The closer Kelsey Smith's big day gets, the longer it takes to get here.
Or so it seems to her.
"It's definitely been a long time coming," said Smith, a former star basketball player at St. Charles North, whose college career has taken the scenic route.
Smith just wants to play basketball again.
But a knee injury and a midseason transfer from Michigan State to DePaul have kept the 6-foot-4 forward out of the loop for a while. Per NCAA transfer rules, she's due to become eligible for the Blue Demons on Thanksgiving Day at a tournament in the Virgin Islands, five games into the season and an entire year since she played in her last game, for Michigan State.
Talk about having something special to be thankful for between bites of turkey.
"I've had this countdown going with my dad and he'll text me to tell me how far away I am from getting to play," Smith said. "He texted me the other day when we were exactly a week away. It seems like the last few days have been going so slow."
Every time Smith gets impatient about the wait for basketball, she thinks about everything else she's gained from her homecoming, like getting to witness her little sister's homecoming.
"My sister Mackenzie is a freshman and she just went to her first homecoming dance and I got to help her get ready," Smith said. "I really liked being able to do that. I can also hop on the train and go home for dinner, or my parents can be here in an hour if they want to visit me.
"I really missed that."
Being back near her family is one of the biggest reasons Smith wanted to return to Chicago. She was painstakingly homesick in East Lansing.
"I'm really close to my family," Smith said. "Normally, I'm a pretty optimistic and happy person. I wasn't quite as happy as I wanted to be. I sat out my freshman year (2009-10) at Michigan State to get stronger and more comfortable with the system and that probably didn't help with me being homesick because I wasn't even getting to play basketball.
"It was a really tough year."
The road got tougher.
Smith played in 22 games for Michigan State the next season (2010-11) as a redshirt freshman and also won academic all-Big Ten accolades.
But her homesickness continued.
Then, that summer, a nagging knee injury that Smith was committed to playing through became so bothersome that doctors recommended surgical repairs.
So when Smith returned to Michigan State for the start of her sophomore year last season, she was behind.
"When you come back from surgery, it takes a while to get back into the swing of things," Smith said. "I just wasn't feeling like myself."
Being away from home, Smith already wasn't feeling like herself.
A few games into her sophomore season at Michigan State, Smith decided that her best move was to transfer, somewhere closer to home. Her focus was on just one place.
"DePaul was one of the schools I initially gave a lot of thought to, and when I told (head coach) Doug (Bruno) that I wouldn't be coming, he was really nice about it, and some coaches aren't that way," Smith said. "He wished me luck and said that if anything ever changed, the door was always open.
"That really stuck with me."
The thought of having Smith on his roster stuck with Bruno, too. He welcomed her transfer to DePaul with open arms.
Bruno says that Smith is the type of player who can do everything well, and that you can't put a price on the combination of her size and athleticism.
"Having Kelsey is our rotation will be really good for us," Bruno said. "She's a very steady player and very smart and she can go out and do everything. She can rebound, play defense and she's got a nice shot.
"The interesting thing about her is that (age-wise) she's really a senior, but she hasn't played much basketball yet. When you have situations like this, you have to know that it could take time. Some people come back and it's like they haven't missed a beat, others have to work their way in."
Smith is prepared to take baby steps. Taking any steps at all is the most important thing to her at this point.
"My sister was telling me the other day that she was excited to see me play again because she almost forgets what I play like," Smith said. "And I was thinking to myself, 'Me too.'
"I'm not sure what my role will be at first, probably just little things wherever the team needs me. I think I'll be a little nervous, but I'm up to the challenge. I just want to get back into the flow again and start playing again."
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