Marcus Smart’s fate hung in the balance. Roughly 24 hours before North Carolina’s legendary head coach Roy Williams was set to visit the guard’s Texas home on a recruiting visit, the fiery McDonald's All-American took an impromptu trip to Stillwater, Okla.
Rather than sit at his mother’s house, anxiously waiting for Williams's visit, Smart accompanied his best friend and teammate on a recruiting visit to Oklahoma State. It was finally Phil Forte’s moment in the sweltering Southern sun. Travis Ford and the Cowboys vyed for Forte’s services alone, rather than courting him merely to lure Smart in tow. “He and I both thought he deserved more than that, being in my shadow,” Smart said. “He deserved for his name to be recognized.” After spending nearly a decade together on and off the hardwood, Smart and Forte were set to play collegiately at separate schools.
That is, until the Edward S. Marcus High School co-stars set foot on OSU’s sprawling, 1,500-acre campus: The immaculately sculpted mall preceding Edmon Low Library, the endless, orange flower beds engulfing its brick walking paths and culminating with the historic Gallagher-Iba Arena. Smart could hardly remember UNC’s Chapel Hill landscape, merely a day after putting his head to his pillow and dreaming of wearing powder blue. “We both agreed and it just happened,” Smart said.
The Cowboys landed Dallas’s grassroots odd couple, originally bound only by a leather ball and a chance encounter at the first practice of AAU Team Texas’s third grade squad back in 2003. Smart was a grizzled, audacious kid surviving in Lancaster, while Forte was shy, reserved and thriving in Flower Mound. One who would grow into a powerful, superstar, harnessing enough athleticism to tear a rim off a backboard, while the other slayed opponents with finesse, guile and a devastating shooting stroke. An apparent one-and-done lottery prospect and a leader destined to shed tears on a senior night.
“Two guys from drastically different places,” said Danny Henderson, the duo’s high school coach. “It’s surprising that we’re still friends after all these years,” Smart admitted. Friendship may not even truly characterize the depth of their bond. “We always say that we’re brothers,” Forte said. He shattered Oklahoma State’s three-point record this season, and as a fifth-year senior, Forte will help lead the Cowboys against Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday afternoon. That evening, Smart and the surging Boston Celtics will dance with the Brooklyn Nets. All these years later, they’re still sharing basketball’s biggest stage, just performing under different lights.
Henderson joined Forte in Stillwater this season as an assistant coach. They watched Smart and the Celtics dispatch the Golden State Warriors from their team hotel on Mar. 8, cheering Boston’s pitbull while reviewing preparations for Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament the following afternoon. Henderson sent a congratulatory text. “And he goes, ‘Coach, call me anytime!’ And he’s still ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’” Henderson said. “He always says ‘Love you, Coach’ at the end of conversation. He’s just that kind of guy.” Forte’s and Smart’s phones are constantly buzzing with messages from one another. “FaceTime, snaps, texts, all that,” Smart said. Playing a stratosphere apart and living halfway across the country hasn’t prevented weekly check-ins.
This weekend’s games will mark Forte’s fourth NCAA tournament appearance, capping one of the most decorated careers in OSU history. Smart will retreat back to his hotel room following the Celtics’ morning shootaround in Manhattan to glue his eyes to CBS. “They’re just both vicious, vicious competitors,” Henderson said. When the varsity would hold open gym scrimmages in the spring and summers, the coach would frequently monitor the games as scores inched closer and the intensity burbled. Smart and Forte would always spearhead opposing teams and, on several occasions, would nearly come to blows. “Brothers will fight to the death and defend each other to the death,” Henderson said.
Loss truly forged the twosome’s unbreakable bond in 2004, when the 9-year-old Smart watched his eldest brother Todd pass away following an 18-year bout with cancer. As a biological brother passed, Forte and his family emerged as a rock. “Those are the people that really encouraged me to keep living my dream and just keep fighting,” Smart said. “When I didn’t have anything and I thought I couldn’t, they made sure my spirits were high and I had everything I needed to succeed.” It was years before Smart ever materialized as a tantalizing basketball prodigy, before his ultimate dreams became a reality. “We had no idea he would end up in the NBA, nobody ever thought he’d be playing for the Boston Celtics,” Forte said. “That was the last thing on our minds.”
The Smart family escaped Lancaster’s dim streets and moved to Flower Mound before Marcus reached high school, joining his best friend on the court and his brother off of it. The two families essentially merged into one. When Smart signed his rookie contract with the Celtics years later, he purchased his mother, Camellia, a new house five minutes from the Forte residence.
Smart and Forte compiled a 115–6 record and won two state championships after Henderson arrived before their sophomore year. While Smart had soared to All-American status and drew recruitment from blueblood programs, it was Forte who powered Marcus High past Aaron and Andrew Harrison’s Fort Bend Travis team in their senior season state title match. During the medal ceremony, when Forte stepped forward to collect his MVP trophy, another member of the team also moved towards the podium. Smart was hollering. “He had stomped out a couple of steps and he was clapping and cheering,” Henderson said. “I just remember the pure joy on Marcus’s face.”
When Forte’s college career inevitably concludes, he’ll indulge in a break before determining his future and visit his brother in Boston. Smart wants to show him around Cambridge and walk Harvard University’s campus, bring him to the TD Garden and feel the crowd’s guttural roar. “He fits really well in Boston,” Forte said. “Just a blue-collar town. His toughness and his grit just fits perfectly in that city.” Celtics fans have adored Smart’s fire, smoldering beneath the surface of Isaiah Thomas’s highlight pirouettes to the rim. The same blaze burns within Forte, the coals stoked from a happenstance pairing 15 years ago.