Star Florida guard Kiara Smith took the hardwood Thursday in the SEC Tournament, possibly wearing orange and blue for the last time.
The 5-foot-10-inch redshirt senior dropped a career-high 36 points, but Smith and the Gators returned home empty-handed as No. 17 Kentucky prevailed. Kiara capped off the 26th 1,000-point career in UF program history.
At first glance, nothing stands out when Kiara darts around the court. Only an incredibly observant individual notices something odd: her size 5-and-a-half shoes.
When her kicks hit the hardwood, they carry her story, experiences and challenges.
UF struggled to find Kiara’s rare shoe size. Jordan, the shoe brand Florida women’s basketball uses, didn’t produce shoes that fit Kiara, said Serena Lamar, director of women’s basketball operations.
Jordan extended its size spectrum in the wake of Kiara’s specification.
“Even some of the shoes now, they just can’t design them the way that they’re intended to at that small of a shoe,” Lamar said.
The struggle shadowed Kiara’s every step on any court. Her shoe size always inched around the small end of the scale, so she often felt neglected as teammates donned matching shoes, Kiara’s mother Deborah Smith said.
“She learned early that it is okay to be different,” Deborah said.
Now, Kiara embraces her shoe size and finds it rather amusing given her height.
“It’s always funny to see, when I get shoes, how small they look on my foot,” Kiara said jokingly.
Kiara owns around 30 pairs of basketball shoes, but she prefers her pair of Russell Westbrooks for games. Kiara’s atomic orange editions resemble UF colors and feature an orange base with hints of hyper crimson, melon and a teal Jordan logo.
Akin to her shoes, Kiara endured an unusual path to Florida, where she found the right fit.
Following back-to-back Maryland state titles, Kiara originally planned to play for Syracuse.
But after sustaining a pair of knee injuries in high school, Smith committed to National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Advanced Software Analysis College. While she redshirted the first year, Kiara averaged a team-high 16.7 points on 50.4% shooting and carried the Avengers to a 22-2 record in the 2017-18 season.
Following her lone playing season in Brooklyn, Kiara migrated south.
“With two ACL tears and one meniscus tear, you would think that she wouldn’t be playing right now,” Deborah said.
Kiara stuck to a clean diet and hit the weightroom to remain on the court — something she didn’t focus on at ASA. She targeted the muscles around her knees like the quadriceps and hamstrings. The stronger they are, the more likely she’ll stay healthy.
The atmosphere differs, too. Brooklyn’s college fanbase paled in comparison with Gainesville’s.
New York City is home to eight major professional sports teams in addition to a plethora of Division I colleges. Sports fans in the city often support different teams than their next-door neighbor.
Gainesville offers little beyond college athletics. On any given Florida basketball gameday, the O’Connell Center draws thousands of Gator fans from all ages who unite to cheer on the orange and blue.
“Here, I can walk into a store, and somebody knows who I am,” Kiara said.
Kiara traded the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple for a more laid-back town in Gainesville, Deborah said.
“With the traffic in New York, it can be a hassle getting around,” she said. “I think she feels a lot more comfortable in Gainesville. I know I do.”
Living in the Sunshine State required a long-distance relationship between Kiara and her parents. While Brooklyn is only a four-hour drive from Kiara’s hometown, District Heights, Maryland, Gainesville is nearly 800 miles away.
“It was an adjustment cutting the cord and letting my baby girl fly off on her own,“ Deborah said.
Deborah put her faith and trust in God that Kiara would blossom on-and-off the court.
Unlike most athletes, Kiara’s journey to Division I basketball hardly involves genetics. Kiara’s mother didn’t play sports, and her father only dabbled in baseball.
“It’s totally a gift she has from up above,” Deborah said.
Kiara began her basketball journey small, as a 4-year-old who pleaded to play on her older brother’s basketball team. The recreation center director said she was too young but offered her a spot on the roster if she sunk a spontaneous basket.
Smith — in hopes of kick-starting her career on the hardwood — delivered under pressure. With the bucket, her deep love for basketball flourished.
As Kiara’s redshirt senior season comes to an end, she must decide if she wants to pursue professional basketball. But Deborah envisions a different version of her daughter after college.
“I just want her to be a role model and encourage young people to stay on the right path — to be a mentor to those coming up behind her,” she said.
Despite her next steps, Kiara will seek her next best fit, either on or off the court.
Contact Griffin Foll at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GriffinFoll
Griffin Foll is a sophomore at UF studying journalism sports and media. He is one of The Alligator's women’s basketball beat writers. Griffin is also a UF softball beat reporter for ChompTalk.com and contributes weekly articles for ESPN Gainesville.