The beauty of Russ Smith is that he can endure those dressing-downs, then flip a switch and revert to Based mode, in which every possession offers a potential lottery jackpot, and you can't win if you don't gamble. There's no place for worry in that world. "It's really tough to be in a big basketball environment, on a Final Four team, playing for Coach Pitino, with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng and [sophomore forward] Chane Behanan, and still have more confidence than anyone," Smith says. "That's the most important skill that I have."
Smith's swagger took a brief hit during the off-season when he was informed by Pitino that NBA teams were inquiring about Siva, Dieng, Behanan and sophomore swingman Wayne Blackshear, but not Smith, because they view him as more of a "circus act" than a draft prospect. Altering this perception, Pitino told him, would require not only that Smith become more efficient on the court but also that he follow a more professional schedule with less social life, more rest and more film time. It is no coincidence that Smith is having a breakout season now that he's regularly getting seven to nine hours of sleep for the first time in college; last season he went into most games on three or four hours. The tea parties are the extent of his social calendar.
"I've never given anyone the keys to my car before," Smith says, metaphorically. "But I figured, [Pitino] is a Hall of Fame coach, so let me try to do what he says. I want to do everything the right way for once and find out where that takes me."
When Pitino first told Russ about his bay colt, the coach said, "It's either going to be really good ... or really bad." On Oct. 20, Russdiculous ran his maiden debut, at Santa Anita Park, wearing a Cardinals-red sash, and he burst out of the gate with what O'Neill described as a "stuck accelerator."
The horse had a full-length lead around the first turn and half a length after the second, which allowed race viewers the pleasure of hearing a British-accented announcer say, "They come for home now, and it's Russdiculous"—at which point the horse abruptly ran out of gas, was overtaken on the outside and finished second. In his second race, on Nov. 9 at Hollywood Park, it was a similar story: explosion out of the gate, then a fade all the way to fourth.
O'Neill plans to run Russdiculous again at Santa Anita on Dec. 29, the day of the Louisville-Kentucky game. The race will go a long way toward determining if the colt has Kentucky Derby potential. O'Neill needs to see the horse run a complete race the right way. Smith, ever the optimist, believes his namesake will be at Churchill Downs in May. In a city that already loves the tale of one reckless talent turned into a winner, who knows? Maybe equine Russdiculous can restrain himself. Maybe he will get lucky.