MSU, NBA star Steve Smith tells MSU graduates to find fulfillment, not just achievements

Jakkar Aimery
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Steve Smith scored again Friday if the thunderous applause from hundreds of students at the Breslin Center for undergraduate commencement were any indication.

Smith, who starred in the NBA, won an Olympic gold medal and is the second-leading scorer in Michigan State University men's basketball history, told the students and their families that coming home and being honored with an honorary doctoral degree in education was a surreal experience.

During his speech, he said he didn't recall the shot that at the time set the MSU's men's basketball scoring record.

NBA and MSU basketball star Steve Smith has a sash placed over his head by Michigan State University Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Teresa Woodruff during an honorary degree ceremony at the MSU undergraduate commencement ceremony at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Friday, May 6, 2022.

"I don't actually remember the shot that broke the record," he said, "and maybe that sounds surprising, but here's what I do remember."

He told the crowd about playing basketball in the backyard of his childhood home on Detroit’s east side, crediting his dad, Donald Smith, for pouring concrete and setting up a hoop.

“On that little court, I learned to dunk by jumping off milk crates and I learned how to pivot and dribble around cracks in the concrete.”

He said his journey led him to Detroit’s Courville Elementary School and Pershing High School, then MSU, where he graduated in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies before being drafted in the first round by the Miami Heat.

Alum Steve Smith shakes hands with Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley Jr. at the MSU undergraduate commencement ceremony at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Friday, May 6, 2022.

“Loving the journey is what makes us happy. The joy is in the journey, not in the results,” said Smith, who won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs.  

“There’s a difference between achievement and fulfillment,” he said. “Achievements shouldn’t be your only measure of success, but fulfillment is undefeated. When you find fulfillment, you’re more likely to find wisdom.”

MSU President Samuel Stanley, Jr. lauded Smith for making history with the career scoring record of 2,263 points, a mark that was later bested by Shawn Respert, as well as his philanthropy.

“You are not only an extraordinary athlete, but a philanthropist who drives sustainable social change,” Stanley said.

Graduating seniors listen as NBA and Michigan State University basketball star Steve Smith speaks during the school's commencement ceremony at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Friday, May 6, 2022.

In 1997, Smith donated $2.5 million toward the construction of a $7.5 million student-athlete academic center named in honor of his mother.

“You gave back to your alma mater by donating and creating the Clara Bell Smith Student Athlete Academic Center, which at the time, was the largest gift given by a professional athlete to any college,” Stanley said.

“We all came to Michigan State for different reasons; I had two – Magic Johnson, and my mom, Clara Bell Smith,” he said. “I’m still a momma’s boy.”

Founder and Chairman of Rocket Companies and Quicken Loans Dan Gilbert and business leader and philanthropist Jennifer Gilbert receive honorary degrees during the Michigan State University commencement ceremony at the Breslin Center in E. Lansing, Michigan on May 6, 2022.

Additional honorees during the ceremony were Detroit billionaires Dan and Jennifer Gilbert. They were the virtual commencement speakers in 2021. They both were presented with honorary business degrees by Stanley.

"The relationship we built here on campus during our undergraduate years allowed us to move forward along the way in business, philanthropy and through challenging times," Dan Gilbert said.

Jennifer Gilbert added, "Our family truly appreciates the people of our university; we accept these degrees with honor and humility. We hope that our story encourages today's graduating class to pursue greatness, have compassion for others, celebrate success graciously and make a lasting, positive impact on this world."

MSU said in a release there were 6,917 undergraduate degree candidates representing 43 countries and 44 states.