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Originally published Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 7:12 PM

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Steve Kelley

Star athletes like Josh Smith should enjoy present, not fret about risks

Unsolicited advice to Kentwood's top-rated basketball star: Play football

Seattle Times staff columnist

In the aftermath of Tony Wroten's football-and-basketball season-ending knee injury, I'm sure Kentwood's blue-chip basketball recruit, senior Josh Smith, who has chosen to play football this fall, is getting his share of warnings from friends and classmates.

Wroten, one of the state's best basketball players, who has been on college coaches' radars since about fifth grade, surprised a slew of people when he decided to play football for Garfield this season.

Friends freaked. College recruiters blanched. Impartial observers questioned his decision-making skills.

And, in the first month of his first season, Wroten suffered a knee injury that effectively erased his entire junior season of high-school sports.

Wroten's injury is heartbreaking and, I'm sure, more than a few people are telling his family and friends, "I told you so." Wroten's injury slightly jeopardizes his college basketball career. Knee surgeries give recruiters the jitters.

I'm also guessing that Wroten's story is being relayed to Smith as a cautionary tale. People are telling him to get out now, while he still has two sturdy knees, sound ankles and an ache-free back.

I bet UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland, who seems to have the inside recruiting angle on Smith, worries every day, every practice and every game night.

The last thing Howland or any of the other Smith suitors wants is a late-night telephone call telling them Smith fell awkwardly in a pile by the line of scrimmage, twisted his knee and tore his ACL.

Smith might even feel some pressure to quit.

But here's my unsolicited advice to one of the most promising basketball players in the state:

Play football. Enjoy yourself. Have fun every day, putting on the pads, clowning around in the locker room before practice. Soak up the excitement of game day, walking through school and having classmates and teachers wish you luck.

If you want to play football, play football. Allen Iverson did. LeBron James did. High-school All-American basketball players such as Duke's Greg Paulus and Georgia Tech's Matt Harpring did.

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Now Paulus is quarterbacking Syracuse and Harpring has enjoyed an 11-year NBA career. There are scores of stories like theirs.

My advice to you, Josh, is to enjoy the bus rides. Enjoy the energy on the sideline on those final sweet moments before kickoff. Enjoy every tackle, every block. Celebrate every touchdown with your teammates as if they were as rewarding as stock dividends.

You're only a high-school kid once. Don't let people get you so freaked about your future that you can't enjoy the present.

Of course there are risks. There are risks involved in everything worth doing.

You can get seriously injured in football, just as you can in basketball. In fact, the chances of tearing up your knee, or suffering a high ankle sprain or some other debilitating injury playing AAU basketball in the summer or playing in the high school fall leagues are just as real as football injuries.

Football is dangerous, but not doing what you really want to do can be equally dangerous. You don't want to be in your mid-30s, watching a football game on television and wondering how good you might have been.

Go for it.

Sure there are people out there wondering why, if you want to play another sport, you don't try low-impact games like golf or baseball. As a matter of fact, with your quick feet and soft hands you probably could be a very good first baseman. The Prince Fielder of the South Puget Sound League.

But you want to play football. You want to see how your size and speed translate to that game.

Tony Wroten wanted the same thing and was unlucky. It can happen to any athlete in any game. Heck, even Tiger Woods had knee surgery in 2008.

This is your last year of high school. All the spoils of self-conquest are there for you. Take the risk without regret. Savor every moment of the experience.

You're not going to get a second chance.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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