Commentary

Outhustling his demons

With much at stake, C's draft pick Marcus Smart says bad-boy days are behind him

Updated: July 11, 2014, 8:35 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM -- All these years later, he still seethes at the indignity of it all: the color-coded shirts (white for newbies, black for kids slogging through their penance, orange for kids hoping to get sprung), the beatings with a paddle for transgressions as mundane as a sidelong glance, the way, when he got out, his neighbors looked right through him as if he didn't exist.

"Yo, whatʼs up?" 11-year-old Marcus Smart said hopefully when he returned from the Alternative Education Program (AEP) to be with his homeboys again.

They didn't crush him with slurs or insults. They slayed him with silence instead.

"Nobody would talk to me," Smart said. "I was the bad kid."

He landed in the AEP after being thrown out of his elementary school for bashing his classmateʼs head on the sidewalk.

He doesn't ever want to be that kid again. He is consumed with changing the narrative so people will stop passing judgment and appreciate how far heʼs come. He wants Boston to embrace his intensity, not question it.

The gravity of his basketball journey has been staggering. He is not just playing for himself but for his family, which has been pocked by tragedy, a responsibility he terms "an opportunity God has provided me."

[+] EnlargeDanny Ainge
Brian Babineau/NBA/Getty ImagesDanny Ainge is betting that Smart's on-court intensity will be a good fit in Boston.
His mom, Camellia Smart, trudges to dialysis three days a week and was bounced from the waiting list for a kidney transplant because she couldn't guarantee sheʼd be around on a momentʼs notice, not when she needed to be in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to watch her son.

His father, Billy Frank Smart, is also experiencing health issues. Michael Smart, his brother, was once a promising basketball prospect who crippled his chances by choosing drugs and gangs instead. Another brother, Jeff Westbrook, experienced his share of squandered opportunities and pleads with Marcus not to make the mistakes he made.

"Marcus is playing for all of us," said Michael Smart. "Sometimes it can be a lot."

Yet itʼs the legacy of his late brother Todd Westbrook, gone from cancer at age 33, that weighs most heavily. Todd was 15 years old and coming off an all-district basketball season in Lancaster, Texas, when they discovered a tumor behind his eye.

One night, in the wake of the needles and the chemotherapy and the radiation, Todd checked himself out of the hospital, his left eye swollen shut, and scored 30 points. He was dubbed the Comeback Kid, but over time the cancer sapped his strength and stole his dreams.

Near the end of Toddʼs life, Marcus perched himself at the end of his brotherʼs bed and fed him rolled-up socks to shoot at the wastebasket, the only thing Todd could hoist in the advanced stages of his disease.

When he died, his surviving brothers corralled a sobbing Smart and sat him down.

"Iʼll never forget it," Smart said. "They told me, 'Todd is gone, Mom is sick, Dad is sick, and you are all we've got.' My older brother Jeff told me, 'I had my chance, Mikey had his chance, and we blew it. Now itʼs your chance. Weʼre depending on you.'"

Marcus nodded, but he was only 10 years old. He was too young to understand, a little boy who was angry his brother was taken from him.

Well-meaning family friends tried to console him by reminding him he was tough, just like his mom, just like Todd, but the toughness Marcus embraced was misguided.

He broke windows and pelted rocks at strangers. Marcus had good aim; he nailed a guy on a bike, only it was a gang member who left Smart running for his life, bullets whizzing past his ear.

The violence, the drugs and the gangs were a regular feature of his South Dallas landscape, a gritty canvas that corrupted his brother Michael, who nearly died from a cocaine overdose.

"I could have ended up just like Mikey," Marcus said. "I was all around it. Saw my friends sell drugs, saw them buy them from my brother.

"There was a crazy path I could have taken, but even though my brother was wrapped up in it, he did everything he could to keep me away from it."

Mikey told Marcus to always stand up for himself, so when a classmate hurled objects at him out the school bus window, he confronted him.

"He was running his mouth," Smart said. "I caught him before he got on the bus and said, 'You going to throw something today?'"

The kid shoved Smart. "The first thing that came to mind," Marcus said, "was, 'Retaliate.'"

He flipped the boy to the ground and heard the thunk of his skull striking the concrete. Smart repeatedly slammed the boyʼs head into the pavement before a teacher pulled him off.

"The kid wound up in the hospital," Smart said. "If that teacher hadn't come, I probably would have killed him."

They sent Smart to the AEP, a reform school that he said felt like a prison, yet the punishment was nothing compared to the disappointment in his mother's piercing eyes. When they paddled Marcus, he complained to his mother, but she said: "You've got to deal with it. You got yourself in there."

Camellia rode her son hard, preaching teamwork, humility and resilience. When Marcus split his forehead open after an AAU opponent head-butted him, the coaches suggested a trip to the hospital.

"No," Camellia said. "Iʼll stitch him myself."

Her dialysis treatments left her wilted, and sometimes Marcus curled up beside her on the bed while she rested.

"I hate it," Smart said. "We have to get up at 5 a.m., and you know she doesn't want to go because how lousy it makes her feel. It wears on her."

'Two different lives'

Basketball was his escape, his alternate universe. His AAU teammates knew little about him, and thatʼs the way he liked it.

"I had two different lives," Smart said, "except I brought my edge from my other life to the team."

His teammates were in awe of his intensity and his drive, but wary of it too.

"He was a bully," said his friend AJ Luckey. "Very aggressive. From the time we were very young his approach was, 'You are not going to punk me.'"

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Gregory BullBasketball has always been an escape for Smart, who said: "I had two different lives, except I brought my edge from my other life to the team."
Once in a fourth-grade game, Smart snared 20 rebounds. His coach, Phillip Forte, or Big Phil, as Smart came to affectionately call him, studied the film to figure out how he did it.

"Marcus would miss a shot, get his own rebound, miss again, then grab another,ʼʼ said young Phil Forte, who played alongside Smart. "He was relentless.ʼʼ

Big Phil was intrigued with Smart, who answered "yes sir" and "no sir" when he stayed at their home when Camellia had to work. The kid with the edge could be disarmingly tender.

After Marcus finished eighth grade, Camellia moved from Lancaster to Flower Mound, where the Fortes lived, away from the negativity that swirled around her youngest boy.

Big Phil rented her one of the real estate properties he owned, and because he gave her a break on the price, Marcus Smart was soon investigated for transferring to town for "athletic purposes."

The first day Smart showed up to open gym at Marcus High School, assistant coach Kenny Boren took note of his enormous hands and grinned.

"It was summer, the air conditioner was out and it was hot as snot," Boren said. "Marcus loved it."

Boren had seen grainy footage of Todd Westbrook play, and the similarities in the mannerisms of his younger brother were uncanny.

"Marcus dominated that day,ʼʼ Boren said. "Not by walking on the floor and scoring 30 points. It was a block out against a kid 4 inches bigger, taking a charge in open gym, running over and patting someone on the back who was three years older than him after a good play.ʼʼ

He was a natural leader, and over a high school career that produced a 115-6 record and two state championships in three years, Smartʼs teammates grew to love -- and fiercely protect -- him.

"I never saw him go half speed on anything," said Luckey. "Even during drills that weren't meaningful."

Smart I'll never forget it. They told me, 'Todd is gone, Mom is sick, Dad is sick, and you are all we've got.' My older brother Jeff told me, 'I had my chance, Mikey had his chance, and we blew it. Now it's your chance. We're depending on you.'

-- Marcus Smart, on what he was told after the death of his brother Todd
When Marcus High School played Duncanville, coach Danny Henderson was looking for volunteers to guard 6-foot-11 McDonaldʼs All-American forward Perry Jones. Smart, who stood a shade over 6-1, declared, "Iʼll take him." He outscored Jones 18-12 and outrebounded him 17-6.

Smart banged with Jackson Jeffcoat, a towering big man from Plano West who is now a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks. He dunked on 6-9 Cameron Ridley, who plays for Texas.

Marcus was a nonstop talker on the floor, barking instructions, baiting opponents and wreaking havoc.

"I love it when people think they are getting in his head," said former high school teammate Nick Banyard. "They never do. He reels them in every time." It begins, Banyard said, with some minor jawing back and forth. It often includes some bumping, or an exchange of elbows.

"Marcus gets the other kid so mad he's determined to come down and make a play," Banyard explained. "That's when Marcus slides in and takes the charge. I've watched him do it countless times. Itʼs amazing -- a gift."

In the state championship against Lakeville Centennial in his junior season, Smart took five charges -- two of them on cuts without the ball. "Marcus had memorized all of their sets and knew where the man was cutting and beat him to the spot," explained coach Henderson.

Yet, Smart's notorious temper made him an easy target for friends who knew how to push his uber-competitive buttons.

When the team gathered for a game of kickball after their state championship in 2012, Boren, who was also the referee, stacked the teams, leaving Smart with an undermanned group.

The game came down to Smart's final kick. As he barreled home, his pal Phillip Forte III was blocking the plate, and even though Smart swears he crossed the base first, Boren called him out.

Smart cussed out his friends and his coach, then stormed out, catapulting chairs as he departed. All these years later, the play still rankles him.

"I was safe, I tell you," Smart said.

Decision draws scrutiny

Smart and Forte went to Oklahoma State together, and Smart was the Big 12 Player of the Year as a freshman. He was projected as a high lottery pick and figured if he went pro he could finally get his mother a kidney.

"Absolutely not," Camellia told him. "You go back to college and be a kid."

He told Oklahoma State he was returning, and pundits were incredulous that he passed up the opportunity to be a top-three pick.

That led to new scrutiny in his sophomore season. Every time he failed to put up big numbers, it was news. The Cowboys struggled and fingers were pointed squarely at Smart.

"All his life Marcus played the game to win," explained Big Phil. "He never gave any thought to how many points he scored. But all of a sudden, he was being watched so closely. All of a sudden, people were talking about the money he passed up, money that could have gone to his family.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown, Phil Forte, Marcus Smart
AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal/Tori EichbergerOklahoma State's Markel Brown and Phil Forte intervened after Smart shoved a fan during a game in Texas last February. "I apologized to the fan because that's not who I am anymore," Smart said recently.
"It was difficult for him. It changed the way he played a little bit."

Oklahoma State had lost three in a row last winter, when they came down to the wire in a close road game against Texas Tech.

Twenty minutes before tipoff, Smart answered a call from Big Phil informing him that his mother had been hospitalized with high blood pressure and a touch of pneumonia and wouldn't be at the game.

"I thought long and hard about calling him," Big Phil said, "but Camellia went to almost every game and she sat right behind the bench. I knew heʼd be looking over there saying, 'Whereʼs my mom?'"

In the final seconds of a close game, Smart landed in the stands in pursuit of a loose ball. He exchanged words with a Texas Tech fan, then angrily shoved him before Forte and others pulled him away.

His outburst made national headlines. His actions were unacceptable, inexcusable and a suspension quickly followed.

Marcus was the bad kid all over again.

Smart had also previously kicked a chair in frustration against West Virginia, and anonymous NBA general managers chimed in on how it would affect his draft status going forward.

"I apologized to the fan because thatʼs not who I am anymore," Smart said. "I donʼt want to be considered a fighter, the bad guy. I donʼt want to go back there."

He "dropped" to the sixth pick of the NBA draft and was taken by the Boston Celtics, a franchise whose history includes the late, great Red Auerbach chasing officials to their dressing room, Larry Bird engaging in fisticuffs with multiple NBA players, and Rajon Rondo bumping one referee and throwing the ball at another.

Smart says he will not add to that component of the Celtic lineage. There is too much at stake, he says, especially with so many family members relying on him.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images Smart's strong defense and work ethic could set him apart from other rookies during Celtics summer league.
"I'm not that little kid anymore," Smart said. "At that age, being tough is like a dog and pony show. You want to show people, but you don't really know how.

"You don't have to prove your toughness with anger or violence. I find other ways now."

Smart shot just 25 percent from the floor during his NBA summer league debut, and while his defensive acumen was obvious, his shooting limitations are a legitimate concern.

"He's already further along than Jason Kidd was coming out of college," Henderson insisted. "Because of his work ethic, I have no doubt he'll evolve into at least a good shooter, if not a great one. His mechanics are good. He just needs to get up 700-800 shots a day."

Smart also needs to steel himself for a long Celtics season of futility. He won't get any calls from referees because he's a rookie, and teams aware of his short fuse will try to goad him into an emotional, costly mistake.

"Iʼm not worried about that at all," said Big Phil. "I'll take Marcus all day long with what he brings to every game. I've seen too many AAU kids who show no enthusiasm, no excitement.

"Marcus lives for the game. I was watching the [NBA] summer league games this week and I could already hear him talking to the guys."

Marcus Smart's NBA dream begins in Boston, but he won't be playing for just the Celtics. He will play for his mother, his late brother Todd, and for the angry little boy in the color-coded shirts who is still trying to figure out how to make good.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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