Interview By Joe Kerlin
Former Bison power forward Andre Smith has been living his dream as a European and Asian basketball nomad over the last 10 years. His talents have taken him from Switzerland, Turkey, Italy, Russia and just about everywhere else in between. Today, he’s in Nebraska with his wife (former NDSU women’s basketball player Emily Moran) and twin sons, getting ready to play for whoever calls next.
Bison Illustrated – What were the steps out of college to becoming a pro?
Andre Smith – After Senior Night, actually, I got a bunch of emails and a bunch of packets with player-agent agreements, papers in them, and phone calls. It was kind of like the process of choosing to go to school at NDSU over another school. I returned phone calls, met with people, listened to people. I narrowed it down, talked some more and signed with a guy out of San Francisco who was just getting started. I felt the most comfortable with him. There were a couple other bigger named agents, but they had a puffiness-feel to it, like, there were more important guys than me. I’m coming from a small school, unknown, I’m just trying to get somebody who’s going to work as hard for me as I am for myself. I felt like Ben Pensack out of San Francisco, and we grew up together, him as an agent and me and my career.
What’s the process after you sign with an agent? Are you working out hoping the NBA maybe calls?
No, at that point in time I knew I definitely had no chance of playing in the states, for significant money. Yeah, I had a pretty good season and pretty good two years at NDSU, and we won some games, but I was still small potatoes. I was very underdeveloped. I still had some things I needed to do better in order to really succeed as a pro.
So the first time you left, you go to Germany.
Yeah, I went to Germany with a two-year contract there but I was on a tryout period. I didn’t pass the tryout period at that time. It was a whirlwind, man. It all happened so quick. I got my first contract offer, I signed it, I liked it and I left August 10.
Here I am, this kid that’s never been out the states. Well, I’ve been to Canada. I went to Canada with NDSU my junior year to play some game. Other than that, it was wherever NDSU took me, is the only places I’ve been to in the states. So I get on this plane, I show up in Germany and I have everything I own in two bags. I don’t own a laptop yet. I have maybe $300 in my pocket because I haven’t made any money yet. I don’t know who is supposed to be picking me up or what. Some guy who doesn’t speak English picks me up. Points at me, says my name, shows me some document with my name on it from the team, drops one of my bags, motions for me to come in the car. We ride to this small village. They drop me off, get me an apartment, give me a car. It’s like a Friday night, give me some Euros and tell me practice is Monday. They gave me a note from the coach and groceries. Tells me practice is Monday, let’s get started. There I am.
It was unbelievable. That’s kind of how it started. I went through the tryout period and I played well. But I also didn’t understand what it took to be a pro. I never had my own apartment, car, some money. And in Europe, I’m by myself so I did quite a bit of partying, the first couple months I was there. The coach was on the hot seat and he had told me, “Yeah, you’re going to be a good player, but I can’t take a chance on you right now.” I got released after a couple months there. It happened quick. The next day, my agent was like, here’s a ticket to go to Poland, try out for this team. I went to Poland for a week or 10 days, hated it, and I ended up leaving to go to Switzerland, and I played there for what, I want to say four months. The team folded, ran out of money and I came home for a couple weeks, worked out at NDSU around Christmas time and a few weeks later I got the call and finished the season in Japan. That’s how my first year went.
You talk about the transition into becoming a pro. On the basketball court, was the transition difficult to make?
There were some aspects on the court that were different, but not many. Basketball is basketball, no matter where you are in the world. They call it a little differently, but that’s easy to adjust to. I mean, being a pro, like, I’m 22 years old, and I’m used to showing up five minutes before practice with just finishing off some French fries, and walk out on the court and I’m ready to go. You got 30-year olds, and I understand now, they’re there 30-45 minutes early, getting loose. Father time is only taking things from you. You need to start adding more things, that aspect of professionalism.
What was your favorite place to play?
Turkey hands down, man, it would be Turkey. I was fortunate enough to be in a couple good cities, all it takes is the wrong city and your experience is completely different. I was in Izmir, Turkey for two years and Bursa, Turkey for a year. The competitiveness of the league. Obviously, the money. We play the game for money now, and just the culture and lifestyle we lived there.
You had a great year in England. Why not go back?
It’s a terrible league, man. It was a bad league. I wasn’t making any money. I was at a point where, it was either my career was going to blossom or it was going to go the other way, and whither. If that’s where you have to go to continue your dream, that’s where you go. When I was 28, I wasn’t looking to play in places like that. There’s not a lot of money, not a lot of quality.
You were in your prime at that point, so no one can blame you for leaving.
Right, I was trying to build my resume and potentially my value, and all that. I was trying to build my value and market myself so I could take another step to a league to continue to go up that ladder. At that time, I was aspiring to play in the NBA.
Have you had any chances to play with or against guys that have moved on to the NBA?
I’ve played with and against some really good guys in my career. I haven’t had anybody that’s gone on to be a high draft pick. I played with half a dozen or so second round guys. One of my last teammates just finished the season with the Hawks, this was his second year as a pro, Lamar Patterson. Those fringe guys. I’ve had teammates like an Italian guy who was an Olympic silver medalist. I played with NCAA Champions. Sasha Vujacic was my teammate for half a season. I played against all those NBA guys during the lockout. Charlie Bell, I think he played in the League for quite some time. I play with a lot of rising European stars.
So you never had a run in with a guy like Kristaps Porzingis?
No, I never played with a guy like Porzingis. (Ben) Woodside was his teammate last year in Spain.
Do you stay in contact with the other NDSU guys over in Europe? There’s a few now with Lawrence Alexander, Taylor Braun, TrayVonn Wright and Woody.
There’s a few now with Lawrence Alexander, Taylor Braun, TrayVonn Wright and Woody. TrayVonn just signed to play over in Sweden for his third year of his professional career. He’s finally getting it going.
What’s your plan for next season?
Play ball, wait and see who calls. To be honest, in December, I was thinking about retiring. I went to South Korea, and it was my first job back after my injury and I wasn’t having a lot of fun, I wasn’t enjoying it. It was a little harder coming off an injury and I was almost done. I sat back and talked to the wife and I fired the engines up again and got into a little bit of shape and went and played in Lebanon for a couple months. I played decent. I had a really great start, and then, I struggled at the end, sitting on the couch for four or five months caught up with me skill-wise.
Are you going to keep playing until they tell you “you can’t”?
No, man. I don’t want to play that long. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with a wide variety of professionals, guys that played too long, left too soon, played for the wrong reason. I maybe have one, maybe two more in me before I want to be done.
Any careers you’d like to pursue after you’re done playing?
I’m going to do some work with the youth. I currently do a few things for a couple nonprofits in Omaha when I have time, which isn’t often. Do something with kids and have some kind of business.
How’s your Bison Pride been lately?
Once a Bison, always a Bison, right? The strength of the Bison is the Herd, the strength of the Herd is the Bison. It’s just in me now. I love everything Bison. It was a big part of my life, and I have nothing but love for them. I’m always reppin’.