Marcus Smart's description of his final game as an Oklahoma State Cowboy was succinct and all too true. Minutes after he walked off the court for the last time as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, Smart said the game was a bit of a "Debbie Downer." Unfortunately, that had become a common theme for Oklahoma State's season, and the breakthrough we were all hoping for in the tourney never came. Gonzaga outlasted OSU in an a foul fest disguised as a basketball game, and the first round loss made Smart 0-2 in the NCAA tournament for his career.
Smart left everything he had on the court that day, becoming the first player in tournament history to put up 20 points, 10 boards, five assists and five steals in a game, but the mutual feeling among supporters and players alike was that it was all over far too soon. Months later, as Smart prepares for his rookie season with the Boston Celtics, I find myself wondering if we deserve a bit of blame for it.
Marcus Smart returned for a second season at Oklahoma State because he said that he wanted to enjoy just playing basketball for one more year before he was paid to produce. Because he wanted to savor the innocence of the sport for one final year. But we never let him.
The media labeled the 2013 Cowboys as a legitimate threat to Bill Self's dynastic Jawhawks and the fans believed that Oklahoma State squad was destined for even greater things. Smart was named the Big 12 Pre-Season Player of the Year, creating an intense rivalry between himself and Kansas' superstar freshman Andrew Wiggins before the season even began.That alone stripped the innocence away from the game; basketball's true purity comes on the park or playground or at open gym at a local church on a Saturday morning, not when every misstep is considered a massive letdown, as was often the case last season.
That's not to say that the Cowboys shouldn't have had sky high expectations for themselves. They should have. On talent alone, that may have been the best group of players to ever call Gallagher-Iba Arena home. But for Smart, a kid that saw Oklahoma State as a second home and as his first stable surroundings after a winding road of a childhood, those expectations meant that he'd be playing basketball for far more than the love of the game. That's because he's the kind of guy that puts all of the pressure on himself to try and alleviate it from others, he's someone that accepts the blame like he's a shield for his teammates.
That's been true of Smart since he was a kid. When he was very young he inherited an immense responsibility to lift his family out of a rough neighborhood, to steer his life in a different direction as he watched one of his older brothers fall in with the wrong crowd. As he grew up, his mother began developing health issues, putting all the more pressure on Smart to break free from his surroundings and deliver prosperity to his loved ones.
Smart played with everything from his past strapped to his burly shoulders during his time at OSU. When he made a mistake, it was as if he has let someone down, as if his failures were a misrepresentation of everyone he cares about. A bad turnover here, a clanked jumper there and the frustration grew. He has such a tender heart that he believes he owes it to everyone to make every shot or complete every pass, and that a miss is some big disappointment.
That's why we saw such raw emotion from Smart. He carried the weight of his entire family, his entire team, everyone who roots for him and all of those lofty expectations with him on every possession. Occasionally, that got the best of him. Other times, it produced memorable moments like this. He displays such a passion for the sport not just because he loves the game, but also because basketball was his ticket to a better life for his family, which is what he had been working for all along.
And that's why I think he is such a perfect fit for the Celtics.
If the pressure was heavy during his time as a college star, growing up in the tough city of Boston, a spoiled sports metropolis that expects excellence from every team in the town, won't be any better. But Smart's arrival in Boston also completes an important part of his journey. He's now a professional basketball player. He's now a millionaire. He's given his mom a chance to get the new kidney that she's needed for over a decade, and I'm sure that soon she'll have a brand new house, too. He's successfully completed a remarkable transformation from an angry, misunderstood bully to a mature young man that epitomizes what it means to be Boston Strong.
He's in for a challenge, there's no doubt. This is not Milwaukee or Orlando, where becoming an all-star one day would be considered a triumph. This is Boston. This is the most decorated franchise in the history of the sport, one half of the most historic hardcourt rivalry ever, the team that has put the most players in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even the floor in the Boston Garden is special, as the famous Parquet lives in Celtic lore. Boston hasn't had a lottery pick turn into a franchise player since Paul Pierce - now a Celtic legend - and the fanbase is itching for the organization to fast track its way into a new, vibrant and decorated era.
Smart knows this. He had to pick a new number when he arrived in the NBA because his college number (#33) hangs in the rafters at the Garden in honor of one of the game's most iconic heroes. He understands the history of the franchise and the responsibility that comes with dawning the Celtics green. There will be immense pressure on him to succeed, and quickly.
But there is a very important distinction from the kind of pressure Smart is going to be dealing with in the NBA compared to what he dealt with at Oklahoma State.
I think Smart was wrong about college being the place for him to play the game simply because he enjoyed it. Coming back to school gave Smart pause because it meant his mother would have to go through another year of dialysis in place of a kidney transplant that only someone on an NBA salary could comfortably afford. Having that weigh on you is not the easiest way to do something just for fun, not when your every move is noted and analyzed and when an inappropriate taunt by a fan may cost you a million dollars.
Now Marcus doesn't have to worry about his draft stock, or how his coach, whom Smart loved for giving him a chance at Oklahoma State, was being talked about in the media. In college, Smart was playing so that one day he could deliver stability and abundance for his family. Now that he's made it to the pros, as the No. 6 overall pick by an iconic franchise, and signed his name on a contract that will help him supply for his family for a very long time, Smart is finally free to play the game like a kid. He's finally free to play for the love of the game, to be the kind of ruthless competitor that Larry Bird would be proud to see wearing his old jersey without worrying about who he's letting down.
Who knows if Smart will help the Celtics hang a few more banners and add to their their record number of championship trophies one day. There are an infinite set of variables outside of Smart's ability and play that will determine that.
But what I do know is that Marcus Smart has accomplished something incredibly noble and meaningful already, before he ever steps onto the Parquet: He's followed through on and completed everything that was expected and asked of him as a kid; he's dealt with the unconscionable pressure of rescuing a family at the age of 19 and succeeded; he's delivered on every promise he's ever made to the people he cares about; and he's given us everything he had for two years.
And now he's moving on.
Soon, Smart will win over the city of Boston with his relentless pursuit of success, his charismatic and affluent personality and his willingness to accept blame for his mistakes. The constant lauding of Smart's character during his time at Oklahoma State was not for show; an organization that most recently won a championship with model competitors like Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and a franchise that was once led by the likes of Bird, Parrish, McHale and Russell believes that Marcus is the perfect player and person to help carry that culture on into the future.
The people of Boston will realize that Marcus Smart is far more than just a basketball player. He's someone worthy of admiration for his character and work ethic. He's someone worthy of praise for having the persistence to make himself into the man he is today in spite of a rough upbringing. He's someone whose desire is inspiring, win or lose.
He's someone that Oklahoma State should be proud to call their own.