Katie Smith will end her 17-year career against the Washington Mystics on Sunday.
Katie Smith will end her 17-year career against the Washington Mystics on Sunday.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

A sporting luminary will leave the game Sunday evening. The fanfare may be nominal, the attention outside of those who already follow will be scarce, but there are worse things than that.

In fact, that might be how Katie Smith would prefer it.

"I'm probably a little more under the radar than some," she says.

The all-time leading scorer in women's professional basketball history will call it quits after her New York Liberty finish up their season against the Washington Mystics on Sunday, ending her 17-year career. After winning two championships in the now-defunct American Basketball League, Smith has spent the rest of her career in the WNBA, playing the better part of seven seasons with the Minnesota Lynx before winning two titles with the Detroit Shock.

More than three months after 5-foot-11 guard announced her intention to retire, Smith is comfortable with the decision, even if she never seemed to go out of her way to make it well-known. Rather than a tearful press conference or even any sort of public announcement, Smith simply replied to an innocuous tweet from a friend, nonchalantly slipping in that she playing her last season.

"That's just kind of my personality," Smith says. "Press releases or big to-dos, that's just not really in my M.O."

Of course the online forum also made the announcement easier than having to say the words for the first time at a press conference.

"Part of it too, initially, is that you're a little nervous to say it because saying it makes it true," Smith says. "'Oh yeah, this is really happening.'"

Regardless of the low-key manner of the announcement, word still spread: The player with 7,872 career points, more than any other professional women's basketball player -- she's second in WNBA history with 6,439 points -- would finally be walking off from the court.

She's not going far though, at least if she has her way. Smith wants to coach now that her playing career is ending, a transition she has prepared for during her final seasons. In addition to sharing her veteran knowledge with her WNBA teammates, Smith has also spent the past two seasons as a graduate assistant with her alma mater, Ohio State.

"As you get older, it's just not about you so much," Smith says. "It's always been about the game, and I'm looking forward to be able to try to impart and try to make another basketball player's journey better by something I can say to them or show them or teach them."

But as the baseball notion holds, "The best hitters often make the worst hitting coaches," so too must Smith learn to handle that what came so naturally to her on the basketball court may take more instruction for others to master.

She'll also have to accept that even great coaches cannot directly affect games as much as they would like, especially when the coach is used to being the go-to player with the game on the line.

"Yes, you can tell and you can express what you need to get done, but the bottom line is that you don't have as much control as if you were playing," Smith says. "Being able to affect the game and dictate outcome or have a part in it will be a little hard [to give up]."

Before this can be addressed though, she needs a coaching gig; she's optimistic it will happen, yet, like any job seeker, is still apprehensive.

"I'm excited and nervous for the next part of my life," Smith says. "I've got wheels in motion, but they're not like concrete. So that makes me nervous, but it's also exciting because now all your effort is going to go into this next part."

Despite her nerves, Smith is still confident this is the right time to give up playing. She can still contribute, as her team-high 17 points in Tuesday's 80-76 loss to the Phoenix Mercury indicates. Still, nearly two decades of basketball have taken their toll. Smith is averaging a career-low 6.1 points per game this season, just more than a quarter of her peak of 23.1 points per game in 2001, one of her seven WNBA All-Star seasons. She has not averaged double figures since 2009, and her minutes have fallen from consistent seasons in the mid-30s to 26.5 per game this year.

For her birthday this June, her Liberty teammates gave her a walking cane.

"I think I'm ready," Smith says. "I've been lucky and blessed to be able to say, 'Hey, I'm done,' and not be forced out. I'm ready to be done."

As for what is driving her out, she said it's more the cerebral aspects of the game than physical weariness.

"The mental side of it, being having to perform and show up and be engaged," she says, "that's more fatiguing even than the physical stuff."

That doesn't mean there won't come a time when Smith will want to play again. Old habits, as basketball certainly is for her, don't just leave the system easily. She knows a desire to play again is inevitable, especially with her plans to still be around the game.

When the time comes that Smith starts trying to convince herself to return to the court, she has her counterarguments prepared, mental reminders of the aches and pains that basketball issues on her body -- pains that won't get any easier given that she'll be nearly 40 by the time the next WNBA season begins.

Now, as her career reaches its twilight, she's left with the memories of 29 years of basketball -- the WNBA and ABL titles and accolades; the three Olympic gold medals; all the way back to her first basketball team, an all-boys team she played on with her brother in fifth grade called the Bobcats.

"It was just playing with all my buds on a boys team going shirts and skins, and I always was shirts," Smith says. "They're just your friends."

And even as basketball switched from a recreational activity with friends to a profession, the joy for the game never wavered. That joy paradoxically makes it harder to put her playing career behind and easier to recognize that now is the right time to do so.

"It's sad, but I've been playing professionally for 17 years," Smith says. "I got every ounce of basketball I could out of my body."

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