His arrival to campus in August 2010 turned heads and dropped jaws, not because of his two star rating or his height. People couldn't help but stare, confused, shocked and worried about the six foot tall, 117 pound combo guard that could get lost in his own jersey and could have been swept away to Oz with a strong gust of wind.
Playing behind Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles his freshman year, all we knew about him at this juncture was that Pitino couldn't stand his defense and our coach had never encountered a player so incapable of making team first decisions with the basketball. Fast forward to Wednesday March 5, 2014, skip over the transfer rumors, relish the two final fours, back to back Big East Championships, a national title, and recount how the unbelievable and tear inducing story arc of Russ Smith now approaches its final chapter.
I never thought the program, and I personally, would cherish a player due to heart and ability more than DeJuan Wheat. Peyton Siva came close, Gorgui Dieng will be a role model and program changer for years to come, but Russ Smith is the new face of Louisville Legend. Russ has earned his spot amongst the program's greats, his number belongs in the rafters, his smile will light the Yum Center for decades, a personality that will ripple through this city for a lifetime, and Russ Smith will be the first player I tell stories about to my children and grandchildren.
"If only you could have seen Russ Smith play, he had this game against SMU where he had six straight 3's, one from 30 feet, puking after each one swished."
Some people do not enjoy or follow amateur sports and you could never explain such absurd behavior to me. I don't dislike these individuals, but I do pity them because they miss out on the experience, the growth, the attachment, the loss, and the pure enjoyment of watching Russ Smith play basketball for the Louisville Cardinals.
Russdiculous earned his nickname in unimaginable fashion Wednesday night, but he is only the headliner of this senior class, his surrounding cast is special and remarkable in their own right. Stephan Van Treese, Tim Henderson and Russell have accumulated the most wins of any group in Louisville history with 115 and counting, surpassing the McCray brothers. Luke Hancock became the first sixth man to win most outstanding player of the final four, and his two minute stretch against Michigan will always be the most electrifying and exhilarating experience of my sporting event life. More significant than his performance on the court, Luke was the leader of a championship team, the first to rush to Kevin Ware's side against Duke, the headiest player I can remember since Garcia, and to be able to have his dad courtside at the final four was simply indescribable.
These kids, and a few from last season, will be remembered in the same manner the old timers rehash tales from the 70's and 80's. They are a group of talented, but unheralded role players that were assembled to resurrect a legendary program and embark on the adventure of creating a new dynasty. These student athletes taught us all what it means to be Louisville First, Cardinals Forever, and they even brought about a change in our Hall of Fame Coach Rick Pitino. A certain happiness and enjoyment flows from Pitino now that was absent for several years throughout his tenure, and that happiness and pure joy gushes through each and every fan of this university.
It is March in Louisville and the most important month of year is starting off in a manner we all predicted. The Cardinals have a legitimate chance to repeat as champions, they'll be in Dallas on my bracket, and we will all be there personally to celebrate April 7th. Two star Russ Smith is a finalist for national player of the year, and should be a consensus first team All-American. However this season plays out, it will not tarnish or affect the way I feel about these Louisville Cardinals. I don't care if the NBA wants them, if the media respects them, or the selection committee attempts to screw them, this group of loveable, cardiac inducing, overachieving, and simply unforgettable group of Cardinals will be legends for all time, they are family, and from each and every single one of us, thank you...for everything.
All Hail UofL !!
To Chris Jones:
You arrived in Louisville as a replacement for one of the all-time fan favorites and pure point guards. Your talent is real, your scoring ability is impressive and much needed, and your intensity and defense is necessary for a championship run. We need your presence, your creativity, and we appreciate your tireless effort. Regardless of criticism and more important than basketball, you are a member of the Louisville family and we all send prayers to you and your family during this tough time. Thank you for your commitment to this University and you have the full support of more than just the 22,000.