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Love and basketball bring package deal to UAA

Beth Bragg
Erik Hill

Here's a basketball story that, at least at the beginning, is all about the shoes.

Six-inch black high heels, to be precise.

Emily Smith, who is a quarter-inch shy of 6-foot-2, wore them to church one day last fall at the start of her sophomore year at Central Wyoming College.

Jacob Craft, a 6-7 freshman who attended the same church, took one look and was smitten.

Within six months they were married. Within a year they were setting up house in Anchorage, a package deal that provides the UAA women's basketball team with immediate help inside and the men's team with a four-year, low-post prospect.

The he said/she said versions of the meet-cute vary somewhat -- Emily says church is where Jacob first saw her; Jacob says he'd already seen Emily on campus and shared a fist-bump with a friend when he learned she attended the same church. But both agree that first encounter was all about the stilettos.

He says: "I commented on her heels, that I liked her heels. I knew a tall girl wearing high heels would like to be complimented on it."

She says: "He commented on my shoes, which I don't get very often. So I'm like, oh sweet! It was pretty awesome, to say the least."

The shoes sparked a romance fueled by sports and their shared LDS faith. They intend to spend four years in Anchorage, with Jacob studying pre-law and Emily studying history.



REBOUND RELATIONSHIP

As a sophomore at Central Wyoming, Emily Smith figured her basketball career would end at the junior college level.

She had a good career in Riverton, averaging 10.4 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 48.5 percent from the field in her final season, but no coaches were calling.

"I had no prospects," she said. "I wasn't expecting to (keep) playing, but I was hoping."

Meanwhile her relationship with Jacob was on the fast track, despite a slight hiccup in the first month.

"Two weeks into dating I broke up with him for a month," she said. "I just got cold feet 'cause I really liked him. Can a guy really be this nice? Is this too good to be true? I just sorta stopped it before I got in too deep."

Then came her birthday in October, and Jacob did not disappoint. He came through with flowers, a candle and a stuffed cheetah, Emily's favorite animal.

"I thought, well, I've been broken up with him this long and he still got me a present and everything," Emily said. "So I decided to get back with him."

By Halloween they were engaged. Emily was only 20 and Jacob 22, but the timing seemed right, and marrying young is common in the Mormon culture.

"I actually wanted to get married right out of high school, so I wasn't worried how old I was," Emily said. "We actually would have gotten married in December, except we wanted to wait till the school year finished so we could actually live together."

Jacob was ready too; he had recently returned from a two-year Mormon mission to Norway and was ready to settle down, although he never envisioned his bride would come with as many post-up moves as he did.

"It's kind of funny, I never thought I'd marry another basketball player," he said. "I remember before school started, I joked all the time about being excited to get up to school to start seeing the volleyball players.

"But like I said, it was love at first sight. I couldn't resist."



PACKAGE DEAL

Jacob and Emily Craft's journey to Alaska began when the UAA men's team began recruiting Jacob about a year ago.

He played just one season of high school basketball and spent two years after high school on a Mormon mission in Norway, where he didn't play at all. When he returned from his mission, he started working with a personal trainer in Utah, who helped Jacob get into playing shape as well as make some coaching contacts.

He wound up at Central Wyoming, where one of the coaches was friends with UAA coach Rusty Osborne.

"He had some height, but not the bulk," Osborne said. "He was a freshman without a lot of organized basketball, but we knew that. If he was a junior, we probably wouldn't have been interested. But he's got four years left, we like his potential, and he can shoot it."

Jacob has four years of eligibility left because on the first day of practice last season at Central Wyoming, he tore a shoulder labrum. Season over.

UAA kept in touch anyway. In the spring, assistant coach Cameron Turner checked in with Jacob and another Central Wyoming player. It was the other player who mentioned that Jacob had a wife who also played basketball. Turner promptly told women's coach Ryan McCarthy.

"I thought, well, great, another guard," McCarthy said. "I then I hear, no, she's 6-2 and was a really good track athlete in high school, and I said wow, this is a good deal.

"I called her and spoke to her a little bit. I didn't have to sell her too hard -- she was coming anyway. It's the easiest recruit I've ever had."

Emily is even better than expected, he said. She is coming off the bench for the Seawolves and averaging 8.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 16 minutes per game.

"She's extremely athletic. In my opinion she's a Division I athlete," McCarthy said. "When we played Kansas State, athletically she belonged on the floor. She was a state champion in the long jump, she runs the floor really well, she's extremely coachable, and just from the standpoint of being married in college, she's very mature. I don't have to worry about her making good decisions and things like that."



It's not unusual to find a married athlete on a UAA team -- this season, the men's team includes two married men, Jacob and Brad Mears, and an engaged one, Teancum Stafford.

But it's rare to find a two-sport couple. The last, and maybe only, married couple to play for the Seawolves were basketball players Clay and Salina Anderson back in the mid-1990s.

No two players are the same, but generally speaking, married players may need less maintenance than single ones.

"A kid who is not married is looking to be social and is spending time out there being social," Osborne said. "Whereas a married kid tends to be pretty grounded and also pretty focused on goals -- you know you've gotta pay bills, so getting that degree and into the work force becomes your focus."

The primary potential problem, Osborne said, is sometimes the wives aren't happy in Alaska. He doesn't see that happening with the Crafts, in large part because both are busy with school and basketball.

"One of them isn't sitting there by themselves all the time," Osborne said. "They can support each other. They come from the same perspective."

They certainly aren't getting tired of each other. The Crafts said they see each other one or two hours a day, not counting the hours they are sleeping.

This month they have seldom been in the same zip code for more than a day or two.The men's team spent more than a week in Utah and California early this month, and the women just wrapped up a week-long road trip to Hawaii. The Shootout, which runs Tuesday through Saturday at Sullivan Arena, will mark the only time this season when both play games in the same town on the same weekend.

"As newlyweds, that's pretty tough," McCarthy said.

There is an upside, though: Thanks to basketball, both Jacob and Emily are on scholarship.

"Being newlyweds, it's nice to not start off in a lot of debt," Emily said.



BALANCING ACT

Date night for the Crafts doesn't involve games of one-on-one or H-O-R-S-E.

"We've messed around on the court but never (play) a legitimate one-on-one," Emily said. "He's helped me post up and stuff. Usually he plays defense. This summer I appreciated the stuff he tried to help me with, but some of it I'm like, just let me work it out."

She said Jacob has a higher basketball IQ, even though he has played less.

"And he's an amazing cook," she said.

Because of the practice schedules for the two teams, Emily often comes home to a meal Jacob has prepared. Besides learning new systems as first-year players at UAA, the couple is learning how to run a household.

"I didn't think there would be a big difference being married but there is a huge difference," Emily said. "You have different priorities now, like being the role of a wife -- cooking, cleaning, trying to make your husband happy.

"It's a little more of a balance act than being single."

A year ago, Jacob shared a two-bedroom apartment with three other players. He has traded up since.

"The biggest difference is I actually enjoy my roommate now," he said. "The expectations that I feel living with and being married to Emily are different compared to living with three other guys. Keeping a cleaner house, having a sense of responsibility around the house.

"In my mind, the man's the head of the house, so I feel I need to be there when she is. I don't want to leave her alone. When I was living with three other guys, I didn't care if I was there or not."

Jacob said he likes the stability of marriage and doesn't miss the drama of dating.

"It's much easier and much more comforting knowing that if I have a hard practice or something, I'll have immediate love and concern at home," he said, "instead of a bunch of guys who stink."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com