BOZICH | Russ Smith salutes Rajon Rondo as his NBA career begins
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For the final three seasons of his University of Louisville career, Russ Smith wore jersey Number 2.
That's the number that Darius Miller has worn for Smith's new team, the New Orleans Pelicans.
Did Smith ever consider asking Miller, the former University of Kentucky forward, if he'd be interested in surrendering 2. Make a deal. Buy him dinner. Plead. Something.
“No,” Smith said in a telephone interview Friday. “It was already taken and I was already kind of thinking about changing it anyway.
“I kind of wanted to leave the number where it belonged. I was just going to try to get another one.”
Smith's improbable NBA journey begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. when the Pelicans play the Miami Heat in an exhibition game at the KFC Yum! Center. Look for number 9. That's what Smith will wear, his salute to Louisville native Rajon Rondo, Smith's friend who wears that number for the Celtics.
“The summer league came and the number they had available was 9 and I just took it from there,” Smith said.
“I got a chance to know Rajon and follow him my sophomore year. I'm a big fan of his game. When coach (Rick Pitino) asked me to watch film of point guards, he was one of the first people that I watched, along with Steve Nash, to help me prepare for my senior season.”
Rondo, who played at Eastern High School and UK, talked to Smith about the importance of patience, pace and composure. Smith listened, learned and showed more of those skills as a senior.
“When he was in town and working out in the summer, he might come to the Yum or another gym,” Smith said. “When pros came back to the Yum Center that's when we kicked it off.
“The summer before my senior year, he helped me out a lot when he was around. I always asked him questions and he was always cool about it.”
This is not the first time Smith has picked his number to honor a friend. In high school, as well as prep school, Smith wore 24, the same number he wore as a Louisville freshman.
That season didn't go well. Smith battled injuries. He considered returning to Brooklyn and picking another school, probably Manhattan. He played 96 minutes and made 14 field goals. His bags were packed. But he stayed -- and made a difference in the U of L program.
So he switched to 2 – to show his appreciation for Preston Knowles, who also wore 2 for the Cards (Freshman Quentin Snider will wear 2 for Louisville this season).
“Preston played extremely hard and I needed something to motivate me,” Smith said. “So I said, ‘I'll put on this number and play hard like you did. I'll just take it from there.' “
You know the rest of the story. Smith finished his U of L career as the school's fifth all-time scorer with 1,908 points. He played in two Final Fours. He won one NCAA title. He was one of the best players in the nation as a junior and senior. He was drafted by the Pelicans in the second round of the NBA Draft last June and earned a guaranteed contract worth $507,336 for the 2014-15 season.
Maybe one day he'll join Darrell Griffith (35), Charlie Tyra (8), Wes Unseld (31) and Pervis Ellison (42) by having his number retired at Louisville. It's a legitimate topic to discuss.
“I hope so,” Smith said. “That would be an honor if that's the case. Leaving that number in Louisville would definitely be the right thing then. That would be great, definitely something to remember.”
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