NEW YORK (WDRB) -- Russ Smith was on the University of Louisville team bus yesterday when he got the news that a mentor, Jack Curran, his high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, had died earlier in the day.
Smith said he cried for 45 minutes. He calls his old high school and coaches every time he's back home in New York. It just happened on this routine call to the athletic director that he got the unwelcome news.
"It was really hard on me," Smith said. "It was heartbreaking to think about."
U of L coach Rick Pitino knows something about that kind of loss. In fact, he was friends with Curran as well. He told Smith that the best thing he could do was to play for his old coach.
"I just told Russ we have to play this tournament and the NCAA for Coach Curran," Pitino said. "Coach Curran really enjoyed coaching Russ, and I really enjoyed coaching Russ, but we both knew what he was all about."
Early in Thursday's game against Villanova, Smith appeared to be pressing. He was called for a foul and responded negatively, more emotionally than normal for a guy who usually forgets negative plays just milliseconds after they happen. Pitino was on Smith repeatedly early in the game for not passing the ball, and finally took him out of the game after a defensive miscue midway through the first half. But after a stretch on the bench, Smith returned and was nearly flawless.
He finished the 74-55 U of L victory with 28 points in 29 minutes, including 4 of 6 shooting from three-point range and 10 of 11 from the free throw line, and played what Pitino said might've been his best overall game of the season.
"The last game we played, they (Notre Dame) made up their mind they were going to stop Russ Smith," Pitino said. "I said, Russ, that's scouting. You've got to make up your mind that night to get other people the ball.
"There's only been a few players in my lifetime like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who, after the scouting was over, could still score. I said, you've got to understand it wasn't you having a bad game. They decided to stop Russ Smith. And tonight he was brilliant because he passed the ball, he played awesome defense, he got after them, and he shot the ball well, made great decisions, even when a couple of his turnovers were pivoting and trying to get people the ball. . . . He was playing with a heavy heart, and it's really something that he could have a game like he had tonight to honor his old coach."
Tributes to Curran, 82, came from all over the city on Thursday, including from Kenny Anderson, the former NBA star who played for him, and numerous basketball luminaries.
"He was just ‑‑ he had all the great traits of a great leader," Pitino said. "Very humble, great teacher, very wise man. It was always about the players with him. He had a lot of what I witnessed with Coach Wooden. They were very similar personalities. They were great teachers. Although he was a great basketball and baseball coach, he probably was even a better gym teacher. He was just a great teacher and a great person. Never lost his passion and love. I don't know how he did it. He led a blessed life, and a lot of people are going to miss him greatly."
Smith hasn't had his best games in Madison Square Garden. It's a big deal for any New York native to play there, and this week Smith's oversized photo is posted right on the 34th Street side of the building as part of a CBS NCAA Tournament ad.
Talk about your miracles on 34th Street. Nobody outside of Russ ever thought Smith would wind up there. Curran, however, was one guy who believed in him and thought he could be the kind of player that had the kind of game Smith had last night in the Garden.
"It was really, really hard for me to like just focus ahead and to just put it all together," Smith said. "I really have no words, but I miss him a lot. I'm going to miss him. He was everything to me, and to my mom, my family. He treated everyone with respect. He taught me a lot of things, phrases, quotes, and one of the main ones was, 'The road to success is always under construction,' and I'll keep that. I always say that, and I'll always keep that to myself, and I always work around that little quote."
Curran is gone, but his words and philosophies certainly are on display in the Garden this weekend in Russ Smith.