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Russ Smith, A Louisville Legend, Continues His Journey Back To The NBA

By Lee Altman | March 20, 2017

It’s night time. Anthony Davis, all 6 feet and 11 inches of him, is decked-out head to toe in a custom made ghillie suit. He crouches by the bushes lining the entrance of his house, blending into the background. An unsuspecting Russ Smith walks by and … bang Davis pops out and unloads a clip of suction-tipped, foam Nerf bullets in Smith’s face.

As a member of the New Orleans Pelicans in 2014, Smith immediately connected with Davis. On the court, Davis was a 2012 top overall pick, the Rookie of the Year, the next big thing. Smith was a second-round pick, assigned and recalled to and from the D-League throughout the season. Davis took Smith under his wing.

“[Davis] helped me out a lot with the plays because [then-head coach] Monty [Williams] was there and he was really tough,” Smith said. “I was a rookie and Davis was already like a vet.”

Off the court, the two became close friends. They frequently hung out at Davis’s house, shooting pool or shooting the Nerf guns that Davis had received as Christmas presents. The Nerf gun battles stretched throughout the house and extended out into the yard surrounding Davis’ home. Ordinary household objects like a chair or table became cover for fire, or a vantage point to shoot from. When the battles finished, scattered bullets splayed across the walls like a Jackson Pollock painting.

According to Smith, Davis is just as competitive off the court and took the game a step further.

“AD got this jumpsuit so he’d camouflage and blend in,” Smith said. “I don’t know where he got it, or who made it for him, but it’s super dope.”

If you’re wondering how a 6-11, 253-pound basketball player is possibly able to blend in, you’re not alone. At first Smith was skeptical of the suit, but soon came to appreciate its effectiveness.

“I thought it would be pretty easy to see him, but he really knows how to move in that suit,” Smith said with a laugh. “Especially at night.”

In January 2015, Smith was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, ending his time with Davis. “We actually ended up becoming really close. It’s dope that I have a friend like that now. I’m glad I got the chance to know him. AD is cool as hell.”

Smith first met Davis in college during the 2012 NCAA Tournament when Smith’s Louisville Cardinals faced Davis’ Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. Smith had nine points off the bench, but Rick Pitino’s squad couldn’t overcome an 18-point, 14-rebound game from Davis. The Wildcats would go on to win the national championship.

Smith decided to return to Louisville for his junior year, stepping into a starting role. During an Elite Eight game against Duke, Kevin Ware, one of Louisville’s key role players, suffered a nasty open fracture of the tibia in his right leg. The injury compounded an already emotional time for the Cardinals as starting forward Luke Hancock’s father, William Hancock, and Smith’s beloved high school coach, Jack Curran, both had recently passed away.

“There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes. Certain players’ families weren’t doing too well,” Smith said. “Some guys felt that they needed to win a championship in order to get an opportunity to play in the NBA. Kevin’s injury was just another factor that we had to overcome.”

The team banded together, pouring on the points and defeating Duke by 22. In the Final Four, Louisville defeated Wichita State, that year’s Cinderella team.

Smith led Louisville in scoring in every game during the NCAA tournament leading up to the championship against Michigan. “Going into the game, we didn’t want to have to look back and wonder [what could have been],” Smith said.

Louisville’s passionate play helped them outlast a scoring onslaught from the Wolverines and the Cardinals hoisted the trophy, earning their One Shining Moment. “It was awesome to cut the net down,” Smith said. “We had been playing all year for that. The year before, we came up short, but we returned all of our guys [the next year] and we knew we had a shot.”

The funny thing is that Smith almost didn’t end up at Louisville. He was playing a year of prep school basketball after graduating from high school, looking for a good Division-I scholarship offer. A Louisville assistant coach attended one of the prep school’s games to scout a different player. Smith played well, however, and caught the coach’s attention. When Smith heard that Louisville was interested, he tried to commit before he had even received a scholarship offer, as if he could speak his dreams into existence.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be at Louisville. I just knew it was the best school I had [that was interested in me]. They had the best coach and they played against the best players. I wanted to be there.”

Pitino saw that although Smith was a raw, energetic player, he could be developed to fit Louisville’s game schemes.

“You can see the development from when I first came to when I left,” Smith said. “I think that goes to show how much time and work Pitino puts in. I came in not knowing if I would even play basketball professionally and I left an NBA draft pick, so that was pretty awesome.”

After Smith was traded from the Pelicans to the Grizzlies, he again spent the season between the NBA and the D-League. He waived by Memphis on December 29, 2015 and picked up by the Delaware 87ers two weeks later. In March, Smith set the D-League record by scoring 65 points in a game.

“I had the ability and the green light to score at will,” Smith said, recalling that performance. “The coach wanted me to score and that’s what I did. I’m a great scorer and I know that.”

Only six days later, Smith was waived by the team after suffering a season-ending injury.

After a brief stint playing in Turkey, Smith was re-acquired by the Delaware 87ers in January. He feels his game matured during his time overseas and he has worked on becoming more of a facilitator on the court.

Since returning to the States, Smith has looked for guidance from other NBA veterans.

“Nate [Robinson] has been a big help since coming [to play for the 87ers]. Last year I had Baron [Davis]. He taught me about pace and reading pick-and-rolls… [Sometimes] I text Mike Conley or Jrue Holiday and they’ll get back to me if I have any questions.”

Don’t count Smith out on his journey to make it back to the NBA. He’s always exceeding expectations. Whether it was playing for a scholarship during that one year at prep school, playing for a championship at Louisville, or playing for an NBA roster spot now, Smith approaches it all with the same hunger.

And he hasn’t forgotten about his old pal Anthony Davis either.“It’s tough [staying in touch since we’re apart], but I talk to him about coming down,” Smith said. “New Orleans is a great city. I loved my time there.” And If Davis tries to ambush him with a Nerf gun at the door, this time Smith will be ready.

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