Going into overtime, the exhaustion and sadness on Charlie Conner’s face were obvious.
Playing to break a 74–74 deadlock, Conner, who had just minutes before become the SAIT Men’s Basketball all-time scoring leader, was still grappling with the sadness wrought by a touching half-time remembrance of his friend John Mitchell Smith Jr.
And after an assist by Conner put the Trojans up to 83 points, fellow Trojan centre Taliik Ross raised the crowd to their feet—and put a glimmer of a smile on Conner’s face—with an incredible dunk that left Ross dangling from the hoop.
The Trojans won 85–83.
“You know what, I’m so proud of Charlie, that he got it done through all the emotions, and you know, being John’s best friend and being John’s brother, it’s tough to fight through that,” said Pat Bolin, assistant coach for the SAIT Trojans Men’s Basketball team.
“I’m glad he did it on this day because there’s nothing more rewarding that John would want to see than Charlie break a record.”
Conner was recruited to SAIT’s basketball program by Smith from their hometown of Lacey, Washington.
Remembering John Smith Jr.
The emotional basketball game was held on Wednesday night between the Trojans and St. Mary University Lightning to memorialize the loss of Smith, a fourth-year business administration student at SAIT and guard on the Trojans team.
He was murdered on October 10, 2021, after leaving the Junction Underground nightclub. At the time, Smith was attempting to protect a female friend from unwanted sexual advances, and physical contact, from two men outside of the nightclub.
Jesse Michael Martinez was arrested by Calgary Police after a Canada-wide warrant for second-degree murder was issued. Police have alleged that Martinez shot Smith during the altercation.
“Helping his friend cost him his life and we will do everything we can to bring his killer to justice,” said Staff Sergeant Martin Schiavetta with the Calgary Police Service Homicide Unit, in October of last year.
Smith’s two sisters travelled from Washington State to be at Wednesday’s memorial game, joining Smith’s girlfriend at the game.
“This just feels right, and we get to come be here and be a part of that, and feel that energy and connect with our Calgary family,” said Krystal Smith.
“We’ve just been talking about what are ways that we can memorialize him. We don’t want anybody forgetting him and the impact that he’s had. Having this is a very exciting thing.”
A man who touched a lot of lives for the better
Krystal said that Smith would be remembered in many ways by his friends and family. As a basketball player, as a mentor to teammates, coach to youth, and as a brother to everyone in the community, and as a loving uncle.
“He really valued his teammates, as well as just the community—the Calgary community around him.”
After his death in October, Krystal said that hundreds of friends reached out to her with condolences. She said that many of them mentioned how Smith had made efforts to reach out to them in the weeks prior.
“‘John just messaged me yesterday, or within the week’—he had talked to over 100 people, and was just checking in saying ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And then offering words of encouragement as well,” she said.
Bolin teared up while recounting his time with Smith. As a coach, and as friends off the court, the two were close.
“No matter whether you talked to John for two hours, five minutes, two minutes, or you saw him in passing, he just had that type of personality that attracted everybody,” he said.
“Charlie said it the best, you know: Charlie would go home, and there’d be people in his house that he didn’t even know, and he’d ask John, ‘who these people? From Edmonton? When were you in Edmonton?” said Bolin.
“John just had that type of personality that attracted anybody,” he said.
Conner described Smith’s inviting nature.
“Everybody story usually starts the same as mine: ‘How’d you meet John? Basketball, I played against him and he was just talking to us,'” said Conner.
“It easily gets forgotten—well, how do you know John now? ‘Oh, he showed up to my birthday, bought me a gift. Like really, he knows you like that? No, he really doesn’t.’ But he would do that.”
‘Greatest basketball player you will ever meet’
The Trojans have been wearing practice jerseys this season with the number 11 on them—Smith’s number.
And post-game it would have been hard to find a dry eye on the court, on either team. Smith’s love was basketball, and players, coaches, and visitors to SAIT all commented on how he would have loved the memorial game.
During the bittersweet halftime, Conner and Bolin continued to sit in the arena as the teams took to the locker rooms. The Trojans showed a team-made video featuring friends and family. Bolin spoke about the natural charisma Smith had.
Bolin recalled a recruiting trip Smith made to Calgary.
“I said ‘Hi, I’m Coach Pat,’ and these are the first words that came out of his mouth: ‘Hi, I’m John Smith, the greatest basketball player you will ever meet,” Bolin said.
Sade Smith, John’s older sister spoke about the kind of confidence he had.
“John had an unparalleled self-assurance; a confidence and love for the community so unwavering it spread to everyone around him. He believed in you and in turn you believed in him,” she said.
“Young, black and gifted – it’s impossible to articulate the sheer scope and impact of John.”
SAIT is creating an endowment fund in Smith’s name. The post-secondary is currently raising $20,000 from the Calgary community to grant an annual award.
“If you know John, you know he was not a fan of homework, so we hope this scholarship is as unencumbered as John. We don’t want arbitrary barriers to access, we want it to be like him,” said Sade Smith.
“We love you 11—Almighty forever.”