Russdiculously Sad

Being wrong isn’t nearly as bad as its rap. This is something that happens to anyone with a properly functioning brain at least 100 times a day. The remote control is on the table? Wrong. It’s 75 degrees outside, not 71? Wrong. We don’t have enough milk for a full bowl of cereal? Wrong.

We know there’s at least a chance that what we’re thinking is wrong 95 percent of the time, so when that’s proven to be the case, it’s not a big deal. The nucleus of the nasty stigma that’s attached to being wrong is found in those rare moments when we take all the knowledge we’ve accumulated throughout the course of our lives, scan over it until we come up with a thought or an answer to a question that we believe is completely foolproof, and then are proven incorrect. It’s an occurrence that challenges the validity of our existence up to that point, which is about the most humbling phenomenon possible.

In order to, once and for all, be administered the giant dose of humility this situation demands, allow me to say this: I have never been as wrong about anything as I was about Russ Smith.

The best evidence of this extreme fallacy that I can think of is a late 2010 phone call with a friend who shall remain nameless. Said friend and I speculated on whether Russ would transfer in the middle of the season or after it, a conversation which ended with both of us agreeing that he would likely end up at a MAAC program or be an up-and-down player at a bottom-tier Atlantic 10 school like Duquesne.

Russ Smith did not transfer to an MAAC program, and he did not become an up-and-down player at Duquesne. Russ Smith became the breakout star of a Cardinal squad that went to the Final Four, the leading scorer on UofL’s first national championship team in 27 years, a top five all-time Louisville scorer and the school’s first consensus All-American since 1994.

Russ Smith slammed one last ball in for old times sake mere seconds after losing in his final NCAA game against Kentucky.

Russ Smith slammed one last ball in for old times sake mere seconds after losing in his final NCAA game against Kentucky.

So I was wrong.

The worst thing about this particular wrong is how much we all would have been deprived of had I been right. And I don’t even have to say that I’m not just talking about on-the-court stuff, because invariably, any conversation about Russ winds up being just as much about his personality as anything else.

For the duration of his first season as a Louisville Cardinal, we knew as little about Russ Smith as possible. We knew he took bad shots, we knew he turned the ball over, we knew he tweeted a lot, and we knew that he was the most likely transfer candidate on the UofL roster. That was Russ Smith encapsulated from the summer of 2010 through the end of the season in 2011.

Things changed, and they changed quickly.

Rick Pitino had already told Russ Smith’s father – another character we had no knowledge of at the time – that they were going to give this one more year, and that if it didn’t work out, he’d help the younger Russ pick out a new school. All arrows pointed towards the latter scenario playing out.

Then Louisville got stabbed (“bitten” is far too friendly) by the injury bug. This meant Russ would be seeing extended court time during the team’s summer trip to the Bahamas, where he would be tried out as a two guard for the first time. He scored an unbelievable amount of points, and everyone, his head coach included, thought it was hilarious.

Getting buckets against the hotel bellhop (not a joke) isn’t exactly the same as beating a Big East guard off the bounce or finishing around the rim against Connecticut’s front line. Russ hadn’t really proven anything, but he’d done enough to at least warrant a shot in a game that mattered. Maybe if everyone is healthy the story doesn’t even get that far, and all the skeptics, myself included, chalk up their prognostication as an easy win. There are more comforting things to think about.

I have faith that you can pick the story up from here.

There are a thousand different directions we can take the tribute at this point, but there’s one which stands head and shoulders above all others in my eyes.

Russ Smith is the single biggest reason why, for the past three years, Louisville basketball has been more fun to follow than ever before – at least since I’ve been alive. He has made being a Cardinal basketball fan as fun and rewarding an experience as possible. That’s a pretty significant thing.

Certainly there are a number of different individuals who deserve their fair share of credit as well, but look at the effect Russ has had on everyone around him since his rise to prominence. Look at the effect he’s had on his head coach. “Louisville Rick,” at least as we know him, doesn’t exist without Russ Smith. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

An effectively reckless mindset on the court coupled with an equally captivating and equally unfiltered persona off it has helped gain the adoration of Louisville and college basketball fans alike, but it’s also helped mask the most overlooked (or dismissed) aspect of Russ: he is one of the more intelligent people to ever put on a Cardinal uniform. Maturity can be just as evident in a player starting to let people see a previously hidden side of themselves as it can in a dramatically improved assist-to-turnover ratio. Both of those things happened during the senior season of Russ Smith, who, following the most heartbreaking loss of his basketball career to date, made it a point to go into the Kentucky locker room and congratulate the Wildcats on a job well done.

In the wake of the UK loss, more than a few people have talked about this being the “end of an era.” There are a variety of reasons for that, but the biggest is the departure of the young man who has been wearing No. 2.

The two-star recruit who became an All-American. The kid a basketball-obsessed fan base knew anything about for a year who became the biggest, and perhaps most-talked about, personality in the city. The freshman who couldn’t make a shot or keep from turning the ball over in a gym by himself who became one of the best pure scorers and arguably the most unstoppable penetrator in the history of UofL basketball. The Dr. Frankenstein of Louisville Rick, the Cardinal who never needs to be called by more than one name, the All-American, the national champion … the legend.

At some point between 2011 and this moment right now, it became almost impossible to imagine Louisville basketball without Russ Smith. Now, unfortunately, we all have to start trying.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune