This is the first installment in a three part series by Mark Travis highlighting Marcus Smart on and off the court. Enjoy-
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 dawned 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.
As Marcus recounted to USA Today Sports:
"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 stop 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, 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. 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, almost guaranteed to be a 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," 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?Follow @Mark_Travis