Here we thought Marcus Smart was mature and grounded, a reflection of his very name. Here we thought he was exhibiting uncommon wisdom in eschewing the NBA draft lottery, staying at Oklahoma State a second season and avoiding the one-and-done syndrome that bastardizes college basketball.
But nothing is mature or grounded — or smart — about a player who attacks a fan with a two-handed shove. When your name is Marcus Smart, and you are a gifted 6-4 popint guard who could be selected in the top five of the draft, you do not respond when a notorious Texas Tech superfan/taunter refers to you “a piece of crap.” You should be far above stooping to the gutter level of Jeff Orr, who, disturbingly enough, works as an air traffic controller by day and commutes to games in Lubbock from faraway Waco. You should laugh, realize you will be earning big money in a few months, pick yourself off the floor after trying to block a dunk and accept that your team is about to lose a heated Big 12 Conference game. Even if Orr fired a racial slur, which he denies, Smart must be the better man and let the superfan rot in his own misery.
By shoving Orr with full force, then pointing at him and carrying on so angrily that teammates had to restrain him, Smart becomes an Angry Young Man who likely cost himself millions and several draft spots. This isn’t the first time he has blown up, complaining to ESPN last week that he isn’t “the only one flopping” in trying to draw fouls, which followed a bizarre episode at home against West Virginia in which he kicked a chair and briefly disappeared behind the bleachers at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Now, he must deal with an outburst that has turned him into a national story — bigger than the Winter Olympics, for a day — and saddened those who know Smart as a caring young man whose reputation is being twisted sideways. All the high marks he received for returning to college have been replaced by question marks, which provides evidence, along with the injury factor, that it might be counterintuitive and ill-advised to reject the NBA as a freshman. Could it be Smart is wilting under the pressure of impressing the lords of The Next Level? Or, heavier, the trials of dealing with a brother’s death and his mother’s quest for a new kidney? Considered a potential top-three pick last summer, is he so preoccupied with studying current mock drafts — and seeing his name drop below celebrated freshmen such as Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon — that he’s wilting under the pressure of impressing NBA people?
He tried to soften the damage Sunday night, when he appeared at a news conference with his coach, Travis Ford, and read a written apology. “I want to apologize to the fan, whose name is Jeff Orr. I want to apologize to him,” Smart said. “I want to apologize to my teammates, to my coaching staff, Coach Ford, my family, Oklahoma State University. This is not how I (conduct) myself, this is not how this program is ran. This is not how I was raised. I let my emotions get the best of me.
“Just can’t let that happened again. This is a lesson I’ll have to learn from. The consequences that are coming with it, I’m taking full responsibility. No finger pointing. This is all upon me. I just want to really apologize to those that are very important to me. I feel like I let my teammates down. These guys mean a lot to me. Not to be able to be out there with them, it hits me in my heart. I have a lot of people that look up to me, a lot of little kids, so once again, I truly apologize. This is not me. I really do apologize for it. Like I said, I take full responsibility and the consequences that come with it.”
The immediate consequences: a three-game suspension issued by Oklahoma State. The terms were reached in talks with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who said Smart’s actions violated the conference’s Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct Policy. Given the national scrutiny and embarassment involved for Smart, three games is enough. What matters is how he reacts from this point forward, as the national prepares for March Madness. Ford and Oklahoma State personnel, trying to protect how NBA people perceive Smart, spent Sunday defending his character. But a two-handed shove of an opposing fan, preceded by a temper tantrum behind the stands during a game — those would be red flags in a sports industry more reluctant than ever to invest in bad apples.
“Marcus puts a lot of pressure on himself, at times. It is something we have addressed with him. Undoubtedly, last night was not one of his finer moments,” Ford said. “But Marcus Smart has had many great moments as a person, as a player. And I know Marcus Smart’s heart. I know how much he’s hurting. I know how regretful he is right now.
“Marcus made a big mistake. He knows that. We talked about it extensively. He knows we don’t condone things of that matter. He has owned up to it. … Marcus is a young man that has been in the public eye for quite a bit. And I think we’d all agree for the highest percentage of the time, he has conducted himself as a tremendous young man. But he made a mistake that he’s going to pay for.”
Said athletic director Mike Holder, referencing an upcoming holiday, oddly enough: “He’s got a big valentine beating in his chest. He stands for a lot of great things about college athletics. Yeah, he made a mistake. But let’s not crucify him for it.”
If Smart is being criticized for lacking restraint, the superfan should be criticized for exacerbating the situation. As Ford said, fans are sitting closer to the court than ever before, and there should be decorum requirements. But fans do pay. And they are protected by freedom of speech, though, in these sort of cases, they should be tossed from the arena. Orr is known well enough in Big 12 circles that several former players called him out on Twitter after the episode, with John Lucas III writing, “I don’t forget a face he says a lot of crazy ish.” Former Texas Tech coach Pat Knight described Orr as “a great guy,” keeping in mind that Knight’s father, Bobby, was a notorious bully at Indiana. At least Orr, unlike some fans in these situations, issued an apology and suggested he won’t attend Texas Tech games the rest of this season.
“I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere apologies to Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Tubby Smith and the Texas Tech men’s basketball program,” Orr said in a statement. “My actions last night were inappropriate and do not reflect myself or Texas Tech — a university I love dearly. I regret calling Mr. Smart a `piece of crap’ but I want to make it known that I did not use a racial slur of any kind. Additionally, I would like to offer my apologies to Texas Tech fans that have been embarrassed by the attention this incident has created.”
If nothing else, at least this episode of Smart turning dumb didn’t escalate into something much uglier. Remember Malice at the Palace, 10 years ago? Metta World Peace does — and how it took years to overcome his season-long NBA suspension and anger issues after he charged into the stands to attack a Detroit Pistons fan. Known then as Ron Artest, World Peace wants Smart to learn from this and not carry anger into the league.
“Just in general, I heard the kid is pretty good and a potential pro,” World Peace told reporters Sunday in Oklahoma City, where he and the Knicks would lose to the Thunder. “So those types of challenges on the court when you’re playing and fans are rooting against you — that was a great lesson learned, so that hopefully when he does become a pro, he’ll be able to kind of withstand the fans that are rooting against him on the road. I think that emotion and that fire could be directed towards winning on the court instead of directed other ways.
“At 19 years old, when I came out of St. John’s, I was fresh out the ‘hood. I was fresh out of Queensbridge (New York City). So my mentality was still struggle, defensive and things like that. I wasn’t really conscious. I’m 34 years old now. So he’s a young kid. I wish I would have listened when I was a kid to my elders or people who had my best interests at heart, and then I wish I would have been more conscious at that age also. Those are two things that, if you were to reach out to a kid like Marcus — a talented kid, future leader in the community — you would tell him those things.”
Everyone is telling him things right now.
But in the most noxious moments, will he remember?