By every “traditional” measurement of success, Russ Smith should be on an NBA roster right now. He led the Louisville Cardinal to a national championship in 2013, and averaged 18 points per game. He became the highest leading scorer in NBA Summer League one summer, and in 2016, he hit a new G-League record with 65 points in one game. In fact, in a season for the 76ers G-League affiliate he averaged nearly 30 points, and eight assists per game. Russ Smith has proven himself at every single step of the way, even when counted out.
Despite these accolades, Smith has been repeatedly waived and counted out, by the Grizzlies, and Pelicans, and every other NBA team that has passed on him. Despite the odds, Smith averaged 60 points, then 33 points, and then 43 points per game in his last three seasons playing overseas in China. Though he readily admits he plays with a chip on his shoulder, Smith is a clear example of a star basketball player whose defined professional and personal success as much more than signing with an NBA roster.
“Success for everyone is different and what I’ve brought to the game of basketball can’t be determined by the stops I’ve made,” Smith said. “It’s gonna be judged by how far I keep going.”
Smith’s weaving journey through the world of basketball taught him not to give up, but that basketball can be a situational and very political game. Teams prioritize size and strength and resumes, and so much more than just on-court performance. Smith worked so hard at being the priority, being the guard of the future, that he mentions he almost lost sight of his own gifts. In this time he was bouncing around from G-League team to G-League team, Smith came to a realization.
“I immediately decided to play basketball from that point forward the way basketball should be played,” Smith said.
Gone were the comparisons to veteran guards who “had made it,” Smith was going to utilize his assets to the best of his ability. After talking to him, it’s clear how much he feels he has personally grown and matured as a player. While he still wants to come back to the NBA and showcase his personal growth, he recognizes that playing in the NBA isn’t the only measure of personal success out there.
Off-the-court, Smith has done as much, if not more, than any player currently in the NBA to further his brand. His father emphasized the importance of bettering local communities, whether in Queens or in Louisville, and Smith has taken his talents off-the-court to several business ventures as well. These include rapping, a growing bourbon brand, and eventually getting his real estate license.
“You see some guys who’ve been [in the league] 8-10 years and they’ve never worked on themselves. They’ve always worked for the NBA,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten a chance to work on myself and do amazing things outside of hoop and I box that off to success.”
After making songs with the Louisville managers while in college, and getting to know students in the school’s band, Smith played around with rapping. Shortly after, the school band played his songs. Now, he’s experimented with R&B, EDM, and pop songs on Spotify, and his alter-ego, “Russdiculous,” has 109,000 monthly listens.
And music still falls second fiddle to both basketball, and Smith’s new bourbon business, Mr. and Mrs, located in Louisville. He became interested in the bourbon business five years ago, after meeting people involved and learning that Kentucky is responsible for supplying 98% of the world’s supply. He loves building his brand through his business, and getting to know the stories and experiences beyond other Kentucky-based bourbon brands. And no doubt, Smith has grown tremendously with this specific business interest as well.
“If you want to [get into the liquor industry], you really have to want to do it,” Smith said. “You have to get people together. You have to make sure the bottler is on time with the labeler.”
Ultimately, it’s clear in his workouts at UPB, overseas play, or dedication to building Mr. and Mrs. Liquor, Smith pours his heart and soul to whatever he’s trying to accomplish. For him, he’s grown to the point where success is not defined by the NBA, and more about the path basketball has taken him on. From Queens to China to Puerto Rico and back to Louisville, Smith always stays ready for the next opportunity the game presents. And he’s here for a lot more off-the-court as well.
There’s one particular exercise Clair Steele will never forget from UPB. And that’s Packie’s famous five-minute plank that would be thrown in at the end of workouts. Clair Steele used to dread those planks.