by Ben York
It was an unforgettable moment for Mercury fans.
With just under four minutes to go in Game 5 of the 2009 WNBA Finals, Tangela Smith hit the first of her back-to-back three-pointers putting a dagger into the collective hearts of the Indiana Fever, sealing the championship for the Phoenix Mercury. Rather than popping her collar, pumping her fist, or jumping up and down Tangela simply turned and ran back to the other end of the court to prepare defensively.
After the game, Fever coach Lin Dunn was in disbelief at how Tangela was able to get those shots off.
“There is no way in this world that Tangela Smith should have a wide-open three,” Dunn said. “You aren’t going to play a perfect game defensively, but you never, ever leave Tangela.”
Tangela has never been hesitant to shoot the big shot, and those two buckets were arguably the biggest and most important shots of her career. Still, you didn’t see an ounce of arrogance or boasting from Tangela in spite of how phenomenal the shots were.
That’s what so many people love about Tan. She quietly takes the court every night, works her behind off, and continues to be one of the most underrated assets in the league.
The biggest reason why Tangela gets overlooked is because she plays on a team with so many stars; much of the public attention goes to Diana Taurasi or Cappie Pondexter. But make no mistake about it; Tangela was just as vital to the Mercury’s two championships as anyone.
To this day, few people know where she ranks amongst the all-time greats of the WNBA. She is currently sixth place all time in total minutes played (10,882), 6th in total points (4,459), 7th in total rebounds (2,039), 3rd in field goals made (1,838), 4th in total blocks (509), and 14th in total steals (409).
“I feel so honored to be at the top of the list in so many categories,” Tangela said. “There are great players on those lists and to be amongst those players is just so amazing. Many people don’t realize that I’ve done so much in my career but to be recognized certainly brings a smile to my face.”
Although Tangela has accomplished so much, she definitely doesn’t get the publicity that many of the other all-time greats do. For example, the only players who have scored more points than Smith include Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Katie Smith, Lauren Jackson, and Sheryl Swoopes – elite company.
“I’m going to be totally honest and say, yes, it does get tiring being labeled as underrated sometimes,” Smith said. “When it is my time to be recognized, I will be. And maybe that time won’t ever come. So now, I just think of all the great things that have been put in my life and realize that I shouldn’t complain about little things like that.”
You see, for Tangela, being able to compete against the most talented women in the world at the game of basketball means more than getting recognized.
“Being a WNBA player means a great deal to me,” Tangela said. “I love being able to showcase my talent and play against the very best players in the world day in and day out. I also love being a role model for the younger kids out there who are trying to get to where I am. It’s really great to see where the league has come since I got drafted in 1998. I have seen so many changes and such great players coming in that the WNBA will be around for a long time.”
After 12 years in the league, Tangela has solidified herself in the record books; that much is certain. Plus, with the way she keeps herself conditioned in the off-season (a LOT of Yoga/Pilates) she could feasibly play another few years in the league, and still maintain her consistency.
“I have accomplished so much and I feel very blessed to have done so many things,” Tangela said. “I used to have a goal of playing for my country and winning a gold medal. That is one thing I have yet to accomplish. It may be out of reach now but I don’t have any complaints about what I’ve done so far.”
Through it all, Smith still has that same fire for competing and playing the game of basketball. Tangela has played almost 400 games in her WNBA career and another several hundred if you include her overseas career. Smith has the same love for the game as she did in college at Iowa. Her insatiable thirst to succeed is something she doesn’t take lightly.
“I still have that same competitive spirit and drive in me,” said Tangela. “That will never go away. But it isn’t just in basketball; it’s in everything that I set out to accomplish in life whether small or big. I hate to lose and I try everything in my power to be on the winning end of things.”
Perhaps what makes Smith so lovable is her overall sweet, kind and open personality. She always sets time aside to take pictures with fans and I’ve personally witnessed several occasions where, after a loss, Smith would still come out of the locker room with a smile on her face (even though, inside, the loss was killing her) to meet her fans and sign autographs. Smith credits her selfless nature from her time growing up in a tough part of Chicago.
“I had a wonderful upbringing,” Smith said. “My mother raised both me and my two sisters to always be humble and always to remember where we came from. I was raised in the projects on the South Side of Chicago, but it was never really bad for me. Maybe it was just the fact that my mother was always there – she made our home so loving and made us feel that we were never without anything. Coming from a loving family is what made me the person I am today. I owe that all to my mother and the morals she instilled in me growing up.”
Playing on the Phoenix Mercury with superstars like Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter is a blessing for Tangela. At the same time, at 6-4, she is typically asked to guard opponents who are much bigger than her on a nightly basis. Combining the effort she exerts on the defensive end with playing in such an up-tempo system requires her to constantly adapt to an evolving environment. Doesn’t matter – Tangela is more than happy to do what is best for the team.
“Coach [Corey] Gaines told me often that if I just continued to space out on the floor I would be open for so many 3’s and that is exactly what happened,” Tangela said. “I know we have star players in Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi, and Penny Taylor and I know they are the main focus of other teams. So, I just sit back and wait until my number is called and just let it ride. I love being on this team and I love the role I’m in. I consider myself a smart enough player to just read the situation that is given to me and do what I have to do.”
If you ask anyone in the Mercury organization, they’ll have nothing but glowing things to say about both Tangela the person and the teammate. She’ll do whatever it takes to win and do it with a positive attitude. She always finds the good in every situation and is someone who teammates can turn to if they need a good laugh or encouragement. More importantly, she is just a fun-loving person who is incredibly pleasant to be around.
On the court, however, her stoic presence provides stability for the Mercury. Knowing this, I had to find out what Tangela thought of the nickname, Silent Assassin…
“Silent Assassin – that puts a smile on my face,” Tangela said. “I really just want to go out and do whatever I can to help my team win. I know that sounds cliché but that is exactly how I feel. I never would have thought that I would lead the league in three-point percentage, but that was my role last year.”
Maybe the best testament to Smith’s character and integrity was how her face lit up when I asked her about her charity work. You could hear the passion in her voice and the genuine place it comes from.
“It means a lot to me to help the less fortunate,” said Smith. “I love putting a smile on someone’s face and seeing the joy in their eyes. I feel like I was placed in a great position to give back and that is exactly what I intend to do. It warms my heart if I can assist someone and make their life just a little better and fulfilling. There are so many things that I want to do as far as charity work because there are so many people in need of so much. I feel like I was placed in a great position to give back.”
In the end, as Smith said, there is a chance she won’t get recognized for how amazing a player she is. But for the Silent Assassin, that’s not what is truly important – just being able to play for so long (in a league she doesn’t take for granted) is the real blessing.