Chris Smith is positive UCLA may be on verge of something special

Ben Bolch
·5 min read
UCLA players celebrate after guard Jaylen Clark, center, made a free throw to give UCLA the lead.
UCLA players celebrate after guard Jaylen Clark, center, made a free throw to give the Bruins the lead in the final seconds against the Arizona State on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The most buoyant player on the court before UCLA games is often the one awkwardly ambling from baseline to team huddle, lugging his bulky leg brace along with a constant smile.

He’ll offer a few words of encouragement, an arm around the shoulders, a reminder of how much fun this all is even though he can no longer be part of it.

Chris Smith’s college career may be over, but his teammates’ run toward a memorable March could just be getting started. The torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended Smith’s season on the final day of 2020 hasn’t soured the senior guard on what he hopes is another six weeks of being the Bruins’ loudest cheerleader.

“It’s a lot of emotions when I’m sitting, watching the games,” Smith said Tuesday during a telephone interview, “because every bone in my body wants to be out on the court rather than just screaming at the top of my lungs on the side. But to see the guys winning and to see them happy, it makes me happy, so I’m really having fun out there because as long as the guys are having fun, man, I’m having fun.”

Smith was part of the joyous scrum of bodies that swarmed freshman guard Jaylen Clark after his free throw with 1.4 seconds left gave UCLA an 80-79 victory over Arizona State on Saturday, representing the Bruins’ third consecutive triumph. They have gone 10-3 since Smith went down twice against Utah on Dec. 31, once before halftime and never to return after he departed with 52 seconds left.

Trainers believe it was Smith’s second fall, late in the game, that was the moment in which he suffered the torn knee ligament. Smith knew something was amiss because his knee buckled in a way that it never had before.

“That shouldn’t have happened because I’ve done that same movement a million times,” Smith said, “so I figured something was wrong when I fell so dramatically with no contact.”

When Mick Cronin delivered the crushing diagnosis two days later, Smith was the one propping his coach up, reminding him there was a lot of season left and still plenty of talent on the roster. The Bruins would just have to make do without their best all-around player, taking his averages of 12.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 50% shooting on three-pointers off the board.

Smith fielded a reassuring phone call that week from Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who had suffered the same injury while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989. Krystkowiak gave Smith some pointers on the recovery process, telling him it would only go as well as the work he put into it, and that there was a lot of basketball left in his career to be played.

“Getting that call from him really helped me a lot,” Smith said. “It got my mind right heading into surgery.”

UCLA guard Chris Smith is defended by Marquette forward Justin Lewis.
UCLA guard Chris Smith is defended by Marquette forward Justin Lewis during the second half on Dec. 11, 2020 at Pauley Pavilion. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Five weeks after the operation, Smith hasn’t made any plans about his future. Recovery is supposed to take a minimum of six months, Smith said, and more realistically eight to 10 months, likely removing the possibility of Smith working out for NBA teams ahead of the June draft.

Smith knows he has another year of college eligibility remaining if he wants it but said he remained entirely focused on his rehabilitation and a team that has continued to lift his spirits with its inspired play.

“I’ve seen them gradually growing toward a team that doesn’t care who scores and with each other, for each other,” Smith said, “so that’s what makes me happy on the side is that they’re playing for each other.”

Positioning himself along the baseline during practices, Smith gives teammates tips, helping to accelerate the development of such young players as freshman forward Mac Etienne.

“You can’t help but love Chris Smith,” Cronin said.

Having recently traded in his brace for a less restrictive leg sleeve, Smith will be traveling with the team after this week’s games against Utah and Colorado, joining the Bruins in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Conference tournament and in Indianapolis for what Smith hopes is a three-week stay in the NCAA tournament.

“Bringing a positive attitude is the No. 1 thing that I can do,” Smith said, “so I’m just trying to be as positive as possible whenever I’m around them.”

Etc.

UCLA-bound guard Peyton Watson was selected as a McDonald’s All-American, making the Long Beach Poly High standout something of an outlier among recent Bruins. When he plays his first college game next season, Watson will end a school-record two-year drought of UCLA not having a McDonald’s All-American on its roster. … Cronin said redshirt junior forward Jalen Hill, who has missed the last five games for personal reasons, had not rejoined the team.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.