LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On Saturday, one of the greatest players in the storied history of the Louisville men's basketball is finally heading up to the rafters. Former consensus All-American guard Russ Smith's No. 2 jersey will be getting permanently retired, never to be worn again by another Cardinal.
A decade ago, it was hard to imagine such a thing happening.
Smith was far from being considered a blue chip prospect out of high school. A member of the class of 2010, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native was rated as a low-three star talent at best by mainstream recruiting services, and was barely considered a top 300 prospect according to the 247Sports Composite.
But he was dead set on choosing Louisville, even to the point where he committed to the Cardinals without even having an official offer - at least that's how the story goes according to him.
Even after his freshman year, it would have been hard to envision Smith eventually attaining Louisville's highest honor. He broke his right foot before the season, and did not get to see the court until early December. Even then, a concussion, strained foot and a sore knee were soon to follow. He also found himself buried in the rotation behind guards like Preston Knowles, Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith (no relation).
By the end of the 2010-11 season, he had played in only 17 games, averaging just 2.2 points and under one assist and steals per game in the process. Needless to say, his first season on campus was a rough one.
"I wanted to leave every day, especially when I was hurt. It was hard," Smith said. "I come from a place in New York where there's a park on every corner on every street, and I grew up riding bikes and scooters to different neighborhoods and parks just to play basketball three of four times a day.
"When I wasn't playing here, I didn't know how to take that. I wanted to just go somewhere else so I can play. I just like to play ball and you know, this was a little different. This was a challenge."
Instead of bolt for another school, Smith chose to stick it out. Thanks in part to his background, growing up competing against friends and family much older - and taller- than him, he didn't need much motivation to better himself and earn a more meaningful role on the team.
It also helped to instill an insane amount of confidence, that even to this day he still carries around.
"There's guys like Jordan, Iverson, Kobe, D-Wade. In my head, I'm the best scorer in the universe. That's what goes on in my head," he said. "I feel like I'm the best player in the world, and I feel like I'm the best defender, and the best scorer that's ever touched a basketball. That's always going to be my attitude, and that's not going to ever change."
His 2011-12 sophomore season is when he became a more integral part of Louisville's rotation, and started to mold into the man who would eventually become known as "Russdiculous". That year, he put up 11.5 points per game, and started to exercise his defensive prowess with 2.2 steals to boot.
During his junior and senior seasons, he became a highlight reel regular. Between acrobatic layups, sharpshooting prowess, stifling defense and the occasional surprise dunk (paging Julius Randle), Smith was one of the top players in all of college basketball.
His penultimate year in college saw him average 18.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game, en route to helping lead Louisville to the 2013 national championship - their third in school history.
Bypassing the NBA Draft after that year, he was even more spectacular for his final year at Louisville. He put up 18.2 points, 4.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, and was named a consensus First Team All-American for his efforts.
When everything was said and done, he was Louisville's fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,908 points, and the Cardinals' career leader in steals with 257. He is also second in career free throws made with 488, and is tied for ninth in career three-pointers with 180.
It's a career that resulted in becoming only the fifth player ever to receive Louisville's highest individual honor.
But he didn't get there alone. Other than his upbringing and insanely confident nature, Smith also attributed his former head coach, Rick Pitino, as someone who helped him get to where he is now.
"Coach Pitino's been an instrumental part of my life," he said. "You don't normally come to a prestigious school, like U of L, be unranked and have a story that I did, and have their number getting sent to the rafters.
"This is a testament to Coach P's coaching, and his ability to audible. To change what he normally does as a coach, and fit his play personnel. I was very lucky to have a coach like that, and he allowed me to flourish."
During his time enrolled at Louisville, Smith also felt the love from not only the student body, but the city as well. He felt that his work on the court was not only appreciated, but embraced like any artist or craftsman would want. They loved him because he was nobody else but himself, and the Brooklyn transplant now has a permanent connection to Louisville and the entire state.
"It's just been very easy to relate to fans, supporters of the of the game of basketball here in the state of Kentucky," he said. "Just the respect that I get is a blessing, and I'm thankful for everyone who appreciates my craft."
(Photo of Russ Smith: Bob Donnan - USA TODAY Sports)
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