MBB : Going his way: Brother of Knicks forward, Smith finds fit at Louisville after transfer

first_imgIn May 2007, Chris Smith found his school. He signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at Seton Hall — a school that would let the St. Benedict’s Prep senior stay in New Jersey and offer the competition of Big East basketball.There was only one problem: grades.‘I was being recruited by a lot of mid-majors,’ Smith said. ‘When I was being recruited, it was like, ‘We don’t know if we can take you because of your grades. We don’t know if we can take you because of your grades.’ And then Seton Hall gave me the opportunity.’But shortly after, Smith was ruled ineligible by falling just short of the required GPA. And as quickly as Seton Hall had entered Smith’s life, it was gone. Smith signed with Manhattan upon becoming eligible, playing his first game in December 2007 and starting 41 of 50 games over the next two years. At the end of his sophomore year, he transferred to Louisville, where he has been ever since.And now, Smith, a fifth-year senior guard, will lead No. 19 Louisville (22-8, 10-7 Big East) into the Carrier Dome to play No. 2 Syracuse (29-1, 16-1 Big East) at 4 p.m. Saturday, as both teams wrap up the regular season and look for momentum heading into next week’s Big East tournament.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBut beating one-loss Syracuse and avenging a one-point loss just a couple of weeks ago would hardly be the biggest obstacle the 24-year-old Smith has overcome. After being ruled ineligible and losing the chance to play at Seton Hall, he became a leader on a small conference team, finally made it to a Big East school in Louisville and then had to sit out the 2009-10 season. And perhaps the biggest obstacle has been trying to follow his older brother, J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks.All the while, Smith’s past and current coaches describe him as a gym rat, someone who gets to the gym first and leaves last. They describe him as a practical joker, someone who is fun to be around and is comfortable in his own skin. As a player, they say he has a high basketball IQ and has worked hard to become a starter who averages more than 10 points per game for the Cardinals.‘Chris has been steady throughout the season,’ Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said through Louisville athletic media relations. ‘He gives great effort in practice, carries it over to games and has provided us with good senior leadership this season.’***Dan Hurley first met Smith when he was a freshman at Lakewood High School in New Jersey. Hurley noticed his talent, toughness and work ethic.‘His passion about the game, his willingness to practice hard and train hard every day was something really impressive for a high school kid,’ said Hurley, who coached at St. Benedict’s from 2001 to 2010 and is now in his second season as the head coach at Wagner College.Before going to St. Benedict’s, Smith scored more than 1,300 career points at Lakewood. In his final season at St. Benedict’s, he averaged 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.8 steals per game.Hurley, who also coached Smith’s brother, J.R., at St. Benedict’s, said the biggest difference between the two brothers is size. J.R. Smith stands about 6 feet 6 inches and 220 pounds, while Smith is 6 feet 2 inches and 195 pounds.‘I think J.R. was a little more — his skill level was maybe a little higher in his senior year opposed to Chris,” Hurley said. ‘But both played the game at a similar pace.’But Hurley also had an unspoken bond with Smith, as both of them are younger brothers of an accomplished athlete. Hurley’s older brother, Bobby, is a former Duke and Sacramento Kings guard.‘He’s handled that as well as any younger brother could,’ Hurley said. ‘With a sibling that’s very successful and pseudo-famous, I’m kind of astounded at the way he kind of handles that because that’s not an easy thing to do.’Hurley said Smith’s development on the court and his ability to be comfortable with himself has impressed him more than any other player he has ever coached.‘Since Manhattan and what he’s been able to do at Louisville, he’s a great example,’ Hurley said. ‘He’s really matured so much as a player and as a person, and I use him as an example when I talk to my players at Wagner about growth and development.’***At Manhattan, Smith learned to value his opportunities. Especially after being ruled ineligible after originally signing with Seton Hall.‘Once I got into school, I was the happiest kid alive,’ Smith said. ‘Like I just got into college, I got to show whether I can play and have fun playing.’Smith averaged 9.9 points per game as a freshman and 13.4 points as a sophomore, which ranked him among the top 15 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.Then came the decision to transfer to Louisville, one Smith said he made with his father, who told him that if he was going to transfer, he needed to play for one of the best college coaches in the country.‘He said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you got to go all out with it,” Smith said. ‘So it was easy. My dad told me that it was either coach Pitino or coach Roy Williams, and those are the only coaches he would let me play for really.’Pitino fit the bill.Smith had to sit out the 2009-10 season due to transfer rules, which gave him an opportunity to work out with the team in practice and learn the plays.Steve Masiello, who was an assistant coach at Louisville for six years before being hired as the head coach at Manhattan in April 2011, said Smith’s rebounding ability and physical tools were attractive to Louisville.Masiello first met Smith at St. Benedict’s while he was recruiting Samardo Samuels, a former Louisville player who is currently on the Cleveland Cavaliers.When Smith transferred to Louisville, he and Masiello would talk about Manhattan and developed a good relationship. And then Masiello was hired at Manhattan at the end of Smith’s junior year at Louisville.‘We made a trade,’ Masiello joked. ‘They traded Chris Smith for me.’Although Masiello is now at Manhattan, he and Smith maintain a close relationship and talk just about every week. Smith even follows all of Manhattan’s games.‘He texted me the other day and said, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get up to New York. I want to try and catch one of your games and then go see my brother play with the Knicks,” Masiello said. ‘It’s really full circle for him.’***When Smith was ruled ineligible and Seton Hall became a sudden afterthought, his brother was there for him. And when J.R. Smith was involved in a car accident in June 2007 that killed one of the passengers in the SUV he was driving, his younger brother Smith was there for him.The two brothers worked out in Denver — when J.R. Smith was a member of the Denver Nuggets — for about two and a half months in 2007 until Smith became eligible to play college basketball.J.R. Smith’s car accident added even more pressure to Smith while he worked to gain eligibility.‘And then I was just like, ‘You know what, I’ll go out there and me and him can be together because that’s what really tied our bond,” Smith said.Both Hurley and Masiello say the two brothers, separated by two years, still work out often together, with J.R. Smith pushing Smith and demanding the most out of him.‘My brother pushes me in every aspect of life,’ Smith said. ‘He wants me to be better than him. That’s what he tells me. I just have to live up to all the potential that I have and everything that’s within my capabilities.’Looking to the future, Smith said he needs to improve on taking defenders one-on-one to get to the basket and creating for other teammates. He hopes to get a chance at an NBA team. Otherwise, he said he’ll head overseas.And through it all — the eligibility issues, transferring to another school, sitting out a whole season and trying to follow in the footsteps of a star older brother — Smith has just one message.‘A lot of people doubted my abilities in the past,’ he said. ‘But throughout the whole thing, I just stayed strong and just tried to prove everybody wrong. And to this point, I have.’[email protected] Comments Published on February 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Jon: [email protected]center_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img