Big Russ grew up as one of 10 siblings in a Midtown welfare hotel near Madison Square Garden, cooking and selling (but, he says, never using) crack as a teen in the mid-'80s. He was a defensive specialist (and self-described bully) as a guard in a brief playing career at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and for a pro team in Tunisia. He worked in security and management for rap artists Trina and Big 5, among others. In the '90s, Big Russ also took up acting, landing a Foot Locker commercial and appearing in an East Village bio play about Tupac Shakur. He was the basketball consultant on the 2000 film Finding Forrester, in which he appears on the credits right after Casey Affleck. That was how an eight-year-old Smith got a flicker of screen time as an extra, running across a Bronx street in a pair of long johns.
All the while Big Russ was building a small empire on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, where one can find, on the same block, Big Russ Barbershop, Big Russ Salon and a soon-to-be-opened clothing store that will be called Wolf Styles. The basketball-themed barbershop has framed pictures of the younger Smith, who, customers often tell Big Russ, is "way too nice to be your son." It is accepted that Smith inherited his good humor from his mother, Paulette O'Neal, a substitute teacher who was the stable presence keeping his early hoops career on track. (She and Big Russ are divorced.) Big Russ has such a notoriously short fuse that he might get physical with someone who called him Russdiculous. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been in some Russdiculous situations.
As a teenager visiting now-defunct Action Park in Vernon Township, N.J., he was arrested and incarcerated for giving a beating to someone who dared suggest that Big Russ and his friends wait in line, like everyone else, for a water ride. When Lou d'Almeida, the founder of the Gauchos AAU team—for which Big Russ then played, and whose early-youth programs he now manages—arranged to get him out, the response was not what d'Almeida expected. "Some guys heard I was a Gaucho," Big Russ told him, "and now they're counting on me to go one-on-one against the best guy from the other side of the jail. Could you wait till next week, so I can play the game?"
"I nearly lost my mind," recalls d'Almeida, who denied the request and posted bail. "Only [Big] Russ would ask that."
And perhaps only Big Russ's son could persuade nearly all his coaches to use him as a pure scorer, even if his stature suggests he play the point. There were no reins on Smith at Queens's Archbishop Molloy High, where he arrived as a sub-100-pound runt. The program's revered coach, Jack Curran, so loved Smith's passion for the game that he excused his lack of passing ("He really couldn't help himself with that," the 82-year-old Curran says) and set him free to score 29.6 points per game as a senior, in 2008--09. In Smith's 19.7-points-per-game prep year at South Kent (Conn.) School, coach Kelvin Jefferson refers to Smith's shooting binges as "blackouts," during which "Russ couldn't see anyone else on the floor, and the only thing he'd remember when he came to was whether or not he scored."
When Jefferson asked if Smith had considered passing on a particular play, his answer—delivered so genuinely that the coach couldn't stay mad—was, "I thought I had the better shot." When Smith tried that on Pitino, it did not fly. It has taken two-plus seasons of the coach's diatribes, which sometimes have to be translated into Brooklynese by Big Russ over the phone, for a delicate balance to be struck between Pitino's demands (that Smith be more patient and selective with his shots while applying relentless defensive pressure) and Smith's needs (that he be free to make unpredictable dribble drives and to gamble for steals). "You've gotta give him latitude," Pitino concedes, "or he's not a very good player."
That compromise has yielded splendid results this season: Although Smith was still taking 34.6% of Louisville's shots at week's end, he had All-America numbers, averaging 20.2 points and 3.1 steals (seventh nationally) while shooting 44.1%. Russdiculous is starting to denote consistent stardom, but that doesn't mean Smith's goofier impulses are gone. They're just being channeled elsewhere.
In an alternate universe of Russ Smith's creation he is the BasedKing, a name derived from his favorite rapper, Lil B (a.k.a. the BasedGod). Never mind that no one else calls Smith this. He firmly believes he is, after Lil B, the most "based" person in the world and has issued Rules on Being Based:
1. Do what you want.
2. Answer to yourself.