Documenting a Legacy

UNC Women’s Basketball star Savannah Smith returned to her alma mater as a graduate assistant for her former team. Now, she’s working on a project connecting Bears past, present and future.

UNC women’s basketball standout Savannah Smith left UNC in May 2019 with a Graphic Design degree, experience under three coaching staffs and the school record for career points scored (2,013).

Less than a year later, she returned with a different sort of profile, after a quick stint with a professional team in Madrid and deciding she’d rather live near family and friends in Colorado.Smith is working on a master’s of Business Administration at UNC and is a graduate assistant with her old team.

Her stat sheet these days includes the number of basketballs needed for practice, the number of social media posts to design, and the number of letters she’s collected from alumni as part of a new initiative she brainstormed with Assistant Coach Jana Pearson. Called “The Legacy Project,” it’s a way to connect past, current and future players.

“We knew Savannah could really link the past to the present and help former Bears feel a continued sense of connection even if coaching staffs change,” says Head Coach Jenny Huth, who coached Smith for one year. “Our vision is to raise up and inspire the next generation of young women, and this project models that vision. That somehow, someway, when you watch us play you see passion, authentic relationships, gratitude, discipline, respect and competitiveness, and it inspires people young and old.”

Since starting as a graduate assistant in December 2019, Smith has created a Facebook group for women’s basketball alumni and reached out with a request for former players to write letters to current players — players who might even bear the same jersey number.

It’s a full-circle project for Smith, who grew up attending UNC basketball camps and cheering for the same player, D’shara Strange, whose scoring record Smith broke her senior year. Now Strange, an inductee in UNC’s 2020 Athletics Hall of Fame class, is participating in the Legacy Project.

Strange wrote to junior guard Brooklyn Evans, who now wears Strange’s old jersey, number three, saying:

As you put on that Northern Colorado Bear insignia that lays across your chest, whether it’s your practice jersey, game jersey, travel t-shirt or polo, do so with pride and understand that you have an obligation every single time you put it on. An obligation to your teammates, the Greeley Community, the University, and to YOURSELF to show up as your best self in every “arena” whether it’s the classroom, the court or community service.

Strange’s letter reinforces the longstanding culture that the project is meant to celebrate. Smith wants the project to help carry on the dedicated, caring, positive and optimistic culture built by the hard work of the generations before her. She envisions a network that will serve women athletes beyond school and throughout their careers.

Smith also describes the importance of continuing women’s basketball’s deep connections with the Greeley community. Her older sister, also a UNC alum, teaches first grade at Billie Martinez Elementary School in Greeley, and Smith says her sister’s students look forward all year to the annual Kid’s Game at Butler-Hancock Athletic Center.

“The people who I really looked up to, I was able to become one of those people for someone else,” Smith says, as she and her team believe in making a positive impact on those around them.

“You can be an amazing basketball team, but at the end of the day if you’re not good people, then I don’t think that matters,” she says.

—By Rebecca Dell