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Russ Smith Plays Through Grief

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(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

By Andrew Kahn

NEW YORK — Russ Smith last spoke with his former high school coach, Jack Curran, less than three weeks ago. They talked about how well Smith had been playing for Louisville this season. They talked about the current Archbishop Molloy team. They talked about that game against Bishop Loughlin when Smith threw it off an opposing player’s foot to seal the victory. At the end of the conversation, Curran said, “I’ll give you a call when you come to New York for the Big East Tournament.” He was looking forward to seeing Smith play at Madison Square Garden.

The call never came. Curran died on Thursday from a series of health issues. He was 82.

Smith received the news over the phone from another coach at Molloy — he always calls his alma mater when he’s in New York. He was heartbroken and had trouble focusing on Louisville’s game that night against Villanova in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. But Smith managed to score 28 points on 7 of 12 shooting to lead his team to victory. “Today was definitely Coach Curran day for me, and it will be the rest of my life,” Smith said after the game. He scored 20 against Notre Dame the next night and 10 against Syracuse on Saturday as Louisville won its second straight Big East championship.

Curran spent 55 years in Queens as the basketball and baseball coach at Molloy. He won 972 basketball games and 1,708 baseball games and captured a total of 22 Catholic school New York City championships; four times he won both the hoops and baseball titles in the same year.

“He had all the great traits of a great leader: very humble, great teacher, very wise man,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “He had a lot of what I witnessed with Coach Wooden. They were very similar personalities. He never lost his passion and love.”

Despite the considerable age gap, Curran had great relationships with his players. Some high school coaches will lose sight of the bigger picture and put too much emphasis on winning games. Smith talked about how much Curran wanted his players to succeed in the future. “He always told me, ‘When you get to college, there are going to be trees in there, you’re going to have to hit the pull-up jump shot.’ Or he’d say, ‘You have to put some weight on you; you’re scrawny.’” But Smith was a hard worker—he’d arrive before practice and work with the J.V. team and stay late, sometimes even playing catch with Curran’s baseball team—and Curran appreciated that.

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Smith’s body is covered in tattoos, many of which he had in high school. Upon seeing the ink for the first time, Curran joked with Smith: “Oh my god. You’re a thug!” Smith has a comedy and tragedy tattoo on his arm. When things weren’t going right for Smith, Curran would remind him to look at his arm. “You win some, you lose some,” the coach would say. Smith posted tributes to his coach on his Facebook and Instagram profile pages; it is safe to assume Curran wasn’t too familiar with either social networking site, but it was a touching gesture nonetheless.

Louisville’s Big East Tournament title earned the Cardinals the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they’ll try to return to the Final Four for the second year in a row. If there are any bumps along the way, Smith can think of that tattoo on his arm. Or he can remember one of the many sayings Curran shared with him. One of his favorites: The road to success is always under construction. “I always say that, and I’ll always keep that to myself. He was just a great guy…I’m going to miss him.”

Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local who has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at http://andrewjkahn.com. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.

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