Former coach’s death inspires Russ Smith to Garden magic

NEW YORK — Russ Smith is no stranger to playing exceptional basketball in New York City. In high school, the Brooklyn native led the New York City Catholic league in scoring twice and was voted onto the 2009 New York State Sportswriters Association all-state team. Last year he helped Louisville win their second Big East Tournament title.

But Thursday night in Madison Square Garden was a special one for Smith, as he honored his mentor while helping the Cardinals advance to the Big East semifinals with a 74-55 win over Villanova.

Smith’s high school coach, Archbishop Molloy legend Jack Curran, passed away at age 82 either late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. In his over five decades of coaching high school athletes in both basketball and baseball, Curran graduated an extensive list of notable alumni, including former NBA players Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson and current Miami Hurricane coach Jim Larranaga.

[Related: Arkansas' NCAA tournament hopes die away from home]

"He was my inspiration for wanting to be a head coach,” Larranaga told Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. “I wanted to be just like him."

But Curran also mentored Smith, a mercurial, enigmatic and supremely talented guard that Rick Pitino honored by giving his nickname, Russdiculous, to one of the racehorses the Louisville coach owns. Before Lousiville’s quarterfinal game against Villanova, Smith posted a moving tribute to Facebook.

“Rest in Peace to my Friend, Coach, Brother, Father, Advisor, Wizard, Teacher, Helper, Wiseman,” wrote Smith. “And those words are just understatements of how great of a man he really is. I couldn’t focus all morning because of his passing. What he did for me as a Coach and those words above are indescribable. Going into his office and getting inspirational talks everyday or his noble and historic quotes and phrases never left me without hope of achieving a goal or reaching a certain point.”

“I just wish he could’ve been here a little longer to watch his product reach his dream and be here with me so we can share it together,” he continued. “Even though he’s gone I’ll still share that feeling and always relive the great memories we had together at Molloy HS. #RIP #CoachCurran, you are the greatest, a legend, a wizard of mastery in both of your crafts of basketball and baseball. I’ve always looked up to you and from this day forward I’ll strive to be like a man you were when you was here. You’ve taught me so many things, my family and I couldn’t thank you enough.”

“I love you coach, may you rest in peace.”

"Today was definitely Coach Curran day for me today,” said Smith after game. “And it will be the rest of my life."

"I found out, and it was really hard for me for about 45 minutes when I was on the bus crying and stuff...It was really hard for me, it was almost heartbreaking to think about it."

“I just told Russ we have to play this tournament and the NCAA Tournament for Coach Curran,” added Pitino. "Coach Curran really enjoyed coaching Russ, and I really enjoy coaching it's very exciting that Russ could have that type of game and honor his coach like that."

Villanova never had a chance against Smith’s charge, as he scored a game-high 28 points on only 12 shots, knocking down four threes and going 10-of-11 from the line. He was also a terror on defense, his two steals and constant ball pressure contributing to the 25 Wildcat turnovers in Louisville’s easy win.

Smith wasn’t Curran’s only connection to the Big East Tournament. His predecessor as both baseball and basketball coach at Molloy was St. John’s legend Lou Carnesecca, who won two tournament titles in the 80’s.

"I really have no words," continued Smith after the game. "But I miss him a lot. I'm going to miss him. He taught me a lot of things, phrases, quotes, and one of the main ones was the road to success is always under construction, and I'll keep that. I always say that, and I'll always keep that to myself, and I always work around that little quote."

If Smith’s night wasn’t memorable enough, he also got to hang out with President Bill Clinton, who was in attendance for the evening session. Smith and Louisville play in the second Big East semifinal tomorrow night.

(Thanks to Mike Rutherford at Card Chronicle and his excellent Louisville coverage for the images.)

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