NCAA BK

Smith lifts Cards after mourning coach

Image: Louisville's Russ Smith (©Al Bello/Getty Images)
Russ Smith scored 28 points just hours after learning his prep coach died.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK CITY

Just hours before Russ Smith went wild on the court of Madison Square Garden, scoring 28 points and leading Louisville into the semifinal round of the Big East tournament with a dominating 74-55 win over Villanova, he pulled up the Facebook app on his cell phone and started typing.

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“Rest in Peace to my Friend, Coach, Brother, Father, Advisor, Wizard, Teacher, Helper, Wiseman and those words are just understatements of how great of a man he really is,” Smith wrote Thursday. “I couldn’t focus all morning because of his passing… Going into his office and getting inspirational talks every day or his noble and historic quotes and phrases never left me without hope of achieving a goal.”

On the morning of Louisville’s first game of its final Big East tournament, Smith had called up the athletic director at his old high school in Queens, Archbishop Molloy High School, to see if any of his old coaches and mentors wanted to come see him play that night. That’s when he found out: His high school coach, Jack Curran, who had coached at the school for 55 years, winning 972 basketball games and 1,708 baseball games and a combined 22 city championships, had died at age 82.

When he heard, Smith had to pause to catch his breath. It’s no surprise when an 82-year-old man passes away, yet Smith had never given a thought to his old coach ever passing away. This was a man who had coached some of the biggest names of New York City basketball, from Brian Winters to Kevin Joyce to Kenny Smith to Kenny Anderson, all of whom made the NBA. With coaches like that — the larger-than-life figures whom high schoolers are equally terrified of and in awe of — it can feel like they’ll live forever.

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On the bus ride to Madison Square Garden, Smith cried. He cried for 45 minutes straight. He thought about when he first met the legendary coach, the summer after eighth grade, when the undersized guard with the wild shooting habits went to Curran’s summer camp.

“I looked at him as royalty, because I’d heard so much about him,” Smith told FOXSports.com Thursday. “He’s so many things to me. It’s mentor. Teacher. Father. He cared for me, he helped me, it just goes on and on… I’m really going to miss him dearly, just to call him, tell him, ‘Coach, I’m doing good! I’m playing defense! I’m passing the ball well!’ ”

When heartache happens to an athlete, and then the athlete has an inspiring performance, we in the media love to make it a cause-and-effect type of thing. So on Thursday, Smith had to answer those sorts of questions: Did you dedicate this game to your old coach? Did you write any messages about your old coach on your sneakers? Did your old coach’s death inspire you to score 28 points?

They’re silly questions, baked in the old “win one for the Gipper” cliché. Smith said that, no, he didn’t score 28 points for his old coach. He scored 28 points to win a basketball game. Which is exactly what his coach would have wanted.

“He was on the back of mind with every shot, with every time I had the ball, on every defensive play – it was just, ‘Win. Coach wants me to win,’ ” Smith said. “That’s all he wanted from me, to come out a winner, to come out successful. Show people I can be something that they think I’m not.”

In the first half, Smith was playing with focus and purpose, the type of player he sometimes is but sometimes isn’t. Coach Rick Pitino likes to call him Russdiculous because those wild shots and drives can win you games and lose you games, too. On Thursday, though, something was different. Even in the first half, Smith was showing uncommon emotion, getting visibly frustrated with the refs and stepping mighty close to getting a technical. On one drive to the hoop, Smith was fouled hard and hit the floor hard. He got up limping, but since Russ Smith would never pass up a chance at two more points, he shot both free throws before leaving the floor.

In the second half he flat-out controlled the game. He finished with his second-highest point total of the season, 4 of 6 from 3-point range, 10 of 11 from the line, plus a couple of hustle steals.

“That was the only thing on my mind, to just win the game,” he said.

It wasn’t, of course. He wanted to win, but the emotions were tucked away.

After the game, Smith looked at his new coach with a smile as Pitino paid homage to Smith’s old coach.

“He had all the traits of a great leader,” Pitino said of Curran. “Very humble, great teacher, very wise man. It was always about the players with him. He had a lot of what I witnessed with Coach Wooden. They were very similar personalities.”

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The locker room door closed, and Smith celebrated with teammates and even former President Bill Clinton, who was at the game. Then he changed out of his game clothes. In 24 hours, he’d be playing in his third Big East tournament semifinal in a row, against Notre Dame, which rallied past Marquette. He had a game to prepare for.

But on Smith’s Facebook wall, his tribute to his coach was still there. Other people understood how a great coach can affect a life. Hundreds and hundreds of people clicked “like” on Smith’s post.

“I just wished he could’ve been here a little longer,” Smith wrote, “to watch his product reach his dream and be here with me so we can share it together… I love you coach, may you rest in peace.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Jackson State, Russ Smith

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