The NBA can wait for Marcus Smart
Did he make the right move coming back to Oklahoma State. Even he's not sure
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Perhaps his decision to delay a shot at the pros and a multimillion-dollar deal was the wrong one.
The 19-year-old leans back and stares at a beige wall in one of the Sprint Center's few vacant rooms.
Then, Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart confesses that he's still uncertain about returning for his sophomore season.
"I'm still not 100 percent right now," he told ESPN.com. "I don't regret it. But I'm not 100 percent sure that was the right decision. But I don't regret making it because you can never come back to college and be a student-athlete. The NBA? You can have chances to go."
His reasoning for returning was sound. He believed he had more work to do before he could thrive as an NBA point guard. And he couldn't shake the sickening thought of his messy performance in Oklahoma State's second-round loss to Oregon in last season's NCAA tournament.
But the top rookies in this summer's draft signed deals that included nearly $10 million in guaranteed money.
That could have been Smart's money.
"It was definitely the money," he said. "That was a lot of money that was put to the side for another year. It wasn't turned down. It's not like I'm not going to be there, but it was just put to the side for another year. As an 18-year-old kid, you're looking like I can make more money than 95 percent of America can ever dream of making their whole life. So definitely, it was the money that had a [great] deal to do with it."
I'm still not 100 percent right now. I don't regret it. But I'm not 100 percent sure that was the right decision." -- Marcus Smart, on his decision to delay the NBA an return to school
The critics of early draft entries worry that Smart and other young athletes will squander their newfound wealth on spinning rims, platinum watches and expensive cars.
But Smart just wants to buy an organ.
"How much does a kidney cost?" he asked his mother, Camellia Smart, after he took a trip home to Flower Mound, Texas, to discuss his future with her weeks prior to the draft.
She could use one after more than 20 years of life with one kidney and subsequent health problems. Camellia Smart endures dialysis treatment three days per week, four hours each day. Per the United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 120,000 Americans are awaiting kidney transplants right now. The average cost of the procedure is $262,000, according to the organization.
Smart could make that in a handful of games as a highly paid NBA rookie who'd probably attract lucrative endorsement deals.
But Camellia Smart, who intends to put her name on another waiting list for a new kidney soon, immediately objected. She and husband Billy Frank Smart raised their boys -- Todd and Jeff Westbrook, Marcus and Michael Smart -- to pray, work hard and commit to their personal pursuits.
She would not allow her youngest son to base his decision on anything other than his own desires and dreams.
"I said 'You just turned 19, you've just begun to live. … Whichever way you go, I'm behind you 100 percent,'" Camellia Smart said. "I know a lot of people who said, 'Are you crazy to let him turn down that money?' I wasn't brought up with money. When the good Lord blesses you, the money is going to be there. I have a lot of friends that I know who have money and they're not happy. I want [Marcus] to be happy."
The roots of Smart's conflicted conscience about turning pro to help his family were formed the day he felt his brother Todd's cold, lifeless body in a hospital bed.
Cancer took Todd's life when he was just 33 -- Smart's number at Oklahoma State. He reconciled the death by telling family members that God had turned him into a butterfly that had simply flown away.
Moments later, a 9-year-old boy became a man as his older brothers, Michael Smart and Jeff Westbrook, issued a charge while they all sobbed together.
"My brothers pulled me out of the room," Smart said. "I'm balling my eyes out, and they put their arms around me and they go, 'It's all up to you now. It's all on your shoulders. We had our chance. We did things in our lives that we regret, that cost us our chance. Mom lost her firstborn. Now it's up to you.' As a 9-year-old, that's a lot of pressure that's being put on you. You're like, 'What the heck?' With that being said, I took it upon me to do whatever I could to help my family out, whatever we needed. I think I've been doing good at that so far."
So years before he'd even entered high school, he'd accepted the call to make it. For himself. For his family. For Todd.
"His family has been put through a lot," said Phil Forte, Smart's teammate and best friend since third grade. "All that stuff he went through as a kid helped make that toughness that you see in him today."
By the time Smart had reached high school, he was a fiery, competitive young talent.
He led Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, to a 115-6 overall record and earned McDonald's All-America honors as a senior.
He was also recognized for his character.
He was the kind of young man who'd give a stranger $20 or point relatives to the cheapest section of the store when they asked if they could buy him a pair of shoes.
While the other upperclassmen celebrated a big road victory in the back of the bus, Smart moved up front to sit next to the junior varsity's team manager and make him feel like an all-star.
Yes, he's a nice guy.
But he's edgy on the court.
During the high school state playoffs one year, an opposing team directed an intimidating chant toward Smart's team as the two squads stood in the arena's tunnel together. Smart's teammates were startled, but he was ready to go.
"He got about 5 feet away from the other team, clenched his fists and stared and got in kind of a stance and his eyes got big as saucers and he was just glaring them down," said Danny Henderson, his high school coach and an assistant at Boise State. "Without saying a word, he let them know that 'Hey, I'm the baddest guy in this place.' … He's not afraid of anyone. In fact, he lives for that kind of challenge."
Smart led his high school team to state titles his junior and senior seasons.
And then, he racked up accolades in his first season with Oklahoma State, including Big 12 player of the year, after averaging 15.4 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game and 3.0 steals per game. He was also a member of the 19-and-under national squad that won a gold medal in FIBA's under-19 world championships in the Czech Republic this summer.
The NBA seemed like an obvious destination for the freshman star, especially since he probably would have cracked the top five.
So most were shocked when he announced his decision to return.
When Smart told Travis Ford that he'd decided to play his sophomore season after an awards banquet in Oklahoma City, the coach told him to sleep on it. When Smart reiterated his decision the following morning, Ford told him to stop by his office that afternoon.
"He started laughing," Ford said. "He said, 'Coach, I told you, I'm staying.'"
Even his teammates assumed he was joking.
"I'd be like, 'No you're not, bro,'" Markel Brown said. "'I know you're going to the NBA. That's every kid's dream.'"
Although Smart never felt completely certain about his decision, he was more unsettled about ending his college career.
Oklahoma State, a team many viewed as a Final Four sleeper, suffered a 68-55 loss to Oregon in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament. Smart had one of his sloppiest efforts of the season (14 points, 5-for-13 from the field, five turnovers and four fouls). He might be with an NBA franchise right now had Oklahoma State escaped with a win.
"The odds of me sitting here [if we'd won]? Probably not. Probably not," Smart said.
This season, Smart and the most significant players from last year's squad are all back. The Pokes will enter the season as a nationally ranked squad and a contender for the Big 12 crown. A Final Four run isn't a crazy idea. And it would certainly erase last season's upsetting memories.
Plus, Smart said he'd rather stay in school another season to develop and increase the likelihood that he'll have an opportunity to compete in the NBA for a long time. He doesn't want one contract. He wants to make a living off basketball.
"These teams are putting big bucks in and investing in you," Smart said. "The last thing you want to do is be wondering, 'When is my next contract coming?' That's the last thing you want to do. So you just want to be prepared."
Still, he's encouraged by doubters who believe his draft stock will fall in next summer's stronger class, which will likely feature Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and other freshmen who could be selected before Smart.
"So you mean to tell me I'm not good enough to play with those guys next year just because it's a stronger draft?" Smart said. "I have to go now? Why? All the guys that were supposed to be ranked ahead of me coming out of high school, I surpassed most of those guys. ... For you to say that is just an insult to me."
Smart's on-court tenacity masks his playful side and his maturity sometimes covers up his yearning to just be a regular teenager, something the NBA rarely allots.
You probably can't play "Slap Cam" with NBA veterans.
But the social media craze is one of Smart's favorite pranks. A few weeks ago, he grabbed a handful of lotion and playfully slapped the team's managers as they lined up for photos.
He once covered a teammate's car with sticky notes, too.
A firecracker under a door? Smart probably did it.
Meet Marcus Smart, the goofball.
"If you get to know Marcus, he's a kid," Ford said. "He's the funniest guy in the locker room. He's the biggest practical joker. You don't see that on the court because he's so serious and competitive."
College allows him to do that, to be that.
Sometimes, Smart has second thoughts about his decision to stay in school. Who wouldn't with that kind of money on the table?
But he also knew he'd never get another chance to enjoy college.
So the money and prestige must wait. His youth will not.
As he carried that burden to achieve after his brother's death, there were moments when Smart forgot to be a kid because he was so focused on proving that he could handle more than the average child.
He'll have to go through that process again as an NBA rookie.
In college, however, he can act his age.
And that's worth more than $10 million.
"Some people need that money right away to help their family, but I've also seen people that go just for the money," Smart said. "That's all they ever wanted was the money. Next thing you know they're on '30 for 30' because they're broke. My family is not in big need of money. We're living well, we're getting through life and my mom always said you can't miss something you never had. … I was forced to grow up very early. I never really got to enjoy life like I wanted to because basketball was my life. College gave me that opportunity to do more than just 'Oh, he plays basketball, that's all he does.'"
The NBA, he knows, will be there. But first he's making his family proud.
"I'm so proud. My oldest brother, Todd … I know he's looking down and just smiling, saying, 'I knew one of y'all was going to make it," Michael Smart said.
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