When I met with Marcus Smart this summer so that I could begin working on a longform feature about his journey to the spotlight, his future in the NBA and, most importantly, his decision to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season, it was abundantly clear from the get go that he was an incredibly kind-hearted individual. Everybody who approached him was greeted with “Yes sir” or “Yes ma’am”, he was extremely personable during our interviews and even when we chatted off the job and you could tell that the tough times that he had gone through in life had shaped him to be a very humble, reticent and compassionate person.
On Saturday night against Texas Tech, Smart made a poor decision in the heat of the moment. After falling into the crowd as a result of a end-to-end play in the final seconds, Marcus overheard a fan yelling something crude at him, got up and confronted the fan with a shove. Now, I’ve said before that if there was anything remotely racial said, Smart’s behavior deserves nary a criticism. And even if “piece of crap” was the only thing that the Texas Tech fan said, a shove is not something that would be totally unexpected had he said that to Smart’s face, or any other person for that matter, in any other setting, and I strongly believe that fans should not be afforded protection from consequences that they would likely deal with anywhere else just because they bought a ticket.
Most defenses of Smart are based on the fact that he is a 19-year old kid. I think there is some validity to that argument, but I also believe that 18-year old Smart would have reacted differently. That’s because at the same point in last year’s game, 18-year old Smart could have pointed to a scoreboard that displayed a 91-67 Oklahoma State lead. See, Smart didn’t react the way he did solely because something hateful was said to him. No, Smart reacted that way because of the anger and disappointment that has been building up inside of him for weeks as his Cowboys were falling from Final Four hopeful to in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament entirely.
He kicked a chair during a game against West Virginia, he’s had to deal with countless questions about his flopping, the new rules have affected his defensive impact and, worst of all, his play this season has regressed. Before Smart shoved the fan, a Le’Bryan Nash turnover with 10 seconds left had just sealed the fate for the Pokes; it set in stone their fourth straight loss and their fifth loss in their last five games and it significantly increased the chances that Oklahoma State’s dream season will result in hosting an NIT game in a half empty Gallagher-Iba Arena. His season was crumbling right before his eyes and Orr’s hateful words set him off. Smart, whose ability to manage his anger as a teenager played a big part in his love for basketball and his development as young man, lost his cool.
It’s odd to say this was bound to happen, but in a way it was. I mean, I didn’t expect him to shove a fan, but some kind of outburst from Smart was due. This incident was a consequence of his decision to come back to school and presents a somber snapshot of the college basketball landscape. I remember how excited Smart was when we talked about him coming back to school, about how he wasn’t ready to be a professional just yet, about how he wanted to enjoy another couple semesters as a student-athlete and about how the desire to redeem himself and his teammates after their first round exit in the NCAA tournament burned inside of him.
Now Smart will have to sit back and watch his Cowboys, now 4-6 in conference play and already down their best big man due to a season ending injury and their top freshman and reserve due to a pair of arrests and his dismissal, fight for their tournament lives for three games. Smart came back to school to experience the joys of college one more time, and for half of the year it was every bit as sweet as he expected. He was on the cover of every magazine and his team was near the top of every pre-season poll, he walked around at football games posing for pictures for fans and he was even the first student-athlete to ever be Gameday’s guest picker.
But now Smart has been exposed to the dark side of college athletics and is dealing with all of the repercussions of passing up millions of dollars and a starting point guard job in the NBA to stay in Stillwater. Coming back after his outstanding freshman season put tremendous pressure on him to be even better than the conference player of the year he was in 2013, and things outside of his control (teammates being injured or suspended, poor coaching, etc.) have made it even tougher on him to live up to the highest expectations that the Oklahoma State program has ever had. Ironically, Smart told me this summer that coming back this season alongside Nash and Markel Brown would make his job easier.
“I was thrown into the fire last year, which wasn’t a problem for me, but it was kind of like everything was on my shoulders to be the leader out on the court,” Smart said. “This year, everybody’s coming back, so we have more leaders and more veterans that are going to step up and help me out a lot more.”
As logical as Smart’s claim was, the truth is that Smart was never going to have that load lifted off of his shoulders. No matter what, whether Oklahoma State won the national championship or, well, did what they are doing this season, the outcome of this season was going to be a reflection on Smart. He was either going to be seen as a tremendous leader that showed kids what good coming back to school could do or he was going to damage his draft stock and be yet another example for the one-and-done’s of the world to point to as to why their college careers only lasted one year.
I have no doubt that Smart will move on from this and end up having a successful NBA career. His talent, his work ethic and even his character were not negatively impacted by what he did on Saturday. What was negatively impacted, however, was the sport of college basketball, and the idea of amateur athletics in general. As a group of student-athletes at Northwestern work to form a union and lawsuits against video game publishers using player’s likeness rage on, what Marcus Smart did on Saturday presented yet another reason why college sports are broken.
An unpaid 19-year old that has given his heart and soul in every game he has ever played for Oklahoma State University was insulted by a man who has made a habit out of inappropriately taunting opposing players, and yet Smart was the only one that was seriously reprimanded. Smart is far from the only player to have ever been heckled at a college sporting event, but that serves the point. Smart told me this summer that he was coming back to school so he could continue playing the game he loved simply because he loved it. Because playing basketball to him wasn’t about the money, it was about doing something he enjoyed. Something he had fun doing.
Now, tell me this: What part of lying on the ground, your body battered and broken after 40 minutes of supercharged competition, having just lost a critical game in a season that is slipping away, those pre-season predictions and your draft stock looking worse and worse by the day, and having a 50-year old man tell you that you are a “piece or crap,” or something far worse than that, sounds fun to you?