Ten years ago, I made the trek down I-35 from the Dallas area to Austin along with hundreds of other students, parents and fans to watch my high school's basketball team play in the Texas 5A semifinals. It was my senior year, and our beloved Rangers from Naaman Forest High School were scheduled to take on the Marcus High School Marauders, with a berth in the state championship game on the line.
A few minutes into the game, it became obvious there was just one little problem. His name was Marcus Smart.
The future Boston Celtic was already a star in Texas when he was at Marcus High outside Dallas, but this was still early on enough in the internet’s life cycle that his name was brought up like a basketball Paul Bunyan — more myth than fact. We all wanted to see if this kid could match the hype.
He did: 23 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and four steals later, the truth that is Smart stared my alma mater square in the eyes as his team walked off with a 59–34 victory. At least the post-game steakhouse trip with my buddies was good.
Smart’s high school coach, Danny Henderson, said that time was the most fun he’s ever had coaching. His team went on to repeat as state champions that year.
“Those guys, over a three-year period, we went 115–6. So obviously it was a lot of fun,” Henderson said with a laugh.
Now, a decade later, Marcus Smart is playing for another championship, only this time it’s on basketball’s biggest stage as the Boston Celtics take on the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. He’s the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year and longest tenured current Celtic. While the spotlight may be brighter than ever, Smart’s game has been preparing him for this moment for years.
Few players may know Smart better than Phil Forte, now an assistant coach on the men's basketball team at Saint Louis University. The two first met in AAU basketball in the third grade and would go on to play together at Marcus High and Oklahoma State. Smart’s role as the team’s Swiss army knife who’s not above any assignment is the same one Forte said he’s always played.
“The way he’s played the game hasn’t changed since third grade,” Forte said. “When there’s a loose ball, he’s gonna dive on it. If someone drives down the lane, he’s gonna take a charge. I mean, that’s how he was taught, that’s the way he plays the game. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a pre-season game, if it’s the NBA Finals, Game 7, that’s what he’s gonna do. And it’s contagious, it is. Wherever he’s gone, he’s won.”
Henderson remembers that Smart’s offensive game wasn’t yet polished when he started working with the high school sophomore. He had great court vision and could pass like nobody’s business, but his scoring still needed a little work. Still, his will to win stood out above any basketball trait he was still honing.
“It was probably his junior year before I began to realize, ‘Hey, I don’t know anybody that’s going to keep him off an NBA roster,’” Henderson said. “Wherever he goes, I don’t care if he goes to Kentucky or North Carolina or Oklahoma State, he’s gonna start ‘cause he’s gonna will himself to start. And then once he goes to the NBA, he’s not going to let anyone beat him. His will to win is just amazing.”
Travis Ford, now the men’s basketball head coach at Saint Louis University, recruited Smart to cross the Red River when he was the head coach at Oklahoma State. He saw a young player who had one of the best feels for the game he’d ever been around.
“And I’ve been around some good ones as a player and as a coach,” he said. “His feel for the game and understanding of the game was one of the best I’ve ever seen. And I said, ‘He’s the perfect point guard. He’s a leader, he understands the game, he’s gonna make everyone else around him better.’”
All of these traits are likely pretty familiar to Celtics fans, who have fallen in love with Smart over his eight-year career with the team. He’s never led Boston in scoring or been an All-Star, but there’s a reason why he's referred to as the heart and soul of the team.
“He just affects a game in so many different ways,” Henderson said. “Any coach that knows how to win championships will tell you, ‘You have to have those guys who affect winning.’ You have to have ’em. Every great team has ’em. ... I’ve been a Celtic fan — John Havlicek was my favorite player when I was a little boy — so the Celtics over the years have always had that guy, too. You’ve gotta have that guy that affects winning. And that’s what he does.”
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After the Celtics took down the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, Smart had a sense of relief when he spoke to the news media.
“You know, this is every athlete’s dream — is to get to that final stage and have that opportunity,” he said. “And I’ve been here four years in the Eastern Conference finals and I’ve been sent home every year after, so it feels really good.”
A decade after he won his last high school championship, Smart is looking for another ring. This time his role as the game's biggest X-factor may be more important than ever. But even Forte, his buddy from the third grade who still texts and talks with Smart, admits this level of achievement wasn’t in either of their plans early on.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey man, you come over here to Marcus High School, let’s go win the NBA Finals, get Defensive Player of the Year.’ Like, ‘Hey, just come over here and maybe we can go beat Lewisville High School, Flower Mound High School a couple of times,’ you know?” he said. “This was never a conversation. So you look out there and see him and what he’s done and how he’s done it, the way he’s done it — I’m really happy for him, I’m really proud of him. And he’s definitely deserved it.
“He’s deserved everything he’s gotten to this point,” Forte added. “And hopefully they can find a way to get four more and he can be a world champion.”
Esteban is a reporter for GBH News. Born and raised in Texas, he interned at the San Antonio Express-News, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and The Dallas Morning News before coming to Boston. He’s a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas, where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Mercury, and was a DJ for Radio UTD.