I was just 10 years old when my parents got divorced. I remember driving all the way from Corpus Christi to somewhere in Mississippi so the judge could make a ruling on custody. I was too young to comprehend it at the time, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I would be separated from my mother
Aside from having a great mother capable of handling the added responsibility of being a single parent, I was also blessed with a strong father figure in my uncle, who was ironically and affectionately known as "Uncle Me". He was an incredibly selfless man that, along with my Aunt B, provided everything for me and my cousin as we both grew up without fathers. He and my aunt paid for us to go to private school, took us on lavish vacations to Hawaii and to all of the major league parks in California, and otherwise catered to my family every which way.
When he passed away of a sudden heart attack at the age of 60, I was angry, lost, confused. I had never lost anyone important before, and I was in shock. I became secluded, holding in my emotions. It wasn't until the next summer that I found my outlet, something I enjoyed doing that allowed me to express my feelings and feel normal again.
★ ★ ★
There was a time when Marcus Smart walked into the gym out of necessity, times when Marcus wasn't in the gym pounding a ball into the floor time after time to perfect his ball-handling, but rather to take out his frustrations on the hardwood. Whether it was on the court, on the football field, or even in the halls of school, Marcus sought ways to release his pent up anger. During those times, he walked around with a permanent scowl on his face, his body language displaying the emotional scars that were ripping his heart apart. His scowl portrayed him as an intimidating force, directly contradicting his true personality. Pounding that ball into the floor was often the only way he could deal with the pain of losing someone so close.
★ ★ ★
It's no secret why Smart chose the number 3 when he played basketball in high school. His brothers have been the most influential people in his live since he was born, and both of them donned that number when they suited up. Smart wears number 33 at Oklahoma State because the number 3 has been retired (in honor of Dan Lawson, who passed away in the Oklahoma State plane crash in 2001), but that number also has personal significance to Smart.
Smart's brother Todd was like a second father to Marcus. A star basketball player himself in his day, Todd served as one of Marcus' first basketball role models as he learned of his brother's legend growing up. But the influence he had on Smart on the floor pales in comparison to how much he meant to his development as a person. Todd's basketball career was cut short by a tumor found behind his eye when he was just 15, but the adversity he showed in the face of death inspired Marcus to no end.
In 2004, when Marcus was just 10 years old, Todd lost his 18-year battle with cancer at the age of 33. Understandably, this was a life-changing moment for Smart. The man who had taught him so many things about life, had emboldened him by simply getting up every morning and being his best friend, was gone. Marcus was too young to understand any of it.
Todd's passing nearly tore the family apart. Marcus became filled with depression derived anger, washing away his childlike innocence with random acts of violence while his older brother Michael got in with the wrong crowd, associating himself with drug dealers and a street gang. Marcus began beating up other kids, acting maliciously and getting into trouble. He was pulled away from the general population at his school and placed in special classes once for pounding another student's head into the ground. Marcus is a natural sweetheart, someone who has always cared for others more than himself, but at times the anger became too much to handle. So much had changed so quickly in his life and he began to lose himself.
Poor decisions by Marcus and Michael nearly cost them their lives. One night Marcus was chased down by a gang member that he threw a rock at, with the chase ending with a few errant shots being fired at Marcus' back. Michael turned to drugs to cope with the pain, and a cocaine binge nearly killed him. Marcus walked into the hospital that night fully expecting to learn that another one of his brothers had passed away. Miraculously, Micheal's life was saved that night, and despite the tragedy of the situation, it may have brought about the most important advice anyone ever gave to Marcus.
"You go down a different path," Michael told Marcus. "People want to call you a punk or different? You be different. I promise you, six years later when you look back, see who is different and who made a difference."
It's incredible how prophetic that message sounds in retrospect. Countless times over the past year I've heard Smart referenced as "different" than your typical college athlete. Whether it was his unusually selfless style on the court as a top recruit or his decision to put off a likely top-3 selection in the NBA Draft to return to school, the consensus on Smart is that he's an incredibly unique person.
And how couldn't he be, given what he's gone through?
After a few more incidents involving fighting and acting out, Marcus' life would change once again, but this time for the better. Smart was placed in anger management classes, which had a therapeutic effect on the way he dealt with Todd's death and helped him realize it was time to start living in honor of his brother instead of living in turmoil about his passing. Following a heartfelt conversation with his mom, the Smart family moved out of the dangerous projects and into the suburbs, setting into motion a change of scenery that benefited Marcus immensely.
Now he could walk home without passing drug dealers on the street corner and sleep soundly without wakening to the crack of gun shots in the middle of the night. Now he had a chance to start over. Now he was free to be Marcus again.
★ ★ ★
When I approached Marcus at the Team USA mini-camp two weeks ago, I extended my hand and let him know that I was going to be a Cowboy. His face lit up when I told him this and he extended his right hand. We had a 10 minute conversation about his summer, his time at Oklahoma State, his decision to come back and more, and we parted ways. The next night I was walking through Caesar's Palace and I passed by Marcus as he walked through with a friend. Having just met him, I didn't want to be to pushy and bug him, and I was just going to go on with my day. But then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and lo and behold, Marcus had reached out to say hello.
Having dealt with several NBA athletes over the past few years - some gracious, others not - I can say that Marcus is truly a different breed. He's extremely genuine and humble, often refusing to fully acknowledge his own strengths and accomplishments when prompted. We quickly bypassed the media-player relationship and started talking about things like fellow students. When media members, trainers or even my mom approached Marcus, they were greeted with "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am." The signs of the troubled times he went through after Todd's death are all but gone now, his personality back to being that of an accepting and jovial kid.
Coach Ford was also in Las Vegas to watch Marcus compete at the Team USA camp, and when I caught up with him, all of my suspicions about Marcus were confirmed.
"Everyone knows Marcus is a great player, but he's an even better person," Ford told me. "I love being around him."
When I asked Coach Ford if there was any other player he'd rather have as the face of Oklahoma State basketball. He started answering before I could finish the question.
"Absolutely not," Ford said fervently. "He is the epitome of somebody that is very humble and appreciative of everything, and he's a great role model on and off the court. We feel very fortunate to coach and be around him every single day."
Marcus no longer walks into the gym because he has to, he's no longer dying to escape what's going on outside the solitary walls surrounding the hardwood.
Now when Marcus Smart walks into a gym, he stands with his head held high. Basketball is no longer an escape for Marcus. Now it's his platform to inspire the thousands of kids that grow up around the temptations of the street life or suffer through hardships that could derail their lives. Smart is the quintessential example for those who come from humble beginnings, walking proof that all odds can be overcome, with the added bonus of remaining down to earth even after achieving stardom.
Now Marcus Smart walks into the gym with the spotlight beaming on him. He's one of the top stars in college basketball, a guaranteed lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and a candidate to represent Team USA in the Olympics down the line. It's hard to imagine Smart being where he is now after all he had to go through to get here, but Marcus has worked tirelessly and earned every bit of it.
"You're always happy for your players when they accomplish something," Ford said. "And you're always excited when they receive awards like (Marcus) received and get opportunities that he's gotten."
"But with him," Ford continued. "The type of kid he is and the way he represents himself and Oklahoma State University, he deserves all of this."
And how lucky are we to be along for the ride?
★ ★ ★
Even though I was praying all winter for Marcus Smart to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore year, I still find it hard to believe that his name wasn't called during the 2013 NBA Draft. It was an unprecedented decision, perhaps an unthinkable one given the increasing risk of devastating injuries, for a surefire top-3 selection like Marcus to pass on the money and come back to school. Smart's decision is even more unbelievable when you consider everything that he had to overcome to get here and how much more loaded the 2014 NBA Draft class will be, with more star talent competing for those top selections.
But despite these rational concerns over Smart's decision to delay his pro career, you can't totally judge his choice unless you understand his priorities. Smart isn't in a hurry to get his first check for playing basketball; he's not dying to go through a 25-57 season with some rebuilding team that's years away from playoff contention; he's not quite ready to be labeled a "professional."
A teenager's reluctance to live a pro lifestyle is often overlooked by casual fans when we talk about this player or that player needing to go pro. While the glitz and the glamor is appealing, it comes with a tradeoff of some of the simplicities of adolescent life. Most of the time, the financial gains from going pro are too enticing for a player to ignore, but sometimes these 18 or 19 year old kids just want to be 18 or 19 year old kids.
Putting them into a professional environment, particularly when they aren't ready, completely shifts the foundation for which they play and can overwhelm them if they aren't prepared. While college basketball is a competitive sport where a lot is expected of the athletes, it's still part of the "it's just a game" phase, and many would argue that is when the game is at its purest. It's also the last time these kids will have total control over where they play, and the connection between student-athlete and university is often deeper than the connection between athlete and team in the pros.
When most top recruits pick a college, they do so with the intention of using their one year as a springboard to the pros, but picking Oklahoma State was about much more for Smart.
"I'm the first person in my family to go to college," Smart told me. "I was enjoying the college experience. Obviously, I turned down a lot of money, but it wasn't about the money for me. I love the game of basketball, and I love to play it. Not for the money, but because it's what I love to do."
"I think it says a lot about Marcus for sticking with what he believes in and what he wants to do," Ford added. "He really wanted to enjoy college for another year. I think it says a lot about our basketball program for a guy to pass up what he passed up to want to come back and play with his team, to play for us and to play for Oklahoma State University."
Clearly, Marcus values the connection that he has made with Coach Ford, his teammates and his fellow students. In fact, Smart didn't want to announce his decision to return if he wasn't alongside a couple of other Cowboys. Similar to when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon decided that they would put the NFL on hold for a year to play one more year together at Oklahoma State, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown joined Smart in revealing their intentions to stay in Stillwater in front of a packed house at the Student Union in April.
"It was very important for them to come back," Smart said. "Those are two key guys on the team. Le'Bryan has an NBA game already and Markel has the athleticism of NBA player. Getting both of those guys back was a key factor in my decision, because we have pretty much our whole team coming back this year."
Getting the sour taste out of his mouth from the NCAA tournament also played a big part in Smart's decision to return. Aside from a wrist injury that he suffered in the second half (this was also a very large factor in Smart's decision to return), it was the lackluster overall effort that the Cowboys put forth against a vastly underseeded Oregon team that still irks Smart. It was an unfit way for such a great season in Oklahoma State to end, and Smart wants to redeem himself, and the team, this year.
"The way we finished last year was a total disgrace to myself and my teammates," Smart said. "I know that I didn't play to the best of my ability. It was heartbreaking to see us play that way knowing that we could have done a lot more than what we showed people."
While rehab for his wrist took up a chunk of his summer, Smart had an extremely productive off-season for a college sophomore. In early July, Smart won a gold medal with USA Basketball's U19 team in the Czech Republic, and before he could even readjust his watch to central standard time, he was invited to participate in USA Basketball's mini-camp in Las Vegas, which featured lots of pro talent like Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Paul George and just two college kids: Smart and Creighton's Doug McDermott. You can't ask for a better off-season training program than that.
As OSU gets set to begin the most anticipated season in school history, Smart already feels more comfortable in his own skin as the point guard for the Cowboys. Last year was the first time he had ever been asked to play point guard as his primary position, and he heads into his sophomore season with a better understanding of the offense and how he's expected to run it.
"I've been in it a year, so I know what to expect," Smart said of the offensive system. "I know what Coach Ford expects from me and what he wants. Coming back and being in that role, I can grasp it a lot better than last year. I was thrown into the fire last year, which wasn't a problem for me, but it was kind of like everything was on my shoulders to be the leader out on the court. This year, everybody's coming back, so we have more leaders and more veterans that are going to step up and help me out a lot more."
★ ★ ★
After you thanked the high heavens and mailed in your check for Oklahoma State basketball season tickets, it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary to wonder why in the world Marcus Smart chose to take the stage in the Student Union on that glorious afternoon in mid-April to announce he was coming back for his sophomore season.
Everybody asked themselves that, and a lot of people still are. For some, Smart's health, adolescent and pride-related reasons to pass up on a top three draft pick will never make total sense. Interestingly enough, some of those puzzled most by Smart's decision to return are his future peers, NBA stars who spent a few days going toe-to-toe with Marcus in Las Vegas last month at USA Basketball's National Mini-Camp.
"He shoulda came out, if we're gonna be honest," New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday told me about Marcus. "That boy's good."
"Marcus is ready to play all of the time," NBA all-star Kyrie Irving said of Smart. "He's a great player that can play with us at this level."
"I always say that I needed four years to become an NBA player," star point guard Damian Lillard told me. "Some guys only need one year and then the NBA wants them. (Marcus) was probably a guy that was ready. I watched him a few times and I thought he was ready."
This was the consensus opinion among most of the players in Vegas. After squaring off against him, NBA players saw Smart as an equal, someone who they viewed as an NBA player. While several guys told me they were shocked that Smart put the NBA off a year, everyone I spoke to about Smart told me his decision earned their respect.
Mike Conley, who left college for the pros after his freshman season at Ohio State, is one of the most well-spoken athletes that I have ever met, and he realizes what a difficult decision Smart had to make.
"You commend the guy," Mike Conley said of Smart's decision to return to Stillwater. "That's hard to do. That's hard to do when you're a top talent and you're the guy. He's a very talented guy, he wouldn't be here if he wasn't, but for him to go back to college, it says a lot about his character and a lot about his love for the game."
★ ★ ★
When Marcus Smart walked into the Mendenhall Center, UNLV basketball's practice facility and the unofficial summer home of USA Basketball, on the morning of July 22nd, the usually unfazed superstar was feeling butterflies in his stomach.
Even though he knew what to expect, he was still taken aback that he was in the same gym as Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and the like, a mere warm-up session away from scrimmaging against some of the best young stars the NBA has to offer.
"To be honest, I was a little scared," Smart said. "When I first walked in here, they started doing drills and I just kind of isolated myself on the sideline."
Little did he know, the same players that were making his heart skip a beat would be singing his praises and calling him their equal later in the week.
★ ★ ★
Once the games began, it didn't take long for Marcus to get comfortable in this new environment. No longer was the idea of playing against Paul George or John Wall besetting him, he was too busy invading a camp that was supposed to be a springboard for proven NBA stars, not a wide-eyed college kid. His instincts took over and his pure basketball ability began to shine.
When you're in the flow of the game, just about the only time nerves can truly affect you is when you take a shot. Running your offense, reading the floor, getting back on defense and competing against your man are second nature and happen too quickly for you to become anxious. However, once that ball reaches your hands and you're in a position to shoot, you can get the yips pretty easily.
In Marcus' case, when Kyrie Irving swung the ball to him off some strongside pick-and-roll action, he was the center of attention for the first time all scrimmage, standing behind the three-point line where the only true weakness in his game lies; scouts, coaches, executives all waiting to find out if his jumper had improved. Marcus didn't over think things, and rose up to shoot.
Smart breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the twine tickle. He wouldn't be going 0-fer.
★ ★ ★
Smart put a little bit of everything on display during the two days he was involved in scrimmages. He made plays offensively, showed confidence in his shot and backed up the defensive reputation that he's begun to build. Though he didn't get as much burn as Kyrie or Lillard, Smart got his shot and made the most of it without forcing the issue in a desperate attempt to get noticed. That's not his style. Smart was asked to run point, play off ball, guard some NBA wing players (Klay Thompson and Paul George can both attest to Marcus' physicality on defense), and he held his own most of the time.
On one play, Smart got caught on a back screen and lost his man (Thompson) as he came flying around picks. "Marcus, shooter!" an assistant coach shouted as Thompson caught the ball, loaded up and buried a three.
It was one of Smart's few mental mistakes, and he buried his face in his chest as he ran back down the floor. The next time Smart's unit was on the floor, rarely did his man (Dion Waiters) escape his grasp.
Watching Smart learn and adapt after a crucial mishap against one of the world's deadliest shooters was impressive because it showed that his mental toughness is every bit as important as his physical grit when it comes to him being a successful defensive player. It is these specific aspects of the game that leave most scouts and executives most impressed with Smart.
He may not jump as high as Westbrook, run as fast as Rose, shoot as well as Curry, or pass as well as Nash, but it's how Smart puts the total package together, with a passing grade in every subject on his report card, that makes him a special prospect. And on top of his natural basketball abilities, Smart also displays an indelible determination to sure up any of his shortcomings, and his devotion to evolving has set an unbelievable example at Oklahoma State. That kind of leadership, particularly for the younger teams that will end up drafting in the top five where Smart will be available, is an invaluable quality that sets the tone for how an entire franchise is built.
When a team drafts a player as high as Marcus is going to get drafted, they aren't making a financial investment in a basketball player, they are making a financial, emotional and steadfast commitment in a young man, hoping that they have uncovered the rarest kind of top draft pick: the athlete that can handle all of the expectations and fame thrown upon him without faltering on or off the court, the person capable of being a pure, alluring and loyal face of your franchise and the player who will set an example that an organization can build around and upon.
Even some of the best players the NBA has ever seen failed to deliver that extraordinary return to the team that drafted them. Only legends like Duncan, Kobe, Bird, Jordan, Magic and Russell have ever accomplished as much.
When Marcus Smart leaves Oklahoma State for the NBA next summer, I'm sure various scouts and pundits will find things to nitpick about his game when evaluating his draft stock. Maybe his three-point percentage will still be below the Mendoza line or maybe his turnover rate doesn't decline. Whatever specific aspects of his game they point out as defects, two things will remain true no matter what happens this season: 1) Smart has the ability to have a positive impact on every aspect of the game and 2) Smart's work ethic and command of the room make for as strong a foundation as any lottery bound team will find in the draft.
I'm not sure that Marcus Smart will ever become a top 10 player in the NBA, so it'd be foolish to sit here and say he'll be a legend one day. But I'm sure of this: If his game ever catches up to his character, which is fueled by the unceasing desire to perfect his craft, then the Hall of Honor that sits outside of Gallagher-Iba Arena won't be the only hall with a Marcus Smart plaque.
★ ★ ★
It goes without saying that Smart and Ford are both extremely excited about this season and the opportunities they will have to contend for a national title. But one goal sits above all of the others for now: Putting a stop to Kansas' streak of Big 12 Championships.
When top recruit Andrew Wiggins chose Kansas, it only added intrigue to what will be a spectacular season of basketball in the Big 12, and Smart is looking forward to continuing a rivalry that he and Wiggins started during the U18 championships last year when Wiggins played for Team Canada. Smart just recently threw some gasoline on the fire when he came out and said that Wiggins has yet to earn anything during Big 12 Media Day.
"They are saying he is the best college player there is and he has not even played a game yet,"Smart told USA Today. "Of course that hypes me up. It is all talk. He still has to put his shorts on one leg at a time like I do. It is all potential. I am not saying he can't do it. But he has not done it yet."
Ironically, Wiggins would be wise to follow some advice that Smart had for Cowboys freshman point guard Stevie Clark. Smart told me that he reached out to Clark during the summer to talk to him about the journey he was about to embark on, and he gave some very earnest direction.
"I just kind of got in his head and let him know that it wasn't going to be easy," Smart said about talking with Clark. "A lot of top ranked high school kids fall off when they get to college because they stop working and they don't really understand the sacrifices and the work ethic that you are going to have to put in when you get there. Yeah, you have the hype all around you right now, but that means nothing if you don't come out and perform everyday."
Smart is one of the few elite recruits that managed to live up to expectations, and it is precisely the work ethic he described that allowed him to do so. One can only hope that Wiggins exerts himself similarly, because those two Kansas-Oklahoma State games have the potential to be all-time greats if Smart and Wiggins are at their peaks. Particularly if Smart gets his wish.
"Definitely," Smart told USA Today about wanting to guard Wiggins. "I am not going to back down from any challenge. Like I said, you are going to have to prove to me. I am a fighter; I will keep fighting and will never give up."
★ ★ ★
Legendary coach John Wooden once said that success is never final and that failure is never fatal, but that it is the courage that counts.
I'm not sure there's a more apt way to describe Marcus Smart.
It's rare that a 19-year old kid is defined by his moral substance and exemplary precedent - those are terms we preserve in the vernacular for veteran players, or maybe the Pope - but everyone that has ever been around Smart will tell you that the conviction with which he approaches the game is admirable.
That's what makes the road to the most hyped and anticipated season in OSU history a much smoother ride. Whereas other schools that have been out of the spotlight for a while may be content with the additional recognition or collapse under the burden that comes with expectations, with an even-keeled, ambitious and talented leader like Smart, Oklahoma State can expect this team to reach its full potential.
Whether or not their ceiling is as high as we think it is has yet to be determined, but Marcus is not the kind of person that will be satisfied with results similar to what happened last year. I could tell that much about his personality by how stern his voice was when he told me that last year's first round loss to Oregon was a "total disgrace to myself and my teammates."
Aside from the example Marcus sets behind closed doors, which will be much harder for head coach Travis Ford to replace than any of Smart's tangible exploits, his biggest contribution for the Cowboys this season will be how he gets others involved. While Smart posted strong assist numbers last season (he ranked ninth in the Big 12 in assist rate), it was his first time playing point guard full-time and it was the first time he'd ever been asked to run an offense. With a year in the system under his belt and after a year of playing alongside guys like Brown and Nash, Smart is in a better position to succeed than he was during his freshman season.
It was Oklahoma State's middling offense (or, more specifically, their lack of floor spacing) that held them back from being a conference championship team in 2012. The Cowboys didn't turn it over a ton, got good looks inside the arc and had a pair of foul drawing machines in Smart and Nash, but their lack of threats from beyond the arc allowed defenses to aggressively attack ball-handlers and sag into the paint to prevent penetration. Smart's individual improvement as an outside shooter will help the offense by making it tougher on defenses to sag off him on pick-and-rolls without paying for it, but surrounding Smart with better marksmen will also be key.
At times last season it seemed as if only Phil Forte, Smart's high school buddy, would effectively maneuver his way into open spots on the floor. Brown, who has turned himself into a reliable three-point shooter, and even Nash, who will occasionally act as a floor stretching big when he plays the four, need to work off the ball more when there isn't any weakside motion. Smart will be more familiar with Oklahoma State's other two stars when they take the floor together this season, which should result in more fluid play, but it's up to his teammates to put themselves in the right positions when Smart attacks.
True freshman point guard Stevie Clark, the top recruit in the state of Oklahoma this year, is billed as a solid shooter, so we may see a lot of two point guard line-ups this season, which is when the Cowboys are at their best. A significant role for Clark could also lead to our first real look at how Smart works as an off-the-ball weapon. As an unproven shooter, it would seem odd, but I can envision Smart functioning very well with some secondary actions and curl screens, and I'd like to see how an opposing point guard would deal with Smart's linebacker frame crushing them on a pick.
Smart is a utilitarian at heart, a player that wants to get his teammates involved moreso than he wants to dominate the highlights, someone who thrives on the success of his peers. What made him such a joy to watch last season was ability to toe the line between facilitator and scorer, and how he always seemed to flick that switch late in games when the Pokes needed it the most.
This season should be no different for Marcus. Smart has a good supporting cast around him and he's the harbinger of one of the stingiest defenses in the nation (OSU ranked 15th in defensive efficiency last season according to KenPom), a unit that will keep the Cowboys in virtually every game no matter how well they shoot the ball. And if the Pokes are able to boost their offensive efficiency by way of a more well-rounded attack, this season could be one for the ages.
But even if this team falls short of its lofty goals, whether it's by barely missing out on the Big 12 title or succumbing to the madness in March, it's important to note that Smart's impact on the program has been profound.
To an extent, the value Smart provides as a leader and as a symbol for the program outweighs however many points or assists per game he may average. With the way he carries himself he would be a useful player even if he had an average skill set. But instead Smart is the rare player that combines the ability of a superstar with the mindset of a walk-on grinding for a shot to prove himself, perfectly defining the identity Travis Ford wants his program to be known for.
Win or lose, success or failure, Marcus Smart has personally ushered the rowdy back to Oklahoma State, reinvigorating one of the nation's most historic programs, energizing one of the country's most legendary arenas and laying the foundation for the next memorable chapter in OSU's history.
And in case your were having any doubt about how good Smart is going to be this season, remember that he spent his summer in the most talented camp in the world, and the only thing that Marcus doesn't see in his future is a ceiling.
"It's going to make me an even better player," Smart said of his summer with Team USA. "Being able to learn from these key guys, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Paul George, they've been playing for awhile and they know what it takes. To learn from these guys is a huge experience for me and it's going to really help my game."
"And I know that if I can play with these guys, there is nothing in college basketball that can stop me. And there are no limitations to what I can do."