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Put Your Trust in ... Russ?
Luke Winn
December 24, 2012
DO WHAT YOU WANT. SWAGG ALL THE TIME. LOUISVILLE GUARD RUSS SMITH FOLLOWS HIS OWN RULES—AND THAT'S WHAT MAKES HIM AMERICA'S MOST ENDEARINGLY RUSSDICULOUS PLAYER
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December 24, 2012

Put Your Trust In ... Russ?

DO WHAT YOU WANT. SWAGG ALL THE TIME. LOUISVILLE GUARD RUSS SMITH FOLLOWS HIS OWN RULES—AND THAT'S WHAT MAKES HIM AMERICA'S MOST ENDEARINGLY RUSSDICULOUS PLAYER

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The 2-year-old bay colt and the two guard from Brooklyn are linked by a name—a once damning, now loving adjective of a name. Last April, Louisville coach Rick Pitino christened two of his other racehorses after players, calling the fast one Siva, for his point guard, Peyton Siva, and the big one Gorgui, for his 6'11" center, Gorgui Dieng. The coach purchased the bay at auction two months later for $145,000, on the advice of Doug O'Neill, the trainer of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another. O'Neill began working with the colt in Los Angeles last summer and told Pitino that it was a "giving" horse with natural speed—but it just might be impossible for a jockey to control. "He gives you 110 percent every day," O'Neill said, "but he isn't always doing the right thing 110 percent."

"I have a player who can be the MVP for either team," Pitino replied. "It sounds like a four-legged Russ Smith."

And so Smith's nickname became the horse's name. If they ever meet, college basketball's most endearingly reckless star—the 6-foot, 165-pound, dribble-attacking and pocket-picking junior who leads the fifth-ranked Cardinals in scoring and steals—has something he wants to ask his equine brother:

"Do you know that my name is Russdiculous too?"

RUSSDICULOUS: a Pitino portmanteau, coined at a January 2012 practice for the purpose of criticism. As Smith recalls, his ongoing battle with a condition endemic in Big Apple ballers—call it shot-selectiveness deficiency disorder—caused Pitino to snap, "That shot was ridiculous! Only you would take that shot. That shot was ... Russdiculous!"

Smith fired frequently and inefficiently through most of last season—taking a whopping 35.6% of the Cardinals' shots and making a woeful 35.6%—as the sixth man on a team that stumbled out of the polls by late January. But when Louisville came alive and went on an 8--0 run in March, Smith was invaluable. "Without him," Pitino says, "we have no chance of winning the Big East tournament and going to the Final Four." During that run a semantic shift occurred. RUSSDICULOUS evolved to mean, able to make enough winning plays to get away with pushing your coach to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Smith frayed the nerves of opposing ballhandlers by making a school-record 87 steals (despite playing just 21.5 minutes per game), but his nail-biting habit so annoyed Pitino that trainer Fred Hina was ordered to paint Smith's fingers with Thum, a foul-tasting liquid usually used on children. Before Smith hit the free throws that iced the Big East championship—his first title at any level—he yelled over to Pitino, "I finally won something!"

In the 59--56 victory over New Mexico that put the Cardinals in the Sweet 16, Smith botched a dunk but hit all three of his shots from behind the arc—and gave Pitino bunny ears on national TV after the game. Playing point guard in relief of Siva, who had fouled out, in the final three minutes of their Elite Eight comeback over Florida, Smith missed two wild shots and committed two turnovers ... but sank two decisive free throws with 17.8 seconds left.

In the postgame celebration Smith, who had once responded to a Pitino tongue-lashing in practice by requesting (but not receiving) a hug, locked onto the Cardinals' coach for a relieved and heartfelt embrace.

Bloodlines are paramount in horse breeding, and Russdiculous was sired by Malibu Moon, an esteemed great-grandson of Secretariat. The bipedal Russ Smith is an outsized character who was sired and trained by an even more outsized character. That would be Big Russ, a 41-year-old Brooklynite who's a bigwig in Harlem.

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