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Home-grown talent rises to top of their game

By Tammy Scileppi

Queens has seen many great athletes perform at Shea Stadium, Citi Field and at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but the borough can also claim a couple of prodigies who played their way to the big leagues.

At 29, former Mets player and Whitestone native Mike Baxter is still a Queens kid at heart.

Currently playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the outfielder has been a great role model for young fans, proving that if you work hard and aim high, you can achieve your dreams.

The 2002 Archbishop Molloy High School graduate, who was the school’s first position player to make the Big Leagues, made Queens proud with his Mets debut Aug. 8, 2011 as a lefty-hitting outfielder. It was his lifelong dream.

Growing up, the diehard young Mets fan who used to go to five or six games a year at Shea suddenly found himself in the spotlight at Citi Field on June 1, 2012, after his amazing seventh-inning catch to save Santana’s no-hitter — the team’s first in a 50-year history.

In an ESPNNewYork interview, Baxter described that night as the highlight of his time in New York. One month later, he was honored with a city proclamation at Citi Field. When he was claimed on waivers by the Dodgers, last October, the transition was bittersweet.

Baxter’s time in New York was coming to an end. He told ESPN that he had really enjoyed playing here, but was excited to get a new opportunity with a new club.

Baxter’s parents, who still live in Whitestone, would probably tell you those Bayside Little League summers helped groom their child for a pro baseball career.

Later on, traveling to Archbishop Molloy every day on trains and buses wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it. Their son played for legendary high school coach Jack Curran.

For 50 plus years, the winningest coach at Molloy took many talented basketball and baseball players under his wing and showed them the ropes. Baxter still sought Curran’s counsel until his death on March 14, 2013.

Ken Auer was the assistant varsity baseball coach under Curran when Baxter was a player at Archbishop Molloy.

“Michael was one of the best athletes on the team. The team we had in 2002 won the City Championship, with Michael as the senior leader,” Auer said. “He is a great, level-headed young man; a wonderful representative of Archbishop Molloy. We are all very proud of him and all his accomplishments.”

When Kenny “The Jet” Smith talks hoops, basketball fans listen. His main gig is as TNT’s NBA studio analyst.

Back in the day, before he became a famous basketball player, the Queens kid from Jamaica was an inveterate New York Knicks fan and budding guard, who wanted to “twirl like the Pearl or glide like Clyde.” In a 1995 interview Smith said, “I could tell who the player was just by looking at their socks, without seeing their face, that’s how big a fan I was.”

Smith recalled mimicking Earl Monroe’s and Walt Frazier’s court presence when he started playing basketball at age 6 or 7, but said he wasn’t strong enough to shoot the correct way, so he just used two hands.

“As I got older, I just kept shooting that way. My high school coach used to tell me there’s no correct way to shoot,” said Smith, “that the only correct way was to get the ball into the basket.”

That coach was Archbishop Molloy’s Jack Curran, who was also Mike Baxter’s baseball coach.

After graduating from Archbishop Molloy in 1983, Smith played at the University of North Carolina and in the NBA from 1987 to 1997, as a member of the Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Denver Nuggets.

“Kenny was extremely disciplined. He was determined to succeed in the classroom and in life,” John Diorio, a former Archbishop Molloy teacher, said. “In essence, he was very easy to teach. He wasn’t afraid to participate in class projects or by answering questions, and never had to be prodded. He never changed that approach as a professional. On the court he wasn’t afraid to be in the middle of the action, and that helped him earn two NBA championships.”

Smith also earns praise from a former Archbishop Molloy gym teacher.

“Kenny was always a gentleman in class. He conducted himself well, which is a credit to his parents,” Richard Rodgers said. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know they did a great job. Archbishop Molloy reinforced what he learned from his parents, and I think that certainly influenced how he carried himself as a pro player, as well as shaped his persona on the air, as an announcer.”

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