1. Editor's note:
  2. GOODBYE OR GOOD RIDDANCE?
  3. THE RETURN
  4. DIFFERENCE MAKER
  5. HARSH REALITY
  6. SELF-DESTRUCTION
  7. SELF-REALIZATION
  8. THE END

a career defined

THE RISE, FALL AND REDEMPTION OF MARCUS SMART

a career defined
THE RISE, FALL AND REDEMPTION OF MARCUS SMART
Editor's note:

As a student-journalist, it has been an adventure and a challenge spending two years covering Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State basketball. What follows is a chronicle of Smart's turbulent sophomore season. But it's also more than that. This page is filled with interactive photos, videos, links and other extras that allow it to serve as a digital archive of The Daily O'Collegian's work. At its core, this is an in-depth look at the intricacies of one of the most polarizing players and teams imaginable.


GOODBYE OR GOOD RIDDANCE?

Marcus Smart’s career at Oklahoma State will be remembered mostly for two moments: A magical press conference in the Student Union when he announced he was coming back for his sophomore season and a shove in Lubbock that marked his eminent fall from grace.

That’s part of the beauty of it in a way, a stark dichotomy that makes Smart seem more than human. What people will likely forget is Smart’s final days in an OSU uniform, when he attempted to right his wrongs, and in doing so showed even the best young point guard in America can be vulnerable.

Video by Cody Stavenhagen
THE RETURN

On a cloudy day in April around lunchtime, students cut class and flocked to the OSU Student Union, filling three levels of its Atrium to hear a basketball player make an announcement.

That’s what Marcus Smart did to Oklahoma State University in the spring of 2013. Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash were also at that press conference, but make no mistake, Smart was running the place after leading OSU to a seven-game Big 12 win streak and temporarily reviving the dormant basketball cathedral that is Gallagher-Iba Arena.

The Cowboys lost their first game of the NCAA Tournament to 12-seed Oregon, but that didn’t stop Smart from being the biggest deal on campus.

Smart stepped up to the podium that day and uttered a few magic words into the mic.

“It was a tough decision to make. I love you guys. I’m a Cowboy at heart, so … looks like I’m coming back for my sophomore year.”

The place erupted.

Smart would have been the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. Instead, he chose another year at Oklahoma State, citing he loved the school and wanted to be a kid for another year, never mind he later said a major factor was his injured wrist.

Smart, Brown and Nash were coming back. The Cowboys were going to be loaded. They were going to the Final Four.

DIFFERENCE MAKER

That’s what happens with Smart on a team. Good luck stopping a 6-foot-4, 225-pound point guard with a relentless motor.

OSU coach Travis Ford has said over and over he has never coached anyone like Smart; a guy who brings it 100 percent every day, no matter what. A guy with an off-the-charts basketball IQ and innate leadership ability.

But it didn’t start on the court. It began in the locker room, where  Brown said Smart brought out the best in everybody.

“When I first got here, these guys, they didn’t really talk to many people,” Smart said. “They had they own little vibe where they stuck in their own little shell. I like to make people smile, laugh, have fun because you never know what’s going on with somebody else’s life.

Time to Jam

Time to Jam

The Daily O'Collegian's March 7 "Space Jam"-themed cover featuring Smart, Brown and Nash.

“We get to go out here and play basketball and go to college for free and all we have to do is put a ball through a hoop, so I think we have it made pretty much, so I just go about trying to bring joy to everybody.”

That’s Smart in a nutshell. Uncannily mature for a 20-year-old athlete. Friendly and light-hearted off the court. A monster on it.

You probably know the story. He told USA Today he was on track to be “dead or in jail” as an adolescent in south Dallas.

He watched one brother fall into the abyss of gang life. His other brother, Todd Westbrook, died of cancer at 33. Smart’s number and driving inspiration.

He moved out of the projects, started playing with fellow Cowboy Phil Forte in grade school, and the rest is the stuff of legend.

So Smart made his teammates comfortable, even the naturally shy ones such as Brown. Soon enough, that translated to on-court success. The Cowboys went 24-9 in 2012-13, only one year removed from a 15-18 record.

 “I think his personality has really affected this team,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “He's a key guy. He makes this team different.”

It’s one thing coming from Ford. Another from Barnes and other opposing coaches such as Kansas’ Bill Self.

“The thing that amazes me about him is that he impacts an entire program from a personality standpoint,” Self said.

That’s what Oklahoma State had coming back. More than a star. More than 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals per game. That’s why the Cowboys couldn’t fail.

HARSH REALITY

Everything was going as planned 13 games into the 2013-14 season. OSU had only lost one.

But you probably know this story, too. Starting center Michael Cobbins ruptured his Achilles on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, freshman point guard Stevie Clark got arrested on suspicion of possession of marijuana. A month later, he got arrested again on a complaint of outraging public deceny; he reportedly urinated out of a car window and Ford dismissed him from the team.

Ford said the Cobbins injury was a crucial blow, mostly because it messed with the team’s psyche. Ford said he was aware how devastating losing Cobbins was when it happened, even though he tried to mask it to his team.

Kneeling down

Kneeling down

Coach Travis Ford went to the floor after a series of controversial calls in OSU's loss to Oklahoma. It was an early sign of boiling frustration. PHOTO BY TYLER DRABEK/O'COLLEGIAN

He also hinted the problems started before that.

“When we were even winning games, I didn’t think we were playing well for certain reasons, and I didn’t address that at certain times,” Ford said. “I wasn’t crazy about our chemistry, where it was at on the court. We were fifth in America, and you hate to start trying to mess with too many things.”

From that stemmed internal dissent.

The Revival

The Revival

On Oct. 31, The Daily O'Collegian ran a page comparing the 2013-14 OSU team to the 2003-04 squad that went to the Final Four.

“As things go on and things aren’t going great, I think it’s reality that guys start going, ‘Oh, what’s going on with me?’ a little bit,” Ford said. “That’s where I could have done a better job of getting in the middle of that. But again, things were going well, and I didn’t want to change a whole lot.”

Looking back, Ford said he realized signs of a recipe for disaster that started before the season. Maybe the hype was too much. Maybe Smart’s almighty return didn’t come with a punched ticket to an NCAA Tournament run.

“Everybody was all going Final Four no matter what,” Ford said. “No matter what. And we were out there promoting it. You’re wanting to get publicity for your team, and you know, there’s some things I would do different starting way back when. But we were promoting a lot of great things that were going on with the program. As we were doing it, we were feeding into the frenzy a little bit.”

By early February, OSU was on a three-game losing streak. Then Smart’s fairy tale story nose-dived.

SELF-DESTRUCTION

Changes in OSU’s record correlated almost directly with changes in Smart’s play and demeanor.

In November, Smart scored 39 to lead OSU past No. 11 Memphis.

MARCUS.

MARCUS.

The Daily O'Collegian's cover after Smart scored 39 against Memphis.

Then Smart’s play declined. He was shooting too much, taking far too many 3s and making bad decisions in pivotal moments of games.

And of course he was barking at refs, incessantly flopping and at times ignoring Ford. All this while opposing fans booed and mocked him at every road game. Once a hero, Smart was becoming a villain.

“People kind of get the wrong perspective of him,” Forte said. “He just plays hard and wants to win so bad and his competitiveness sometimes gets the best of him, which is a shame because that doesn't really describe him at all.”

The frustration was mounting, and all the signs were there. The best example was Smart storming off the court after being pulled for foul trouble against West Virginia. Smart veered off past the bench first, then returned and stomped on a chair on the OSU bench until it bent.

Kicking and screaming

Kicking and screaming

Smart breaking a chair against West Virginia was a harbinger of things to come. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH BOWER/O'COLLEGIAN

Then, that fateful night in Lubbock, Texas came. The Cowboys were about to lose to Texas Tech. Smart fouled Tech’s Jaye Crockett as he went up for a layup and fell to the floor on the baseline. Smart turned his head and shot up, raced a few yards behind the basket and stared down a Texas Tech fan named Jeff Orr.

They briefly exchanged words, the Smart violently shoved Orr. Officials gave Smart a technical foul. Teammates gathered around and led him to the bench.

Smart walked off the court reportedly saying Orr called him the N-Word. Orr said he called Smart a “piece of crap.”

Whatever prompted Smart didn’t matter. He became the top national sports story. Suddenly, the kid who was praised for passing up money and the NBA to spend another year in college looked like a monster on national television, the replay showing over and over and over again.

Smart had to serve a three-game suspension. He, Ford and OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder spoke at a press conference where Smart apologized. It was broadcast live on ESPN.

Smart's press conference

OSU lost all of those games, and its NCAA Tournament hopes were in serious jeopardy. That’s the part people will remember from the lost opportunity that was 2013-14 OSU basketball.

Here’s what they will forget.

SELF-REALIZATION

Somewhere in all the hysteria of having to make the biggest decision of your life at age 19 and being a celebrity on one of the best basketball teams in America, Marcus Smart got lost.

His play was off. His on-court demeanor was uncharacteristic. He was more guarded with the media.

Whatever it was, Smart was out of control.

That’s why the shove that wrecked his reputation was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“I met with him in the coach’s locker room as soon as the game was over,” Ford said. “I saw his eyes. And that’s tough, no different than one of your kids, one of your own blood children that makes a mistake, and when you know that they know it, you feel bad for them.

“I felt bad that he had to go through it. But through it all, I thought it was going to make him stronger. I did. I wouldn’t wish him to go through it, but I thought, ‘All right, it’s done. Now this is gonna make him better.’ ”

Ford said Smart needed that time to reflect and refocus. There’s no better wake-up call than adversity.

That’s why Smart went to Gallagher-Iba Arena to shoot at 7:30 a.m. during his suspension. That’s why made sure he got back on track.

“We always take something for granted,” Smart said. “Some of us take life for granted. It’s our human nature to take things for granted, and you never really understand how good you have it until it’s gone. I had this game taken away from me for three games.”

At the same time, his comments after his return indicate he was reminded of life’s fragility, of how lucky he was to be a college basketball player, likely realizing how far away he was from the freshman who brought joy to the locker room because he wanted to seize the day.

“This is just a game,” he said. “We’ve got people overseas fighting wars, kids 18- and 19-years old, our age, losing their lives. This isn’t anything. We get to go into a gym and put a ball through a hoop.”

Back to the Basics

Back to the Basics

Smart has said he was trying to do too much before his suspension. After, he said he began to realize where he went wrong on and off the court. PHOTO BY TYLER DRABEK/O'COLLEGIAN

It was about more than righting the ship of the season. It was about growing up.

“This might prepare him for some things he might go through 10 years from now, because he’s going to play in the NBA for a long time,” Ford said. “Whether it be the NBA or family matters or whatever it is. I thought he handled it tremendously.”

Smart went as far to acknowledge he needed to be torn down in order to build himself back up, this time stronger.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Smart said. “That’s how I’ve always been raised. God puts situations in your life for a reason. It’s a step I needed to take. He put it in front of me, and it’s been helping me so far.”

THE END

Smart returned and played some of the best basketball of his career. He averaged 19.8 points, 6.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds in leading OSU to wins in four of its last five regular-season games, including a win against No. 5 Kansas.

The Jayhawks beat OSU in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament, but the Cowboys did enough to make the March Madness. Two weeks before, that looked like a long shot.

Smart’s play was on point. His demeanor was changed. His spirits were noticeably brighter.

Strong as Ever

Strong as Ever

Marcus Smart's final games at OSU were some of his best despite dealing with adversity. PHOTO BY TYLER DRABEK/O'COLLEGIAN

But Smart and the Cowboys ended up losing to Gonzaga in their first NCAA Tournament game. Smart declared for the NBA Draft and leaves OSU having never won a Tournament game. A storybook ending that wasn’t meant to be. An ending that leaves Smart’s collegiate legacy up in the air.

For OSU fans, he’ll be known as one of the program’s greatest players and heralded for his on-court accomplishments and the two times he slayed Kansas.

Nationally, the college basketball world will see Smart as the kid who went back for his sophomore year and then pushed a fan.

Smart's perspective? 

“I think my legacy is already defined,” he said. “I’m a hard worker. Player. Teammate. I like to make my teammates better. I’m kind, but like Kevin Durant said, ‘Don’t let the kindness fool you. Don’t take it for weakness.’”

Maybe there’s something to that, but then again, maybe Holder was on to something at Smart’s press conference after the shove.

“What happened last night will not define Marcus, will not define us,” Holder said. “It’s what’s going to happen going forward that’s really the crucial piece to the puzzle.”

What Ford said Smart should be remembered for, but won’t, is how he came back from disaster, played incredibly well and matured.

“It’s always going to get lost because people like to talk about the negative,” Ford said. “…I wish people would look at it and say, ‘Yeah, he made a mistake, shouldn’t have done it, but how did he handle it?’

“I thought he handled it pretty well. I thought he handled it pretty well for a 19-year-old kid.”

That doesn’t mean Smart needs to be an object of sympathy. It doesn’t work that way.

Smart will leave Stillwater with a lasting mark strictly for being an athlete. No doubt people will talk about the shove for years, but the same goes what he did on the court.

And that little bit of magic he provided in the Union.

“I think he’s going to leave a lot of marks as a player, but I think it will always start with he came back,” Ford said. “People will say, ‘Man, he passed up being a top NBA pick. He went against the norm. Marcus Smart was a guy that went against the grain.' ”

What won’t be talked about much will be how Smart messed up in a big way and came back from it better than anyone expected. Not his legacy, but what really defines him.

 “I brought Marcus over to my house the other night, sat him down, and he and I talked about a lot of things,” Ford said. “A lot of things. What he’s getting ready to experience now to what we’ve been through the last two years. Everything.

“He said, ‘Coach, I would do it all over again. In a heartbeat … It was hard as I was going through it, but I get it now.’ ”

'I get it now'

'I get it now'

Marcus Smart's sophomore season at OSU was filled with turmoil and disappointment. It brought out the worst in Smart, but in some ways, it also brought out the best. PHOTO BY TYLER DRABEK/O'COLLEGIAN

Special thanks to Daily O'Collegian staffers Kieran Steckley, Jackie Dobson and Tyler Drabek.