For Harrisburg Coach Kirk Smallwood, basketball is the “carrot” that leads city youth to his mentorship.
Smallwood, a 1973 Harrisburg High School graduate, is considered a legend in the school district. He served 16 years as the district’s athletic director and has coached basketball there for as long as anyone remembers.
“I love this school district, and I’m willing to do anything to help the kids here,” Smallwood proudly noted. “I was in the second class to graduate from Harrisburg High School.”
To the hundreds of young people that Smallwood has mentored over the years, he is far more than a basketball coach.
“Coach Smallwood is like a father figure to me,” said Tony James, 16, an incoming 11th-grader at Harrisburg’s SciTech High School and a third-year player on the Smallwood Summer League. “He always helps us out and always has our back.”
The Smallwood Summer League is a Harrisburg youth basketball team that Smallwood has run for seven weeks every summer since 1991, in addition to serving as the high school’s basketball coach during the regular school year. The league competes against 34 school districts from throughout the state, including Williamsport, Hazleton and Shamokin.
“Coach Smallwood is a great coach,” said Elijah Barrett, 18, an incoming Harrisburg High senior and a second-year Smallwood Summer League player. “He teaches us to become great men.”
Coach of the Year
Smallwood, of Susquehanna Township, began his coaching career in 1978 as an assistant coach at Harrisburg High. It was the same year he started working as a substitute teacher in the school district—just two days after receiving a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Kutztown University. He was hired full-time later that year, continuing as a “general teacher” in the district until 1989, when he left for the Central Dauphin School District.
Smallwood taught alternative education at Central Dauphin East High School in Lower Paxton Township for four years while serving as CD East’s head basketball coach. In 1993, he returned home to Harrisburg High School as a teacher and coach. In 1999, he was appointed the high school’s athletic director, a position he maintained until retiring at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
“I just felt it was time to retire,” he explained. “I was dealing with some health issues that deserved a lot more attention than I was giving them. It helped me to better monitor my sleep and eating patterns.”
Smallwood didn’t entirely retire, however. He’s still Harrisburg’s head varsity basketball coach and runs the summer basketball league. He also heads a free Kirk Smallwood Skills Clinic at the Camp Curtin YMCA in June and July for boys in grades 8 to 11.
During his school coaching tenure, Smallwood has overseen 19 Mid Penn Championships, nine District Championships and two State Championships. He was also awarded the 1998 and 2002 AP Big School Coach of the Year.
Mentoring youth carries no trophies, but Smallwood finds this as rewarding as winning any championship.
“Today’s kids are different than when I went to school here,” he said. “They need more help and assistance to succeed. There’s less parental involvement. They need assistance from many other entities. Sometimes, kids get distracted. They’re not being attended to as much.”
Smallwood said he builds relationships with his players through honesty and caring. The biggest challenge, he noted, “is that they just need so much of you.”
“We may walk across the street together for a burger or I may visit their homes,” he said. “Basketball is the carrot. Every kid is different. You never know what baggage they’re carrying.”
Wes Bair, Harrisburg’s assistant basketball coach for 20 years, said it’s not only kids who respect and admire Smallwood. Adults feel the same way.
“Coach Smallwood is very knowledgeable, well respected and very fair,” he said. “He gives his staff a lot of freedom to operate within the system. He doesn’t micromanage and welcomes suggestions from others.”
Bair added that, over the years, he’s seen Smallwood “help hundreds of kids get into college or get jobs.”
So what does Smallwood hope that young people will take away from his basketball court?
“I hope they know that I work hard every day,” he said. “I’m consistent. I try to give my all every day.”
Author: Phyllis Zimmerman