Nearly 30 years later, Kim Morris remembers Lori Smith’s laugh.
“She had a big, loud laugh,” said Morris, the assistant professor, clinical education coordinator at the University of Tampa who served as an athletic trainer at the school in the 1980s. “You could have all of the men’s players and a ton of other athletes in the training facility getting ready for practice, but when Lori came in, you knew it. She was the biggest personality whenever she was in the room — and we had a lot of big personalities.”
That laugh fell silent early Wednesday.
Smith, a Bradenton resident for 37 years, died in her sleep at home at the age of 51. Though she had been suffering from heart problems in recent years and was scheduled for surgery to install a defibrillator later this month, her death was unexpected.
“To be taken away from us at such a young age is so unfair,” said Michael Kuske, Smith’s longtime fiance. “I asked her cardiologist if I could have done anything, and he said she was in a category that could lead to sudden death. But, we never dreamed she could die. I really figured once the defibrillator was installed, she would really make a recovery; we would have a good life ahead. We had so many plans. Everyone is just devastated.”
Smith rose to fame in the area as a sophomore standout on Southeast High School’s state championship girls basketball team in 1980-81, which was coached by Ben “Buzz” Narbut.
“When I heard the news from (Southeast teammate Debbie (Marx) Fisher), I was like, ‘What?’ ” said Anita Blickensderfer, who was a senior on that title team. “You think you have all kinds of time, and then something like this happens and someone is gone.”
Blickensderfer said the team last gathered for a reunion in 2014, 33 years after it went 33-0, and had stayed in touch via social media.
Smith led the 1980-81 team in scoring, helped the program win 57 games in a row and finished with 1,707 career points. She went on to become the only Manatee County-based player to be recognized in the annual Parade magazine All-America girls basketball team honor roll.
Smith accepted a full scholarship to play at Florida State, where Narbut joined her as part of the coaching staff. However, after Narbut was killed in a motor vehicle accident in 1984, Smith’s interest in playing basketball and in remaining at Florida State waned. Though she left the program and eventually transferred to the University of Tampa, she maintained her ties to the Seminoles, including returning in 2015 for a program alumni event.
“The Florida State women’s basketball family is deeply saddened by the passing of one of our alumna, Lori Smith,” current Florida state coach Sue Semrau said in a statement. “Lori was a tremendous student-athlete with a charismatic and infectious personality. She was a true Seminole and stayed active supporting our women’s basketball program. Our condolences go out to Lori’s family and friends. She will be greatly missed.”
After a year-and-a-half away from basketball, she joined the Division II Tampa program. At the time, she was asked about her intensity on the court.
“I’ve always been a better player in a game than in practice,” Smith said in 1986. “... I’ve constantly strived to be the best. That may sound cocky, but that’s how I am — a lot like Larry Bird.”
That intensity came out daily.
“She was a fantastic player, strong as an ox,” Morris said. “And when she hit you, it was like being hit by a tank. She loved to drive the ball. She would take the ball to the basket from anywhere on the court. So she would drive, the players on defense would get hit and they would be the ones to come away injured. We used to tease Lori about it and tell her to take it easy on her teammates. She would just laugh.”
Smith played in 50 games with Tampa and started all 27 in her senior year, during which she scored 624 points and earned All-America honors.
After graduating, she bypassed trying to play professionally overseas in what few opportunities existed for women at that point, and instead went into sales, starting with office equipment but spending more than 20 years in medical diagnostic equipment sales. And she always remained close to Southeast High School.
“She was Southeast,” longtime Southeast girls coach John Harder said. “We’ve had a run that has been going on for four decades, and Lori was the beginning.”
Harder said Smith would, for many years, come back often and shoot around with his teams, and even as the years passed the players knew who she was and what she had done. Her career scoring mark held up for 25 years.
“I would always make certain the girls knew because you could use (Smith) to show the new girls that it could happen to them,” Harder said.
Even after health problems caused her to slow down, Smith loved sports as a spectator. She was an avid Dallas Cowboys fan, until meeting and falling in love with Kuske, who was a Minnesota Vikings fan, 15 years ago. Smith regularly attended Pittsburgh Pirates spring training games, and she doted on her nieces and nephews as they played youth and scholastic sports.
“She was always upbeat, in control of her destiny,” Kuske said. “She loved people, especially kids. She was such a wonderful woman.”
She is survived by her mother, Louella Kannaly; two brothers, Charles and Matthew Smith; two sisters, Kimmi Cox and Tammy Feiber; and a half-sister, Jeannie. A celebration of her life is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Brown & Sons Funeral Homes and Crematory, 604 43rd St. W. in Bradenton. Her father, Charles Smith, and her stepfather, Leo Kannaly, preceded her in death.
Smith is the third individual associated with the 80-81 Southeast girls team to pass prematurely. In addition to Narbut, Olivia Bradley died in 2000.