 minutes of playing time.

“My goal is to bring a championship to Ann Arbor,” says Smith, who scored 1,653 points in his Columbia career. “I think with the returning players and the players coming in, along with the culture coach Howard is building, that’s possible.”

Smith is a big believer, even when others doubted him due to his size. It was always about his size. Malnati, who was on the phone with high-major coaches four years ago and again during this process, has heard it as well.

“It motivates me,” Smith says of the slight when it comes to his size and the impact it may or may not have on his game and production. “It take it as a challenge, and I love the chance to prove myself.”

He believed he was a high-major prospect while in high school, though the lure of an Ivy League education outweighed the desire to play at a higher level in college. That belief was validated, in Smith’s mind, in the first game of his sophomore season.

Columbia lost to eventual national champ Villanova in the season opener. But Smith was terrific with 19 points, five rebounds and three assists against a team with five NBA players in Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall and Mikal Bridges.

“That team was ridiculously talented and I played really well,” Smith said. “After that game is when I think I realized I can do this against anyone.”

The big game in the big moment was really nothing new for Smith. With a whole lot of the “It factor” permeating through him, Smith has been rising to the occasion in those moments throughout his career.

As a freshman at Fenwick — in the first week of his varsity career — Smith dazzled in a huge win over rival Oak Park. He scored nine crucial points in a regional victory that same season. There was the aforementioned eye-opening performance against Simeon and scoring 34 of his team’s 55 points in a sectional final loss to St. Joseph in his final high school game.

There were the 72 points he scored against Ivy power Harvard in two games as a senior, 33 against ACC foe Wake Forest and that confidence-building performance at Villanova.

Malnati is one who believes Smith will continue to do it in the Big Ten.

“He knows how to score, he’s fast as heck, he’s a knockdown shooter and a charismatic leader,” says Malnati. “I think he will have a phenomenal year at Michigan. Now he has his chance to play at a big-time school.”