Russ Smith mourns deceased coach on road to Big East success
An excerpt from a May 2007 Q&A in Coach and Athletic Director magazine with Archbishop Molloy (Queens, N.Y.) High School's legendary Jack Curran, who had just finished his 49th season as its head basketball coach, with 885 wins to his name, at the age of 76:
Do you have a time frame on when you intend to step down?
"No. As long as I feel like I am enjoying it, I am healthy, and the kids are responding properly. As long as that keeps happening, I'll keep coaching."
When you do finally decide to retire, how would you like to be remembered?
"Just as someone who tried to help young people as much as he could. Just like the old saying, 'No man ever stands so tall as when he stoops to help a boy.' That's basically what I have tried to accomplish."
NEW YORK -- Curran really had to stoop to help Russ Smith. When the Brooklyn-bred boy arrived at Molloy in 2005, he was, as Curran put it, "a runt."
"Actually, don't put that in your story," the unfailingly nice Curran said in November, while I was talking to him for an SI feature about Smith. "That might not sound too good."
But Smith seconded this assessment, calling his old self a 5-foot shrimp who may not have weighed 100 pounds. Before he was Russdiculous of Louisville, an All-Big East guard, he was the runt of Archbishop Molloy, too small to generate any real buzz on the recruiting scene.
Much of Smith's college notoriety has come from driving Cardinals coach Rick Pitino to the brink of nervous breakdowns with reckless volume shooting. (Pitino is the one who nicknamed him Russdiculous). They have been more copacetic this season, since Smith has been more efficient and emerged as an All-America candidate for a top-10 team. Yet their occasional misunderstandings, and the sideline tongue-lashings from Pitino that ensue, remain a form of comic theater.
But Smith never clashed with the coach who put him in a position to get to college, nursing him from runt into one of the most prolific scorers in the New York prep scene. One of the oddest parts of Russdiculous' story is that he was best understood by a gentle octogenarian who stayed at Molloy long enough to have coached Jim Larranaga in the '60s, Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson in the '80s, and Russ Smith in the aughts.
"Coach Curran knew me in a way that nobody else did," Smith said in November. "He knew when I was mad, and when I was capable of doing some stupid things. He knew all the cards I was holding. He was so smart, so wise, and he had a lot of faith in me. He said that I played with great heart and passion."
"Part of why Russ never maddened me," Curran said, "was because he scored a lot of points. As long as they put it in, they can shoot as much as they want."
Smith is the best product out of Molloy in at least a decade, and the last D-I player that Curran would ever produce. Curran watched plenty of Louisville games on TV over the past two seasons, following Russ' maturation -- and his reactions to Pitino's tirades.
"Timeouts, [Pitino] is always yelling at Russ," Curran said. "And Russ puts his face right into Pitino's face. Like a soldier, he stands there. He's almost touching noses with him. He's very sober-looking while making believe that he's listening."
The New York hoops scene heard sobering news on Thursday morning: Curran had died overnight in his home in Rye, N.Y., at the age of 82. He never retired from coaching. Curran put in 55 seasons at Molloy, winning 972 basketball games and 1,708 baseball games -- the cumulative total being more than any coach in high school history. As his passing was being discussed in the press room at Madison Square Garden during the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, I opened an audio file I had saved from an interview with Curran just before Thanksgiving. I let it play, and stopped paying attention to the games.
After-school practice was about to start on a Tuesday, and Curran was looking for his old stack of index cards. They were where he kept his rotation of inspirational quotes, all of which had been recycled so many times that his other coaches knew them by heart.
"Did you already do the road to success?" assistant Mike McCleary asked. "The road to success is always under construction."
Curran eventually settled into a courtside chair as the Molloy players ran through warmups in their band box of a gym, with shallow bleachers on the sides and a curtain covering a stage at one end.
"Beautiful gym, isn't it?" Curran said. "It's got some character. This year they scraped the floor back down to the real wood; it's been 20 years since they did that. It was getting yellowish from all the shellac. I think it might cave in one day, but it's got a good feel to it now, some real give. It's easier on the legs. A great court."
The court was a perfect beige. It also had Curran's name on it, a dedication he reluctantly agreed to a few years earlier. A former minor league pitcher with the Dodgers and Phillies, Curran left a job selling building materials in 1958 to take over at Molloy, whose coach Lou Carnesecca had just taken an assistant's gig at St. John's. The day I was there, Curran was sizing up his 55th team.
"See that kid in the light blue over there? He's been playing really well because he hustles so much. He has no idea" -- Curran says it idear -- "what we're doing, but he's so quick that he's a good player...The guy over there, under the basket? He's quick as a whistle, and he can score, but he doesn't always have the energy. I don't think he eats right. He's anemic. Doesn't take his iron pills as much as he should...That kid in the white shirt? He's good. He's going to be recruited by everybody."
When Smith played for Molloy, he was not recruited by everybody. He was a two-star, sub-6-foot shooting guard who was hardly recruited by anybody. His offer from the Cardinals didn't come until he excelled in a post-grad year at South Kent in Connecticut.
"Louisville never asked about Russ," Curran said. "I remember talking to [Pitino's] son, Richard, back then, and all he asked about was, 'What kind of a player was my father?' I had Rick in my camp when he was a youngster. I said, 'He was feisty, just like he is now.'"
"Let's run a little," Curran shouted out to his players, a signal for a full-court weave drill to begin.
He remained seated as they ramped up the intensity. He said he was awaiting the results of some medical tests; he had gone through radiation sessions in the offseason for a cancerous tumor on his lung, and a key progress report was coming the next day. Curran also had regular appointments scheduled to treat a separate kidney issue.
"Five a.m. tomorrow is dialysis," he said. "And 5 a.m. Friday. It's alright by me, because I'm up anyway."
Smith woke up in Louisville's New York hotel on Thursday morning, ate breakfast with his teammates and boarded the bus for practice at Baruch College at around 10:30 a.m. On the way, he called McCleary to see if he and Curran might want to attend the Cardinals' 7 p.m. game against Villanova.
Smith's best friend on the team, walk-on Michael Baffour, was sitting next to him in the back of the bus with his headphones on. Baffour couldn't hear the conversation, but he glanced at Smith soon after and saw him crying -- "And when someone is crying that sudden," Baffour said, "it had to mean a death."
It was Curran. Baffour tried to console Smith, who was in shock. Curran had been such a fixture at Molloy that Smith had never contemplated him being gone. Smith had to gather himself for practice, but afterward, he went on Instagram, and posted a collage of photos of him and Curran. In the comments section, Smith left this tribute:
Rest in Peace to my Friend, Coach, Brother, Father, Advisor, Wizard, Teacher, Helper, Wiseman and those words are just understatements of how great of a man he really is. I couldn't focus all morning because of his passing. What he did for me as a Coach and those words above are indescribable. Going into his office and getting an inspirational talks everyday or his noble and historic quotes and phrases never left me without hope of achieving a goal or reaching a certain point.
I just wished he could've been here a little longer to watch his product reach his dream and be here with me so we can share it together. Even though he's gone ill still share that feeling and always relive the great memories we had together at Molloy HS. #RIP #CoachCurran, you are the greatest, a legend, a wizard of mastery in both of your crafts of basketball and baseball. I've always looked up to you and from this day forward ill strive to be like a man you were when you was here. You've taught me so many things, my family and I couldn't thank you enough. I love you coach, may you rest in peace. ✌✌
On Thursday night against Villanova, in the game he wished Curran could have attended, Smith gave another tribute: He scored 28 points in possibly the most well-rounded performance of his career, shooting 7-of-12 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free-throw line in a blowout victory. "Today is definitely Coach Curran day for me," Smith said afterwards, "and it will be for the rest of my life."
Smith last talked with Curran on the phone a few weeks earlier, promising his coach that he would call again when he arrived in New York for the Big East tournament. He wanted his coach to see, first-hand, all the progress he'd been making.
Curran told Smith that he was playing great, that they were proud of him, and that everyone at Molloy still loved him. And then the old coach gave Smith a line from one of the old notecards, lest all the praise make him complacent:
"Remember, Russ, that the road to success is always under construction."