The 2-year-old bay colt and the two guard from Brooklyn are linked by a name—a once damning, now loving adjective of a name. Last April, Louisville coach Rick Pitino christened two of his other racehorses after players, calling the fast one Siva, for his point guard, Peyton Siva, and the big one Gorgui, for his 6'11" center, Gorgui Dieng. The coach purchased the bay at auction two months later for $145,000, on the advice of Doug O'Neill, the trainer of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another. O'Neill began working with the colt in Los Angeles last summer and told Pitino that it was a "giving" horse with natural speed—but it just might be impossible for a jockey to control. "He gives you 110 percent every day," O'Neill said, "but he isn't always doing the right thing 110 percent."
This is an article from the Dec. 24, 2012 issue
"I have a player who can be the MVP for either team," Pitino replied. "It sounds like a four-legged Russ Smith."
And so Smith's nickname became the horse's name. If they ever meet, college basketball's most endearingly reckless star—the 6-foot, 165-pound, dribble-attacking and pocket-picking junior who leads the fifth-ranked Cardinals in scoring and steals—has something he wants to ask his equine brother:
"Do you know that my name is Russdiculous too?"
RUSSDICULOUS: a Pitino portmanteau, coined at a January 2012 practice for the purpose of criticism. As Smith recalls, his ongoing battle with a condition endemic in Big Apple ballers—call it shot-selectiveness deficiency disorder—caused Pitino to snap, "That shot was ridiculous! Only you would take that shot. That shot was ... Russdiculous!"
Smith fired frequently and inefficiently through most of last season—taking a whopping 35.6% of the Cardinals' shots and making a woeful 35.6%—as the sixth man on a team that stumbled out of the polls by late January. But when Louisville came alive and went on an 8--0 run in March, Smith was invaluable. "Without him," Pitino says, "we have no chance of winning the Big East tournament and going to the Final Four." During that run a semantic shift occurred. RUSSDICULOUS evolved to mean, able to make enough winning plays to get away with pushing your coach to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Smith frayed the nerves of opposing ballhandlers by making a school-record 87 steals (despite playing just 21.5 minutes per game), but his nail-biting habit so annoyed Pitino that trainer Fred Hina was ordered to paint Smith's fingers with Thum, a foul-tasting liquid usually used on children. Before Smith hit the free throws that iced the Big East championship—his first title at any level—he yelled over to Pitino, "I finally won something!"
In the 59--56 victory over New Mexico that put the Cardinals in the Sweet 16, Smith botched a dunk but hit all three of his shots from behind the arc—and gave Pitino bunny ears on national TV after the game. Playing point guard in relief of Siva, who had fouled out, in the final three minutes of their Elite Eight comeback over Florida, Smith missed two wild shots and committed two turnovers ... but sank two decisive free throws with 17.8 seconds left.
In the postgame celebration Smith, who had once responded to a Pitino tongue-lashing in practice by requesting (but not receiving) a hug, locked onto the Cardinals' coach for a relieved and heartfelt embrace.
Bloodlines are paramount in horse breeding, and Russdiculous was sired by Malibu Moon, an esteemed great-grandson of Secretariat. The bipedal Russ Smith is an outsized character who was sired and trained by an even more outsized character. That would be Big Russ, a 41-year-old Brooklynite who's a bigwig in Harlem.
Big Russ grew up as one of 10 siblings in a Midtown welfare hotel near Madison Square Garden, cooking and selling (but, he says, never using) crack as a teen in the mid-'80s. He was a defensive specialist (and self-described bully) as a guard in a brief playing career at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and for a pro team in Tunisia. He worked in security and management for rap artists Trina and Big 5, among others. In the '90s, Big Russ also took up acting, landing a Foot Locker commercial and appearing in an East Village bio play about Tupac Shakur. He was the basketball consultant on the 2000 film Finding Forrester, in which he appears on the credits right after Casey Affleck. That was how an eight-year-old Smith got a flicker of screen time as an extra, running across a Bronx street in a pair of long johns.
All the while Big Russ was building a small empire on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, where one can find, on the same block, Big Russ Barbershop, Big Russ Salon and a soon-to-be-opened clothing store that will be called Wolf Styles. The basketball-themed barbershop has framed pictures of the younger Smith, who, customers often tell Big Russ, is "way too nice to be your son." It is accepted that Smith inherited his good humor from his mother, Paulette O'Neal, a substitute teacher who was the stable presence keeping his early hoops career on track. (She and Big Russ are divorced.) Big Russ has such a notoriously short fuse that he might get physical with someone who called him Russdiculous. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been in some Russdiculous situations.
As a teenager visiting now-defunct Action Park in Vernon Township, N.J., he was arrested and incarcerated for giving a beating to someone who dared suggest that Big Russ and his friends wait in line, like everyone else, for a water ride. When Lou d'Almeida, the founder of the Gauchos AAU team—for which Big Russ then played, and whose early-youth programs he now manages—arranged to get him out, the response was not what d'Almeida expected. "Some guys heard I was a Gaucho," Big Russ told him, "and now they're counting on me to go one-on-one against the best guy from the other side of the jail. Could you wait till next week, so I can play the game?"
"I nearly lost my mind," recalls d'Almeida, who denied the request and posted bail. "Only [Big] Russ would ask that."
And perhaps only Big Russ's son could persuade nearly all his coaches to use him as a pure scorer, even if his stature suggests he play the point. There were no reins on Smith at Queens's Archbishop Molloy High, where he arrived as a sub-100-pound runt. The program's revered coach, Jack Curran, so loved Smith's passion for the game that he excused his lack of passing ("He really couldn't help himself with that," the 82-year-old Curran says) and set him free to score 29.6 points per game as a senior, in 2008--09. In Smith's 19.7-points-per-game prep year at South Kent (Conn.) School, coach Kelvin Jefferson refers to Smith's shooting binges as "blackouts," during which "Russ couldn't see anyone else on the floor, and the only thing he'd remember when he came to was whether or not he scored."
When Jefferson asked if Smith had considered passing on a particular play, his answer—delivered so genuinely that the coach couldn't stay mad—was, "I thought I had the better shot." When Smith tried that on Pitino, it did not fly. It has taken two-plus seasons of the coach's diatribes, which sometimes have to be translated into Brooklynese by Big Russ over the phone, for a delicate balance to be struck between Pitino's demands (that Smith be more patient and selective with his shots while applying relentless defensive pressure) and Smith's needs (that he be free to make unpredictable dribble drives and to gamble for steals). "You've gotta give him latitude," Pitino concedes, "or he's not a very good player."
That compromise has yielded splendid results this season: Although Smith was still taking 34.6% of Louisville's shots at week's end, he had All-America numbers, averaging 20.2 points and 3.1 steals (seventh nationally) while shooting 44.1%. Russdiculous is starting to denote consistent stardom, but that doesn't mean Smith's goofier impulses are gone. They're just being channeled elsewhere.
In an alternate universe of Russ Smith's creation he is the BasedKing, a name derived from his favorite rapper, Lil B (a.k.a. the BasedGod). Never mind that no one else calls Smith this. He firmly believes he is, after Lil B, the most "based" person in the world and has issued Rules on Being Based:
1. Do what you want.
2. Answer to yourself.
3. Care about everyone n their feelings.
4. Have an extreme and a rare breed of confidence in yourself.
5. Swagg all the time.
He recently posted those guidelines on the picture-sharing service Instagram, which is the BasedKing's only means of reaching his followers. The voluminous and sometimes vulgar tweeting habit that Smith had as a freshman played a pivotal role in Pitino's banning the team from Twitter. The BasedKing's Instagrams are harmlessly weird. They tend to feature fictional subjects of his kingdom—cheesy family images that might have appeared in psychology textbooks—and riffs on his hashtag catchphrase, Maybe #YouWillGetLucky.
Two standard examples: a photo of a mother and her two daughters smiling at a computer monitor is headlined, MY KIDS AND I LOVE WHEN THE BASEDKING EMAILS US, and captioned, "Mom, Jenna and Katie were so happy I invited them to a #TeaParty. Maybe next year #YouWillGetLucky and get an invite." In another photo a sad woman's face is overlaid with the line BASEDKING WON'T LET ME BE TEAM WAFFLE HOUSE, and captioned, "Hannah is #Unlucky. Maybe one day when #SheGetsLucky she can participate in all #WaffleHouse events."
These are real events. The BasedKing holds tea parties at a Waffle House near Louisville's airport, where he indulges in hot, caffeinated beverages against the advice of Hina, who worries about their dehydrating effect. He once had to rescue a fully cramped-up Smith from a postpractice cold tub. When the BasedKing permits himself java, it is instead called a Coffee Bar Mitzvah because everything must have a festive title. But he always orders the same All-Star combo with a light waffle, mixing the grits and the scrambled eggs, then dousing them with sugar. This final touch, he says, "wakes up the food."
The person who always lucks into Waffle House invites is Dark Slime, a nickname that when translated from BasedKingspeak means "black best friend." Dark Slime is Michael Baffour, a 6'2" guard from Lexington who came to Louisville on an academic scholarship with no intention of playing hoops. But Smith befriended Baffour at freshman orientation, persuaded Pitino to let him join the team, and now they're inseparable roommates. Dark Slime and the BasedKing have fantasized about developing their own cartoon; the Senegalese-born Dieng, whom they view as a wise older brother or a sort of giant wizard, would be their third character.
There's one constant about the BasedKing, according to Dark Slime: "He always feels lucky." This feeling often manifests in a desire to play the lottery, even though Dark Slime deems the activity foolish. Baffour is fond of a story from March 2012, when the BasedKing bought a $2 scratch-off advertising a $50,000 jackpot. "Russ scratched it off; all the numbers matched; and he started screaming and jumping around in the convenience store, convinced he had won 50 grand," Baffour says. "It was the most excited I've ever seen him. The guy at the register scans the ticket and says, 'Oh, dude, it says you can win up to 50 grand, but all you won is seven dollars.' Russ stopped jumping around. Of course, he put the seven dollars into more scratch-offs, and he walked away with no money."
The BasedKing did not let this dent his spirit, because unwavering confidence has been the secret to how he has flourished in the real world. Before he was Based, as a freshman struggling with injuries and buried on the bench, he packed up to quit on the day of a home game against West Virginia, only to be talked out of it by then teammate Rakeem Buckles. Smith also considered transferring at the end of that season. "But I knew if I transferred, I'd look like what we, in Brooklyn, call a 'Herb'—somebody who's corny, soft or scared," he says. "So I decided to thug it out at Louisville." By his sophomore year he had cracked the rotation and didn't care that he couldn't enter a team huddle without being engulfed in Pitino's verbal napalm.
The beauty of Russ Smith is that he can endure those dressing-downs, then flip a switch and revert to Based mode, in which every possession offers a potential lottery jackpot, and you can't win if you don't gamble. There's no place for worry in that world. "It's really tough to be in a big basketball environment, on a Final Four team, playing for Coach Pitino, with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng and [sophomore forward] Chane Behanan, and still have more confidence than anyone," Smith says. "That's the most important skill that I have."
Smith's swagger took a brief hit during the off-season when he was informed by Pitino that NBA teams were inquiring about Siva, Dieng, Behanan and sophomore swingman Wayne Blackshear, but not Smith, because they view him as more of a "circus act" than a draft prospect. Altering this perception, Pitino told him, would require not only that Smith become more efficient on the court but also that he follow a more professional schedule with less social life, more rest and more film time. It is no coincidence that Smith is having a breakout season now that he's regularly getting seven to nine hours of sleep for the first time in college; last season he went into most games on three or four hours. The tea parties are the extent of his social calendar.
"I've never given anyone the keys to my car before," Smith says, metaphorically. "But I figured, [Pitino] is a Hall of Fame coach, so let me try to do what he says. I want to do everything the right way for once and find out where that takes me."
When Pitino first told Russ about his bay colt, the coach said, "It's either going to be really good ... or really bad." On Oct. 20, Russdiculous ran his maiden debut, at Santa Anita Park, wearing a Cardinals-red sash, and he burst out of the gate with what O'Neill described as a "stuck accelerator."
The horse had a full-length lead around the first turn and half a length after the second, which allowed race viewers the pleasure of hearing a British-accented announcer say, "They come for home now, and it's Russdiculous"—at which point the horse abruptly ran out of gas, was overtaken on the outside and finished second. In his second race, on Nov. 9 at Hollywood Park, it was a similar story: explosion out of the gate, then a fade all the way to fourth.
O'Neill plans to run Russdiculous again at Santa Anita on Dec. 29, the day of the Louisville-Kentucky game. The race will go a long way toward determining if the colt has Kentucky Derby potential. O'Neill needs to see the horse run a complete race the right way. Smith, ever the optimist, believes his namesake will be at Churchill Downs in May. In a city that already loves the tale of one reckless talent turned into a winner, who knows? Maybe equine Russdiculous can restrain himself. Maybe he will get lucky.
For a Russ Smith video on how to eat eggs and grits properly, download the SI digital edition, available free to subscribers at SI.com/activate