By Eric Crawford, WDRB
This column originally appeared at WDRB.com after Louisville’s 2013 NCAA Championship, as part of Eric Crawford’s e-book commemorating the title, “The Run.”
It was an easy moment to miss, but in some ways, it was a defining Russ Smith moment. With two seconds left in the NCAA championship game, the University of Louisville ahead of Michigan by six and the matter settled, his coaches and teammates celebrating all around him, Smith went to the line to shoot one and the bonus.
He missed the shot. Smith’s head went down, he flung his right arm in frustration, and for a split second, he was the most disgusted guy in the building.
Two ticks of the clock later, all that gave way to national championship euphoria. But for Smith, with a basketball in his hand and the rim in front of him, happiness means one thing, and only one thing: the ball through the net.
Smith, no doubt, wishes he’d played better than his nine-point effort in the national championship game, never mind that all of his second-half points were huge. But among the many unforgettable elements of Smith’s Louisville journey, put this one at the top of the list: Without Smith, none of it would have happened.
Not the Final Four in 2012. Not the championship in 2013. None of it. Debates have sprung up in Louisville over how quickly Peyton Siva’s jersey should be honored in the rafters. Russ Smith’s should take not one second longer — though a return to the Cardinals in 2013 will delay it at least that much.
Smith was the leading scorer of the NCAA Tournament. He was Louisville’s driving force. And by driving, I mean driving. He was its engine. On the court, off the court. He was perpetual motion.
“He carried us,” Siva said, “the whole way.”
On game video of Russ Smith, they should run a crawl at the bottom: Kids, don’t try this at home.
They say for a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. For Smith, every problem is a jump shot, a drive to the rim, an and-one.
He is relentless, fearless, and plays the game without reservation.
“There’s not a better transition guard in the country — I’m trying to think of one in recent memory — as Smith,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He is courageous, plays with great heart. I’m getting old. If I need a transplant, I hope he would give me his. He could give me part of it and I’d have more courage than I have right now.”
To understand Smith, you have to remember his roots. His father, Big Russ, owns a barber shop and salon in Harlem. Big Russ has had his brushes with fame, was the basketball consultant on the film “Finding Forrester,” and a fairly accomplished player himself, who looks as if he could still take the court and do some damage. He’s also had his brushes with trouble. The best Big Russ story — and there are a bunch of them — is when he says he tried to get someone to delay bailing him out of jail because some guys were counting on him to help them win a jailhouse basketball game. Regardless, when Little Russ would roll into the shop after a game, the question always was, “How many did you have?” And they weren’t asking about assists.
When Smith showed up at U of L, nobody was excited. I was there the day Pitino introduced that recruiting class, during his infamous “Bridge Year” speech. Gorgui Dieng had yet to be cleared by the NCAA. A one-year transfer from Memphis didn’t make it because of grades. Ditto for freshman Justin Coleman. So, up on the stage, Pitino trotted out Russ Smith and Elisha Justice and pointed to his new recruiting class.
Now, Pitino is a coach of great stature. But there’s no way he should tower over any recruiting class. When he introduced Smith and Justice, you could picture him posting them up at the hoop above the garage door. You wondered if he was getting back into the thoroughbred business and needed some exercise riders.
In Smith’s early days, it didn’t appear to be working out. The kid had a gift of some kind, but it wasn’t fitting in with Pitino’s meter or structure.
The biggest problem was defense. For Smith, defense was something other people played against him, not something to be played by him.
And there was a total, out-of-control nature to his game. He did things Pitino could not believe. He said things Pitino could not believe. Pitino called him lots of things. He said Smith was a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. He coined the term “Russdiculous.” He nearly lost Smith before his sophomore season. He just couldn’t see how Smith’s game was going to translate into anything he was trying to do.
He had one more talk with Big Russ before the deal was done. And Big Russ said to give his kid one more year. If he didn’t play, he didn’t play, but just see.
It started with defense. Smith realized that if he could apply enough defensive pressure when he got into a game, that the defense would cover a multitude of offensive sins, or, to put it more accurately, Russdiculous shots. It also started with a decision by Pitino to move Smith out of the point guard spot. Undersized though he was, Smith’s move to shooting guard paid off. Smith played the sixth-most minutes on the team, but was second on the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game, and something even more impressive — set a school single-season record with 87 steals. And in combination with Siva, it gave the Cards a new gear in guard quickness.
Off the court, Smith was just as frenetic. He gave Pitino bunny ears after a national TV win. He put together a team text group and flooded it so much that teammates finally had to turn their phones off. He stayed up late into the night, an incurable insomniac, too much energy to lie still. When teammate Gorgui Dieng would fall asleep on road trips, he’d do push-ups until he got tired.
“Even when he’s sleeping,” Dieng said, “I think he’s running the break.”
He got stronger. He improved his bench press, his pull-ups, became as well-conditioned an athlete as there was on the team.
“I feel like with the ball in my hand, there’s no one faster in the country,” Smith said, and it’s hard to argue.
By the time U of L reached the regional finals against Florida in 2012, Pitino had little hesitation about moving Smith to the point late in the game after Peyton Siva had fouled out. There was one glitch — a mind-blowing turnover — but he guided the team home, and to New Orleans to an unlikely Final Four.
In 2013, Smith went from novelty act to serious player. He didn’t always get the respect he deserved, but he was viewed in a new light. There were lapses. He took ill-advised shots in losses to Villanova and Notre Dame. He still had his moments.
But he also had moments when he completely carried the Cardinals. Ken Pomeroy rated him, from an offensive and defensive statistical standpoint, the most valuable player in the nation.
Sometimes his game was not understood, his aggressiveness mistaken for selfishness. Pitino did his best to get into Smith’s mind, and succeeded to a degree. He learned to live with the Russdiculousness to reap the rewards.
“When he’s on the break and doesn’t pass the ball ahead, I truly believe now that he’s not being selfish,” Pitino said. “In his mind, the best chance for the team to score is for him to take the ball himself and score or get fouled. His confidence is at such a level that most of us can’t comprehend it. But there is a team aspect to it.”
“And the other part is this. Some of the things he has done that people deemed weaknesses were because of things I asked him to do. We’ve needed him to drive and get fouled. We needed him to create at the end of the shot clock.”
And during the home stretch of the championship season, Smith took another step. After struggling in a five-overtime loss at Notre Dame, Smith rededicated himself to studying Pitino’s scouting reports and began a run of brilliant play equaled only in rare stretches of the program’s history. He opened the tournament by setting an NCAA Tourney single-game record with eight steals against North Carolina A&T. He was, for most of the tournament, the best player on the best team in the bracket.
At breakfast on the morning of the NCAA Midwest Regional Final against Duke, Pitino pulled Smith aside and reminded him he was a marked man. “I said, ‘Russ, Duke trapped you every time on a pick and roll (in the first meeting), and Duke is going to try to take you out of the game early on.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to get the other guys the ball.'”
“Don’t worry,” Smith told the coach. “I know how to play this game now.”
Smith evokes smiles. Pitino will be fuming at him, and he’ll embrace the coach in a hug before he realizes what has happened. But Smith should not be remembered for comic relief. The cold, hard world of statistics paints a far more serious picture of Smith the player. If you’ve tended to think of him as novelty act, you won’t after you read his statistical profile:
Smith took one out of every four of the Cardinals’ shots during their national championship season. For every 40 minutes he played, he drew 6.7 fouls on the opposition; that is, he fouled one player out, and had a decent start on another.
He scored 748 points during the season. Only one player — Darrell Griffith in 1980 — has scored more in a season for Louisville. His 18.7 points per game average ties for the 15th highest ever for a Cardinal. His 1,197 points over the past two seasons are the fifth highest two-year total ever. The others: Darrell Griffith, DeJuan Wheat, Reece Gaines, Wes Unseld and Charlie Tyra.
Smith shot 276 free throws during the championship season, a school record. Not just a school record, but a school record that had been held by Unseld.
If that’s not enough to cast Smith in a more serious light, consider the school’s all-time leading NCAA Tournament scorers.
No. 1 is Milt Wagner. There’s a tie for No. 2 — Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison. No. 4 is Russ Smith.
And he’ll have a chance to build on it. After thinking long and hard about it, Smith decided to stay at Louisville for his senior season.
Smith went from punch line to pantheon in two short seasons. While much of his legacy will be written in laughter, Smith already has made a serious mark on the program. And he isn’t finished yet.