SAN FRANCISCO – At 14 years old, Paolo Banchero sat stoically in his upper-deck seat and was completely focused as the North Carolina men’s basketball team beat visiting Syracuse 85-68 in January 2017 in the Dean Smith Center.
Banchero and his mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, were among the 20,588 fans watching a heralded Atlantic Coast Conference matchup between two Basketball Hall of Fame coaches, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim.
And shortly after the buzzer sounded, Smith-Banchero turned to her son and asked, “Can you see yourself playing on this level, or is it too overwhelming?”
Without hesitation, Paolo Banchero turned to the former University of Washington women’s basketball star and said confidently, “I want to play on this level, mom.”
Duke’s star freshman forward has done so and is the most heralded pro prospect playing in this weekend’s Final Four at the Superdome in New Orleans. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Banchero, who averaged 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists in four NCAA tournament games, is currently ranked as the No. 2 NBA prospect by ESPN.com.
Making the stakes even higher is Banchero and the Blue Devils are facing rival North Carolina for the first time in the NCAA tournament in what has been the swan song season for Duke’s iconic Basketball Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Banchero credits his mother for being his main influence in helping him fall in love with basketball. They watched WNBA games together regularly, and he proudly remains a women’s basketball fan and supporter.
“All he is and all he ever hopes to be is a result of his mother,” Krzyzewski said.
The 19-year-old Banchero, whose father, Mario, is Italian-American, also credits his mother for teaching him to be proud of his Black heritage and how to deal with racist challenges that come with it.
“Black and Italian is unique, and it’s been a great experience growing up,” Banchero said. “My mom, she’s real adamant about just teaching me how to navigate in the world we live in.”
Smith-Banchero recalled her son getting in trouble for playfully tapping his old elementary school windows when he was 12 with a white classmate in the back alley. Some teachers were alarmed by the childish prank in which they only saw the head of a 6-foot-2 Black kid wearing a hoodie. Banchero’s kindergarten teacher recognized him and called his mom to tell her about the mischief.
Once she caught up with her son, Smith-Banchero was very emotional, much to his surprise.
“My emotions are way up here because I’m scared,” Smith-Banchero said. “And he didn’t understand why I was so upset. And I told him: ‘Trayvon Martin happened. You can’t walk around in a hoodie.’ He says: ‘Well, mom, it’s practice. I’m sweaty and Seattle’s cold. I got my hoodie on.’ ‘No, get a hat. You can’t wear your hoodie.’ I never shielded anything from him.”
Smith-Banchero was one of the greatest players in Huskies women’s basketball history.
She was the Washington women’s basketball program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,948 points while playing from 1991-95. (She has since been passed by Washington alumna and Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum, who scored 3,527 points to become college basketball’s all-time leading women’s scorer.)
Smith-Banchero also played professionally in the now-defunct American Basketball League with the Seattle Reign and Portland Power, in the WNBA with the Sacramento Monarchs, and overseas in Taiwan and Israel.
Paolo Banchero never saw his mom play in person but has viewed enough videotape to know she had a strong right hand offensively, was tough, could rebound and had great post moves. He believes that some of his game mimics how his mother played.
“Seeing her do that [on tape], you don’t even realize that you’re looking like your mom,” Banchero said. “But I’ve had countless people come up to me and tell me how good she was. And she was really a beast.”
While he dabbled in football and track, Paolo Banchero started playing basketball around the age of 4 and it eventually became his passion due to his mother’s influence. Smith-Banchero coached girls’ basketball at Holy Names Academy in Seattle, and her son was a regular at her games and practices.
As Banchero got older, he often would take part in scrimmages playing guard. She also allowed him to shoot at the basket on a side court during practices under one condition.
“Paolo was always driven,” Smith-Banchero said. “Any sport, we would tell him, ‘Don’t go out there and mess around.’ When he was on the court with me at practice, I’m coaching, he’d be over on the side shooting. And I see him throwing up trick shots or just hooking the ball up. And I stopped or pause, go over there and tell him, ‘Don’t practice bad shots. Don’t practice that mess.’ And he was just always listening. Coachable, even from that age.”
But Smith-Banchero always provided guidance that went beyond basketball. She says she regularly told her son that he would be treated differently because he was Black. Making the matter more complicated for her son during his youth was his extraordinary height – he was 3 feet tall at 15 months and had surpassed 6 feet by the seventh grade.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot during a traffic stop by a police officer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Smith-Banchero was in a hotel room in North Carolina with her son at an AAU tournament when she screamed and began to weep after reading about Castile’s death on her iPad.
She showed her son the news and told her son that if he was ever questioned by the police in a car to make sure he told his age and to put his hands on the dashboard.
“We watched video and he didn’t cry, but I was crying, and I was like, ‘This is some bulls—,’ ” Smith-Banchero said. “ ‘This is what I talked to you about.’ And like the whole coaching piece, he didn’t question it. He understood what I was saying, and I didn’t have to tell him again. But I never shielded him from stuff like that because he was just too tall, too Black. Doesn’t matter that my husband is white, my son looks Black. People didn’t think he was my husband’s child.”
Two years later, her son had reason to heed her advice.
On June 19, 2018, Banchero was in the passenger side of a Jeep driven by current Washington State guard Noah Williams, 17 years old at the time, after a Chris Brown concert at the White River Amphitheater in Auburn, Washington. Williams was driving his mother’s car to her sister, who lived near the venue, according to Smith-Banchero. Meanwhile, the local police were on the lookout for another Jeep that was reported stolen by a concertgoer.
“I had a situation with the police when I was 15, where me and my friend had got pulled over, and they pulled guns on us, and we got arrested. They had suspected we stole the car, but it wasn’t [true]. They had the wrong car and everything, so it was a situation that I had to deal with back then,” Banchero said.
According to The Seattle Times, King County sheriff’s deputy Corey Marcotte approached the open driver’s window, allegedly pointed a gun at Williams’ head and said, “Don’t you [expletive] move!” according to the lawsuit filed in November 2018 in U.S. District Court. A frightened Williams dropped his cellphone and put his hands in the air. According to the lawsuit, Williams didn’t get an answer when he asked Marcotte why he was pointing a gun at him.
“I’ve had some encounters where I had to do the right thing in situations that were tricky. Just knowing what my mom had taught me and using that was big.”
— Duke freshman Paolo Banchero on being stopped by police in 2018
Smith-Banchero said her son was approached by another officer on the passenger side who asked him for the car registration and hit him in the chest. Just like his mom taught him, Banchero told the officer he was 15 years old. Smith-Banchero said the officer deescalated after hearing her son’s age. Shortly afterward, Williams’ sister arrived very emotional and explained to the cops that it was the family car. The cops eventually learned that the reported stolen Jeep in question was actually moved by the owner from the parking lot earlier.
“I’ve had some encounters where I had to do the right thing in situations that were tricky. Just knowing what my mom had taught me and using that was big,” Banchero said.
At the time of the incident, Smith-Banchero was on vacation with her daughter, Mia, when her husband called.
“Mario is telling me the story that I didn’t know how far he was going to go,” Smith-Banchero said. “And his voice is shaking and all of the fears, every single fear alarm. You’re just listening and you’re like, ‘Holy s—.’ And my husband was emotional, not only because of what happened. But he was also emotional because we had talked at length about all of the stuff that had happened to other people and how unjust it was. And he obviously thought it was unjust, too …
“My legs wanting to buckle. I remember my shoulders just getting bigger. So, he’s like, ‘But they’re fine. They came home.’”
Smith-Banchero said her son wanted to pursue a lawsuit against the King County Sheriff’s Office. Williams wanted to as well. The goal was to get an apology and effect change. After struggling to find a lawyer who would take their case, Smith-Banchero said, the Seattle firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless took the case.
“Well, the interesting thing about getting an attorney for something like that is a lot of attorneys won’t take the case because your kid didn’t die, and they didn’t get hurt,” Smith-Banchero said. “So, for attorneys, it’s not worth it, which is crazy, right? And they were so apologetic. I talked to a couple of attorneys that I was referred to and the entry questions or whatever, the prescreening. Did he get shot? Is he alive? Well, yeah, he’s alive. And they were like, ‘I’ll see, but it’s probably not going to be worth it.’”
The lawsuit accused Marcotte of pointing a gun at Williams, the 17-year-old driver. Williams and Banchero were identified by their initials in the lawsuit publicly because they were minors at the time. Marcotte denied pointing the weapon but did acknowledge that he approached with his gun drawn.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in March 2018 that pointing a gun at an unarmed and compliant driver could violate that person’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal seizure.
On Sept. 6, 2019, the Associated Press reported that the King County Sheriff’s Office was ordered to apologize, pay $80,000, and implemented new use-of-force guidelines to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit brought by two African American teens, Williams and Banchero, who say they were wrongly held at gunpoint at a concert.
The Seattle Times also reported the settlement was reached after negotiations between the sheriff’s office and attorneys representing the boys and their families. In the settlement, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless and Williams each received $30,000 and Banchero received $20,000.
“We were successful, and the attorney said, ‘Listen, I don’t even know how this happened, but you all got the changes that you were asking for and an apology from the head sheriff.’ He said they never do that. They always just pay the money and keep going,” Smith-Banchero said.
George Floyd, an African American, died because of police brutality in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, after police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. Three days after Floyd’s killing led to protests worldwide, Banchero revealed on Twitter that he was one of the Black teenagers involved in the incident with King County police in 2018.
“Took me almost 2 years to speak on it. you never really understand the weight of something until it’s right there in front of you (literally),” Banchero said on his Twitter account.
Banchero looked up into the stands at the Chase Center at his mom to make sure she was filming him cut down the nets with her camera phone after Duke won the West Regional against Arkansas on March 26. The stage was not too big for Banchero, who was named the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
“My mom won a state championship as a coach, and I remember her cutting down the net. I remember her swirling the net around and I always wanted to do that,” Banchero said. “When I won state [championship] in high school, they lowered the hoop so we could cut the net and didn’t bring a ladder. So, it ruined the moment a little bit. So, when I got up there on the ladder, I looked up there [in the stands] and told my mom to make sure she gets the video.”
It was a special moment, celebrating a win that kept alive the hope of becoming an NCAA champion in Krzyzewski’s last run. Krzyzewski said Banchero is playing his “best basketball right now,” and credited his parents for his success.
“Paolo is really coachable. And a big reason for that is because of the family he comes from,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s gotten better and better. The thing that he is doing right now, that is an emerging thing, he has a strong face and positive talk in the locker room, in the timeout, on the court. That is another step forward. There is so much more that he is beginning to develop. It’s a steady track up.”