- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Katie Smith watched her alma mater Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes T-shirt. She viewed their game against Duke with a keen eye, noticing potential mismatches and interesting one-on-one battles away from the ball.
Sometimes Smith, who led the Buckeyes to the 1993 Final Four and spent two years at Ohio State more recently working as a graduate assistant, thinks coaching might appeal to her. Other times, she's not sure. Her next career after playing -- she has always talked about potentially following her father as a dentist -- is not something she has nailed down yet.
But she is certain of this: Her days with the former Detroit Shock are over. Smith will not stay with the franchise as it moves to Tulsa for next season. She said Thursday that as a free agent, she plans on signing with another team.
If, that is, her back is healthy enough for her to compete by the start of the 2010 season. If it isn't, she likely will retire.
"I'm excited that Tulsa is a city that wants a team," Smith said. "I wish them great success, and I really hope it goes well and the people there love it. I have nothing at all against Tulsa. I just decided it's not the place I want to finish my career.
"Most of my [Shock] teammates will be there, and it's going to be hard because I'm going to miss them a ton. I wish I could take them all with me. But everything changes eventually."
Smith and Detroit had made a verbal agreement during this past season for her to stay with the Shock, but no deal was ever actually signed. She said she was surprised and disappointed by the franchise leaving Detroit, but not completely stunned by it. She decided, however, that she did not want to remain with the franchise as it relocated and changed its coaches.
Smith, a 5-foot-11 guard, won two ABL championships with Columbus before that league folded. Then in 1999, she went to the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, where she starred until being traded during the 2005 season. It was a deal that turned out to be a monumental blunder for the Lynx and a gold mine for the Shock. Smith was a critical part of both the 2006 and 2008 championship teams in Detroit, being named WNBA Finals MVP the latter year. She has averaged 15.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists in her 11 WNBA seasons.
Smith, who turns 36 next June and still calls Columbus, Ohio, her home base, said she will look for a franchise where she feels the greatest affinity for the coaching staff. She said that was more important to her than whether the team was at the top of the list of potential contenders for a WNBA title next season.
"There are a lot of teams that can be in the mix for winning a championship," she said. "We'll see. It might be more about proximity to home, you never know. It's going to be a lot of things, but mostly where I feel comfortable with the coaches and where I could be a good fit and be helpful. It will be kind of nice, actually, to go through that process."
Considering Smith's propensity for winning -- including three Olympic gold medals -- teams should still be very interested in her, provided she is healthy. Smith played 27 games this past summer, but was forced to sit out the last seven and the postseason with her back trouble.
"I have a herniated disk," she said. "It caused numbness and weakness in my left leg. The numbness finally went away, but I still have some weakness. It's a slow process, but I feel a lot better. It's going to take more time.
"I'd love to play another year, maybe two. But I'm definitely not jeopardizing my long-term health. If I don't feel good when I start playing again and have the same symptoms, then I will have to stop."
Then she added with a laugh, "If I can't come back, there probably won't be much of an announcement. I'll probably just roll off into the sunset."
That's not how women's hoops followers will feel, though. Smith has been one of the most durable performers in the sport ever since her sensational freshman season at Ohio State, when she led the Buckeyes to the NCAA title game and an epic matchup with Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes.
Smith has been a consistent anchor for USA Basketball, too, and has always been one of the best spokeswomen for first the ABL and then the WNBA.
Smith said she really hasn't been dealing with much pain at all, and was fine as far as everyday functioning. But the frustrating thing was the uncertainty of exactly how long it will take her back to heal, if it does completely, for competitive purposes.
"It's just a rest thing and allowing your body to get better," she said. "You just hope for the best and that surgery isn't required."
Unlike most of her peers, Smith has not played much overseas -- only two previous years, in 2003 and last season. If she feels OK in January, though, she might try to play somewhere.
"I haven't taken the playing-the-year-round philosophy, although I've worked out year-round," she said. "I think that's probably helped me extend my playing career in the long run."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Katie Smith doesn't know yet whether her ailing back will allow her to continue playing in the WNBA. But the free agent says if she comes back, she won't suit up for Tulsa.