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A toast to Russ Smith: Louisville basketball’s most unlikely legend

The final chapter of Russ Smith’s unthinkable Louisville story will be written Saturday afternoon.

AAC Basketball Tournament - Championship Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Being wrong isn’t nearly as bad as its rap. This is something that happens to anyone with a properly functioning brain at least 100 times a day. The remote control is on the table? Wrong. It’s 75 degrees outside, not 71? Wrong. We don’t have enough milk for a full bowl of cereal? Wrong.

We know there’s at least a chance that what we’re thinking is wrong 95 percent of the time, so when that’s proven to be the case, it’s not a big deal. The nucleus of the nasty stigma that’s attached to being wrong is found in those rare moments or occurrences when we take all the knowledge we’ve accumulated throughout the course of our lives, scan over it until we come up with a thought or an answer to a question that we believe is completely foolproof, and then are proven incorrect. It’s an occurrence that challenges the validity of our existence up to that point, which is about the most humbling phenomenon possible.

In order to, once and for all, be administered the giant dose of humility this situation demands, allow me to say this: I have never been as wrong about anything as I was about Russ Smith.

The best evidence of this extreme fallacy that I can think of is a late-2010 phone call with a friend, who shall remain nameless. I will attempt to recreate the conversation, which centered around the then-freshman Smith, as best I can remember.

Equally wrong friend: So does Russ leave at the end of the semester or at the end of the season?

Me: I think he’ll make it through the year, but yeah...

EWF: I’m not sure we’ve ever had a less-Louisville player.

M: Yeah, he might be the most predictable transfer we’ve ever had.

EWF: Don’t get me wrong, I think he could be an average player in the MAAC or a bottom-tier A-10 school, but he’ll never see the court here. He has to know this.

M: Couldn’t agree more. Two years from now, Russ Smith will be an up-and-down player at Duquesne.

Russ Smith did not transfer to an MAAC program, and he did not become an up-and-down player at Duquesne. Russ Smith became the breakout star of a Cardinal squad that went to the Final Four, the leading scorer on U of L’s first national championship team in 27 years, the second preseason All-American in school history, the program’s first consensus First Team All-American in two decades, a top five all-time scorer in program history, and the school’s all-time steals leader. On Saturday, he’ll become just the fifth player in the history of the Louisville men’s basketball program to have his number retired.

So I was wrong.

The worst thing about this particular wrong is how much we all would have been deprived of had I been right. And I don’t even have to say that I’m not just talking about on-the-court stuff, because invariably, any conversation about Russ winds up being just as much about his personality as anything else.

For the duration of his first season as a Louisville Cardinal, we knew as little about Russ Smith as possible. We knew he took bad shots, we knew he turned the ball over, we knew he tweeted a lot, and we knew that he was the most likely transfer candidate on the U of L roster. That was Russ Smith encapsulated from the summer of 2010 through the end of the season in 2011.

Things changed, and I’m still not entirely sure how, but I know it happened quickly.

After Smith’s forgettable freshman run, Rick Pitino told Russ Smith’s father — another character we also had no knowledge of at the time — that they were going to give this one more year, and that if it didn’t work out, he’d help the younger Russ pick out a new school. All arrows pointed towards the latter scenario playing out.

Then Louisville got stabbed (“bitten” is far too friendly) by the injury bug. This meant Russ would be seeing extended court time during the team’s summer exhibition trip to the Bahamas, where he would be tried out as a two guard for the first time. He scored an unbelievable amount of points, and everyone, his head coach included, thought it was hilarious.

Getting buckets against the hotel bellhop (not a joke) isn’t exactly the same as beating a Big East guard off the bounce or finishing around the rim against UCOnn’s front line. Russ hadn’t really proven anything, but he’d done enough to at least warrant a shot in a game that mattered. Maybe if everyone is healthy the story doesn’t even get that far, and all the skeptics, myself included, chalk up their prognostications as an easy win. There are more comforting things to think about.

It’s difficult to get your mind back to a place where you can remember just how unfathomable the first few weeks of “RusselMania” were. It was this odd, but great, mixture of joy and humor, and we couldn’t figure out whether it was the product of a glorious fever dream that was destined to end soon, or the ever-increasing likelihood that we were all simply totally wrong about this kid.

I tried to sum things up as best I could following Russ’ first start against Memphis, where he again starred and furthered the belief that none of this was an opening line for some fleeting joke.

This whole Russ Smith thing, whatever it is, continues to be absolutely mind-blowing. The truth, I can’t think of any other (Louisville basketball) situation to compare it with.

A year ago I would have said it was about 50 times more likely that Russ Smith would not be playing basketball anywhere than it would be for him to score 24 points (U of L’s first 20+ scorer all season, mind you) against Memphis and be named Big East Player of the Week as a result.

It’s often the case when players go from unheralded to heralded that you hear people say, “you know, I saw a little flash of his ability” or “I actually kind of saw this coming.” I never, ever saw this coming. I thought Russ was plenty talented enough to have a productive college Fordham or Duquesne. Instead, I’m watching him record seven steals in maybe the biggest game of the season so far, and finding myself saying “just get it to Russ” when we have the ball on offense.

That kid deserves all the credit in the world for his hard-work and perseverance.

I have faith that you can pick the story up from here.

There are a thousand different directions we can take the tribute at this point, but there’s one which stands head and shoulders above all others in my eyes.

Russ Smith is the single-biggest reason why, for those years from 2010-2014, Louisville basketball was more fun to follow and cheer for than at any other point in my existence. He made being a Cardinal basketball fan as fun and rewarding an experience as possible.

That’s a pretty significant thing.

Certainly there are a number of different individuals who deserve their fair share of credit as well, but look at the effect Russ had on everyone around him since his rise to prominence. Perhaps most notably, look at the effect he had on his head coach. “Louisville Rick” never happens without Russ Smith. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

An effectively reckless mindset on the court coupled with an equally captivating and equally unfiltered persona off it helped gain the adoration of Louisville and college basketball fans alike, but it also helped mask the most overlooked (or dismissed) aspect of Russ: he is one of the most interesting and intelligent human beings to ever put on a Cardinal uniform.

Maturity can be just as evident in a player starting to let people see a previously hidden side of themselves as it can in a dramatically improved assist-to-turnover ratio. Both of those things happened with Russ Smith as his college career evolved, and both were equally thrilling to follow.

It’s been nearly eight years now since the last time Smith donned a Cardinal uniform, but the memories of his time at U of L have aged even more gracefully than his father. All you have to do is say a couple of words, and any Louisville fan worth a salt will smile and know exactly what you’re talking about.

The nickname. The waffles. The bunny ears. The Cincy game-winner. The Randle dunk. Advantage Russ. The Twitter ban. The Houston game. The puke game. “Nice pass, Russ.” Every day I’m Russelin. The buckets. The Final Four. The championship.

Now, the story of the unlikeliest Louisville basketball star of all-time gets its final chapter.

The two-star recruit who became Louisville’s first consensus First Team All-American in 20 years. The kid a basketball obsessed fan base knew nothing about for a year who became the biggest and most-talked about personality in the city. The freshman who couldn’t make a shot or keep from turning the ball over in a gym by himself who became the fifth-leading scorer in U of L history. The undersized, defensively-challenged guard who became the school’s all-time steals leader. The Dr. Frankenstein of Louisville Rick, the Cardinal who never needs to be called by more than one name, the All-American, the national champion ... the fifth retired number in school history.

At some point over the last 12 years, it became impossible to tell the story of Louisville basketball without telling the story of Russ Smith. I still don’t know exactly how that happened, but I did not predict it.

Being wrong can be beautiful.