LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The banner was unveiled, Russ Smith put his hands over his face, and fellow Cardinal great Darrell Griffith presented Smith with a framed No. 2 jersey.
Smith had just earned a rare distinction: a Louisville player to have his jersey retired. His likeness — a picture of him dribbling, probably looking to attack the basket — now hung in between banners honoring Pervis Ellison and Denny Crum. Smith, who, as he noted during a brief speech to fans, had little college courters out of high school, had been forever enshrined as a Louisville legend.
The No. 2 jersey, forever Smith’s, became the fifth number to be retired in program history, joining Charlie Tyra (8), Wes Unseld (31), Griffith (35) and Ellison (41).
Teammates of Smith’s, including Kyle Kuric, Luke Hancock and Peyton Siva, congratulated Smith with pre-recorded videos, but the largest cheer of the evening came when former Louisville coach Rick Pitino appeared on the screen during the jersey retirement ceremony, which took place at halftime of Louisville’s 82-70 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in coaching a player,” Pitino said of Smith. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much in coaching a player. And certainly I don’t think I could love a player any more than I love you. Congratulations, son.”
Afterwards, Smith said: “To hear him speak those words of me really sends chills through my body. Love Coach to death.”
A highlight reel of Smith’s U of L highlights from 2010-2014 were shown before the game and during TV timeouts, much to the delight of a Yum Center crowd of 16,175, the largest of the season.
“There will never be another player to grace the floor like you did,” Siva said in his video. “There will never be another Russdiculous, man.”
Smith scored 1,908 points during his Louisville career, the fifth-most in school history, and also tallied 257 total steals, a program record.
As a freshman, however, Smith fought injuries and played sparingly. He considered transferring.
“I wanted to leave every day, especially when I was hurt. It was hard,” Smith said Friday.
But Smith stayed, had a strong season off the bench as a sophomore and erupted as a junior to become one of the best players in the country. He led Louisville to the since-vacated 2013 national title and was named a consensus All-American in 2013-14.
Smith, who is 30 years old and currently playing in the NBA’s G-League, said he was grateful Louisville chose to retire his number sooner, rather than later. He noted some athletes are celebrated decades after their playing days, when their families may not be around to witness and treasure the event. In Smith’s case, his grandmother was among those on the court with him to watch the banner unfurl.
“The University of Louisville did the right thing by doing it early,” he said.
Smith, undersized at 6-foot, generated little interest from colleges out of high school and chose to attend prep school. He then became so interested in attending Louisville that he tried to commit — before he even had a scholarship offer.
At that point, even Smith couldn’t foresee what was to come.
The scholarship offer came, he committed, and then — after a challenging freshman year — he became a Cardinal great. Now, his accomplishments will be honored forever.
“I really wanted to come here,” Smith said. “I’m glad it worked out.”
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Russ Smith Louisville basketball star, NBA, jersey retirement ceremony