Tuesday February 11, 2014Billy D on Marcus Smart
Updated: 8:42pm, February 23
Updated: 8:42pm, February 23
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- From 1,500 miles away, it’s easy to formulate opinions or make generalizations about what happened Saturday night in Lubbuck, Texas, where one of the best players in college basketball imploded for one of the game’s ugliest scenes in recent years.
The behavior of Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart was unforgivable. So was, it appeared, that of (at least) one fan who did his part in initiating the incident.
Three days later, no one is certain what was said to make Smart go off, but the OSU standout has apologized and been suspended for three games for his behavior. His image has been tarnished, maybe forever.
Billy Donovan coached Smart the last two summers during USA Basketball international play (photos right; that's Smart in bottom row, wearing No. 7). The Florida coach took the U18 and U19 teams and went a combined 18-0 in 2012 and 2013 in leading them to gold medals in the FIBA Americas in Brazil and World Championships in Czech Republic, respectively.
Smart starred on both teams. He was the leader on both of the those teams.
On Monday, Donovan was asked about the incident in his weekly press opportunity. He praised Smart, the kid, adding he’d seen nothing that remotely resembled what played out on ESPN cameras two nights earlier.
“I never had one bit of a problem with him, coaching him for the two years with USA. I really was appreciative that he came back the second year and played,” Donovan said. “I remember the first year we had him, there were a couple of games where we were up by 30, 40 points at halftime. I told him, because we had to play five games in a row, I said, 'Marcus I'm not playing you in the second half.’ 'No problem, Coach, whatever I can do to help.' He's always been that kind of kid. What people saw from him in that situation against Texas Tech to me is totally uncharacteristic. I never saw anything like that -- ever -- coaching him.”
Now, if you’ve been following Smart and the recent struggles of Oklahoma State, which has now lost five of six and fallen out of the Big 12 championship race, the first thing that may come to your mind after reading Donovan's remarks is a certain chair-stomping incident in a home loss to West Virginia just last month. Smart apologized on Twitter after that.
Saturday night, Twitter blew up when Smart blew his gasket.
But this is where Donovan was able to lend some unique perspective. He did not in any way condone what Smart did. What he could do was frame Smart’s circumstances in a way most of us would not be able to.
Smart, Donovan reminded, was projected as a top-five pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but opted to return to school and actually was with Team USA during the NBA draft last summer.
Donovan once had a player who went through similar circumstances at Florida. Joakim Noah, remember, was a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but chose to return to school and try to defend the Gators’ NCAA championship alongside his best friends.
With that decision came added scrutiny, pressure and internal struggles none of us will ever know.
Enter Billy D.
“Because he was a top-five pick a year ago, you feel like you have to play like a top-five pick, whatever that looks like in his mind -- and what happens is you can never reach that level,” Donovan said. “Whether he thinks he has to score 30 points or have 10 assists, five steals, it’s not going to happen, but you feel this unbelievable pressure.”
That’s when Donovan invoked Noah. He saw the fallout of the decision made by the Gators' center and Final Four MVP play out daily, be in during practices or games.
And especially on the road.
“When Noah came back after his sophomore year, the pressure he felt to perform every game was totally out of control. He made it out of control,” Donovan said. “And I told Joakim this: ‘You cannot allow people to rob you of your happiness playing the game,’ and I think in some ways Marcus has allowed some happiness to be robbed from him a little bit in this whole process of coming back, maybe by not playing like he wants to.”
Now the external expectations are being compounded by losses and the internal frustration has manifested itself with some stunning video images that Donovan believes paint a different picture of Smart, the person, than who he really is.
“All of a sudden he goes from four months ago being this unbelievable kid coming back for college basketball, to now he’s in a situation where he’s looked upon in a very negative light,” Donovan said, again going back to Noah. “Joakim hit the NCAA tournament as a sophomore like a lightning rod. We were unranked. Everybody loved the kid. And then once the next year started, he was like a complete villain, with the chest pumping and all that stuff he’d done that since he was a freshman."
Back to Smart.
“Marcus is a young kid and he’s a competitor, and he wants to win and I think he’s one of those guys that just kind of keeps on grinding, and there’s no question his emotions got the better of him. But I’m not so sure that this [doesn’t have] something to do with the pressure he’s personally put on himself at the level he wants to perform and the quicker he gets to a place to where he can realize he’s not going to live up to those expectations -- that he’s got to do what he can do to help the team -- I think the better off he is. I think you saw total frustration from him the last couple of weeks and that, to me, is just the frustration of a young kid that wants to play better, wants his team to do better. He didn’t channel it the right way and crossed the line into a really, really poor situation that he really regrets to this day.”