WILMINGTON, Ohio – Payton Smith, a senior guard on the Wilmington College men's basketball team, has stepped into a starting role at point guard this season. He leads the team in assists and also pitches in the scoring and rebounding departments. He's an integral part of this year's WC men's basketball team, but has also made a resounding impact on his hometown community.
The Purcell Marian alumnus began the Smith League in the summer of 2018. The summer ProAm league, designed for college players from all around the Midwest, has taken off and will enter its third year in 2020.
"I hosted an open gym at my high school and had 98 people show up," Smith said. "I thought to myself, why can't I make a business out of this as well as getting kids off the street?"
He started by talking with Coach Robert Greene, to discuss forming the league. The both recognized an opening and thought they could fill the void left by the closed Deveroes Summer League.
"That league was the best league Cincinnati ever had," said Smith. "Cincinnati and Xavier guys took that to a different level. My goal is to get the Smith League back to that level."
Smith set out to attract players of all collegiate levels as well as several professional players. The league's first year, 2018, saw a handful of NCAA Division I players with the majority of the eight-team league featuring NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, NAIA and JUCO players. According to Smith, the league ran smoothly in its inaugural year, but really took off in year two.
"I had 20 teams and up to 30 NCAA Division I players including a bunch of professionals who played overseas," he said. "Samaj Christian of Xavier University, Jordan Crawford of the NBA's G League and Chane Behanan of the University of Lousiville competed as well as Jackson Hayes and Darius Bazley, who were selected No. 8 and No. 23 respectively in the 2019 NBA Draft."
Other notable NCAA Division I players that played in the Smith League over the summer of 2019 include: Quan Cheatum and Isaiah Johnson of Akron University, Jalen Avery of Kent State University, Willie Moore of Miami University, Antonio Woods of the University of Pennsylvania, Malik Rhodes of Memphis University, Josh Davenport of Winthrop University, Jalen Billups of Northern Kentucky University and Shaq Anthie of Grambling State University.
One of the biggest reasons why the league grew so fast was because of how high the competition level was. Guys went at each other all summer. Great basketball, and great competition equals a fun summer.
"Our motto is to never forget where you came from, and thats why most of ours guys that come to play are from the Cincinnati area," Smith said. "It also show how much broad talent that the Queen City has to offer."
The 2019 summer saw the 20 teams split into two division to play a seven-week regular season followed by playoffs. The second year of the league also featured multiple sites, to allow all the competition to finish on time. Despite the two-gym system working last summer, that's not Smith's vision for the future.
"I want a packed gym, and having two locations hurts that goal," he said. "What I'm looking to move into is buying my own facility, not only for the league itself, but also to bring young kids of the streets of Cincinnati through the game of basketball."
Smith has already seen some of that just in the league's first two years. A local group of 30 children came to several games in the summer of 2019 to watch the action. Future plans include book bag drives and giving scholarships through the league.
"That was a pretty inspiration scene," said Smith. "Giving back to the community I grew up in as always and will always be a focus of the Smith League."
Smith, who will graduate from Wilmington in the spring with a degree in business management, accredits the College's business department for equipping him with the skills necessary to start and run the Smith League.
"Steve Szeghi, Tim Burgoyne and Angela Mitchell were very impactful to me," Smith said. "The classes I took with them delving deeper into running a business gave me knowledge I will always take with me."
The 2020 Smith League will begin in June and features a women's division for the first time.