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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

West Side Wizards

Lilly King and Dru Smith rose from Reitz High to sports stardom

Editor’s note: Read more about Evansville as a sports town in the full feature story.

Just one grade apart at F.J. Reitz High School, Lilly King and Dru Smith didn’t really know each other. But they share a drive — and success — in their respective sports.

King often was absent from school, already competing in international swimming tournaments while Smith helped spark the Panthers’ boys’ basketball team to an IHSAA Class 4A state runner-up finish as a junior in 2015. King went on to win two Olympic gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Smith has become the first Evansville native to play in the NBA since Calbert Cheaney and Walter McCarty.

“She was elite,” Smith said in a phone interview. “It’s pretty cool we went to school together.”

Then just 19, King captured gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and with the 4×100-meter medley relay team at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She won silver in the 200 breast and bronze in the 100 breast at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

It’s been a long journey from upstart teenager to 26-year- old veteran.

“The prep is definitely different — 2016 being the summer after my freshman year (at Indiana University),” King says. “I was still learning who I was as a person and adjusting to college life. Everything was very new. Now, it’s the opposite of new! My preparation for 2024 looks more like a search for perfection. I’m learning about listening to my body and its needs as I approach a more geriatric age in this sport.”

King already has qualified for the ‘24 Summer Olympics in Paris, France, with a “cut time.” (U.S. Olympic Team swim trials are slated for June 15-23 in Indianapolis, Indiana.) She long has been known for her trademark confidence and competitive fire, even brashness.

“I hate to lose, but more so I hate to lose when I’m on television for people to see,” King says. “My confidence stems from the work I put in at practice. I know I am practicing harder and better than my competition, so I don’t feel the need to worry.”

Growing up, King and her Reitz teammates shared archaic Lloyd Pool with five other high school teams. Now, the gleaming Deaconess Aquatic Center’s natatorium is named after her.

“It’s really cool,” she says. “I’ve been able to swim there a few times, and it’s a beautiful facility. I’m just glad Evansville now has the facility it deserves to be able to grow the sport.”

Photo of Dru Smith provided by Miami Heat/NBA Photos

ON THE BALL

After playing sparingly with the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets in 2022-23, Smith signed a one-year contract and a club option with the Heat for the 2023-24 season. Describing his emotions, he says, “It was a little bit of everything. There was a little bit of relief. At the same time, I knew there was a lot of improvement that needed to be made. I’m definitely excited about the opportunity, but I understand I need to get better.”

As an Indiana All-Star at Reitz, Smith played his first two seasons of college ball at the University of Evansville but left the program after coach Marty Simmons was fired. Smith transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia and developed into an all-Southeastern Conference first-team player.

“Dru instinctively has a nose for the ball, has great reaction time, and is an intelligent kid,” says retired Panthers head coach Michael Adams. “How would you not want him as a teammate? He’s had the opportunity and he’s living the dream. He’s appreciative and humble.”

Smith, who turned 26 on Dec. 30, says he fell in love with basketball while a sophomore at UE.

“All the guys think they’re working hard in high school, but they can do more,” Smith says. “My second year at Evansville, I had a lot more confidence.”

Blessed with long arms to compensate for his modest 6-foot-2 size, Smith used his basketball IQ and instincts to battle players with more athleticism in the SEC East and the NBA. Regarded as a bit of a defensive specialist, his offensive game has dramatically improved.

He was “eight to nine” years old when Cheaney and McCarty both retired in 2006, so he didn’t remember them all that much.

“It’s a cool accomplishment,” Smith says. “There is only a small group of people to have even played one game in the NBA. It’s something as a kid you dream of, but you don’t know how attainable it is. I think it’s a milestone.”

Smith’s first season with a standard contract began with promise before being snuffed out by a knee injury during a Nov. 22 match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had been averaging 4.3 points, 1.6 re- bounds, and 1.6 assists. Smith says he will reflect on what he has achieved down the road. Right now, he’s relentless in the pursuit of excellence, just like Lilly King.

He advises younger players to remember to enjoy the game.

“As you get to a higher level, you get distracted,” Smith says. “You’re still playing basketball, a game you loved as a kid.”

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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