Forgrave: Marcus Smart erred, but he's a good kid and doesn't deserve ugly rips
FEB 09, 2014 2:14a ET
You could hear rumblings of that word — let’s call it the “T” word — starting up in the moments after Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart lost his temper and shoved an opposing fan in the waning moments of Oklahoma State’s frustrating 65-61 loss Saturday night in Lubbock, Texas.
You know the word. “Thug.” It’s the word we heard uttered by so many people when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman gave the postgame interview heard ’round the world after the NFC Championship Game a few weeks ago.
You’re not going to hear many people out-and-out call Marcus Smart a thug these days. Sherman took care of that before the Super Bowl with his eloquent, Compton-raised-and-Stanford-educated linking of the “T” word with the “N” word. There’s a stigma to that coded, racist word now, as there should be.
But couldn’t you just feel the institutionally racist subtext anyway, when Twitter exploded after Smart’s ill-conceived, heat-of-the-moment, split-second decision to shove a fan? Couldn’t you just sense the head-shaking and hear the tut-tutting at another young black man who couldn’t control his inner rage?
I sure could feel it.
And it made me sick.
Let’s review what has happened this season that led to Smart’s momentary lapse of reason Saturday night. Smart’s Oklahoma State Cowboys started the season a Final Four candidate after Smart surprised the college-basketball world by saying “no thanks” to being a likely top-three selection in the NBA draft and returning for his sophomore year at Oklahoma State.
Smart took his share of criticism in the offseason for his decision. Why would he come back for one more college season and put himself up against the most talented NBA draft class in a generation, jeopardizing millions in the process?
But his decision seemed sound entering Big 12 play, when a one-loss Oklahoma State team was ranked in the top 10, and Smart had honed the finer points of his game while burnishing his reputation as the best leader in college hoops.
Then the frustrations began to mount. Starting center Michael Cobbins, a key cog in Oklahoma State’s system, tore his Achilles tendon and was done for the season. Smart lost his cool during a game and kicked a chair in the middle of the worst performance of his college career (a game that ended in an Oklahoma State win).
Backup point guard Stevie Clark was arrested and dismissed from the team after his third disciplinary issue of the season. Leading into Saturday's game at Texas Tech, Smart’s team was reeling, having lost four of five and seeming in danger of not even making the NCAA Tournament.
Then, in the waning moments of Oklahoma State’s loss to perennial Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas Tech, Smart made a mistake. And the rest of the sporting world lost its mind.
With 6.2 seconds left in a heated road game, Smart fouled a Texas Tech player in transition and tumbled into the stands. A Texas Tech fan shouted something — perhaps racist, perhaps not, but surely unkind — at Smart. Smart jumped toward the fan, shoved him and was pulled away by teammates.
If you haven’t seen the play yet, you will. Plenty. This split second will haunt Smart as long as he lives. Hyperactive and overreactive sports pundit types immediately tossed out flawed comparisons to Ron Artest’s “Malice at the Palace” melee. Fans who’ve never met Smart brought back the tropes I always hear whenever Smart is criticized — that he’s a bad sport, a punk, a thug.
Smart screwed up. He screwed up big time. I can’t see a scenario where he isn’t suspended for multiple games, no matter what the Texas Tech fan said to him. It was unacceptable. A Big 12 source told me Saturday night that the conference will review the incident in relation to the conference’s sportsmanship policies. Smart broke the fourth wall between player and fan, and he’ll pay for it.
Just don’t you dare try to turn this into a debate about the character of a young man you’ve never met. And don’t you dare use thinly veiled racist code to fit your thug crown snugly on Marcus Smart’s head.
You know what Smart really is? He’s a tale of inspiration. He’s a kid who grew up dirt poor in Dallas and could have turned into an actual, real-life thug. He’s a kid who watched his older brother die of cancer and another brother overdose on cocaine and nearly die. He’s a kid who used his incredible athletic talents and his otherworldly work ethic in the sport of basketball to lift himself out of a hopeless situation and toward a lucrative career as a professional athlete.
I’ve interviewed him a handful of times, and he’s one of the most intelligent, self-aware college athletes I’ve ever spoken with, gracious for his opportunities yet confident in his greatness. When I asked him why he’d risk returning to college hoops when the upcoming draft class is so stacked, he said, “What, you think I’m going to get worse?”
He’s hands-down the most competitive player in college hoops. And even with the mistakes of the past month, I still think he’s the best leader in college hoops, too, which is something plenty of college coaches have echoed to me.
For God’s sake: He’s a kid who decided to stay in school instead of jumping at his first shot at NBA riches.
You know what Marcus Smart sounds like to me?
He sounds like he could be a great role model to plenty of kids growing up in the same circumstances he did.
Smart was not a role model on Saturday night. He was a 20-year-old kid, frustrated with his own play and with his team’s struggles, overcome by the emotion of a moment.
“I don’t know what happened,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford told reporters immediately after the game. “I didn’t see (the play) yet. I want to make sure I see it, see what happened. I haven’t seen it yet.”
It was nice to hear Ford show that sort of restraint in judgment with his star player. Is it really that hard for the rest of us to do the same?
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.