by Leigh Klein / @LeighAlanKlein
For Marcus Smart, the basketball court is the place where life always made sense. It was the place where can could channel his anger, play with rage and let his unselfish soul flow by being a great teammate. It’s there where he could stand as he is, competitor and a warrior. Saturday night, he fell, literally and figuratively in the Cowboys’ loss in Lubbock, TX.
Smart has become the most vilified athlete in basketball, the Ron Artest of this decade.
Smart is no stranger to adversity. He grew up in the “war zone” of south Dallas where he watched one brother die to cancer and another nearly die living the gang life. As a 10-year-old, Smart was pleading with his older brother to come home and off the streets. There was a dark stretch when he believed he was going to kill someone or die, unable to control the grief and anger that flowed inside. Through anger management counseling, Smart was able to deal with his demons. A love out of the neighborhood likely saved his life and helped give him this college basketball career.
As a freshman for the Cowboys, Smart reinvigorated the program, giving it relevance to the national media as they returned to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence. The ‘Dance’ ended prematurely for the Cowboys as they were upset in the second round of the Tournament, yet Smart sparkled all season and was rumored to be selected second in the 2013 NBA Draft. He shocked the basketball world by announcing a return to Stillwater to refine his game.
College basketball pundits everywhere rejoiced and Smart was the darling of the media world for his announcement. Now he is vilified by those same people.
Five months into Marcus’s sophomore season and the Cowboys are struggling. The pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year and the conference favorite are sitting seventh in the standings, losers of five of their last six contests. Prior to Lubbock, in a five-game span Smart’s shooting woes have been amplified. He converted only 19-42 from the field and beyond-the-arc, he shot a miserable 4-33. His shooting percentages starting to mirror last year’s averages, one of the areas he hoped to improve upon by returning to Stillwater. One big reason why is the absence of reliable inside presence—Michael Cobbins—to a season-ending injury just prior to conference play.
To compensate for this, Smart is battling his and the American public’s expectations and the pressure to perform like a superstar. For the first time in a long time, the adversity is wearing on him and his frustration has boiled over to negatively effect him and his team. The headlines have been filled with these struggles.
Teams have made it a point to get physical with Smart—bait him into silly fouls and try and get in his head. It has worked, the pre-season All-American has been the center of controversy with America questioning his composure, and rightly so.
West Virginia’s Juwan Staten discussed the strategy of targeting Smart, after the Mountaineers nearly won in Stillwater.
“We definitely scouted him, and we played him once so we know how he plays. He likes to be physical, so you have to be physical back,” Staten said. “Try to get in his head a little bit, try to get him to commit some fouls he doesn’t want to commit, try to get him in foul trouble. That’s what we did. We knew that if we could get him in foul trouble in the first half and slow him down that we’d have a pretty good chance of winning this game.”
How much should this student-athlete have to endure for the equivalent of roughly $17,000?
The NCAA has already publicly denied that they have the legal right to protect their student-athletes. The athletes are disposable, and thus, that’s why there is no security literally and figuratively for kids like Smart. He’s a target as the NCAA counts its dollars by the fistful and laps up the attention.
It also might cost Smart at the next level.
“Administrators making millions, coaches making millions and players at college can’t bring their families to the game, it makes me nuts. In some ways it’s his intangibles that set him apart his fire, his competitiveness and his drive,” one NBA scout told SLAM. “There’s improvement needed in his game, specifically his perimeter shooting, his east-west ability and his decision-making. This latest incident matters some but there is a time where talent and character are weighted toward number of possible wins that the player can influence.”
Faced with a three-game suspension, Smart and the Cowboys are at their lowest. Head coach Travis Ford’s job security is now in question. It’s just the latest dose of adversity that the once down and out pre-teen from south Dallas has had to deal with.
But that rough upbringing, the loss of siblings, is what must fuel him now. This is where his inner fortitude must be found. From the tragedy of his early teen years, he must rise up and make another rebound. This time, it will be his basketball life that he will look to secure.
Every teammate and competitor will attest that nothing will deny Smart his pursuit of the ball and his dreams. This is just one more chapter of perseverance.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft and is a frequent national radio guest. Klein can be followed at @LeighAlanKlein.