It was around 8 p.m. Saturday on the West Coast when Marcus Smart stumbled over the baseline while trying to block a shot and then turned around and shoved a Texas Tech fan. I was still at home with my roommate, and we were watching ESPN when SportsCenter cut to a live feed. It was immediately compared to the Malice at the Palace by one of the game announcers, and then over the next hour or so the whole thing turned into something like a sports-themed episode of Nancy Grace. This is how #SHOVEGATE, starring Marcus Not So Smart, was born.
And let’s be clear: The GIF is amazing. That’s probably a big part of how this turned into as big a story as it did.
You have Smart’s head whipping around, which made everyone wonder what was said, then Mr. Triple-Chin Superfan hurrying to apologize, and this lady …
… aghast that Marcus Smart would respond to the heckling like a human instead of an athlete programmed to stay silent. She was so perfect. That lady should win GIF awards at the end of this year.
But for the record, I think most rational people saw all this and sided with Smart. He made a mistake, but he wasn’t exactly wrong. That guy was eminently shoveable, especially if he was calling Smart a piece of crap, or worse.
We could parse the situation further, but the mistake Smart made is obvious, and how it happened is completely understandable. It’s possible to criticize Smart while also empathizing with him, and that’s probably where this should end. Three games feels like the right suspension.
The thing that still bugs me is the bigger picture. Marcus Smart isn’t just any star, he’s the guy who turned down a place in the top three of the NBA draft and came back to school, the pride of college basketball. He was the guy who told the NBA it could wait, and college hoops loved him for it.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that was the right decision,” he said in October. “But I don’t regret making it because you can never come back to college and be a student-athlete.”
That quote reads a lot differently after Saturday night. That’s when you had a fiftysomething superfan screaming at a 19-year-old, and the 19-year-old snapping under the pressure. Then there were the lectures from the college basketball media about learning a lesson, maturity, and all the disciplined he deserved.
And this is how the guy who was college basketball’s favorite superstar just four months ago turned into a symbol for what college basketball can do to superstars who stay too long. Saturday was the culmination of a few underwhelming months in general. Smart has struggled, his team is losing, and scouts have started to question where his game fits at the next level. It’s a familiar pattern for guys who turn down the NBA draft.
It’s been even worse for Mitch McGary at Michigan. He passed up a spot in the lottery last year to come back to school, started the season struggling, then underwent back surgery, and now he’ll probably have to come back again next year just to land in the first round somewhere. Instead of being a 20-year-old lottery pick last year, he’ll probably end up as a 23-year-old second-round pick when all is said and done.
It’s also happened with James Michael McAdoo at North Carolina. He could’ve gone pro two years ago and landed in the top 10, but he came back to school and struggled, his draft stock cratered, and now he’s a borderline first-round pick.
This phenomenon has never had a more famous example than Smart, a player who would have been a top-three pick last year and who may not crack the top 10 now. He’ll be competing against mostly unknown guys with limitless upside — Zach LaVine, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins — while scouts have seen enough of Smart this year to notice all his limits. He may not have a clear position, he may not be a great shooter or a great athlete, and you can insert your own knock from whatever happened Saturday. None of it mattered last year.
“I am aware of how much money I am giving up,” Smart said, laughing, last year when he announced he’s coming back. “I am aware of that.”
College basketball people loved this last year, but it’s hard to consider it now without cringing. It all comes at a time when Adam Silver is quietly getting ready to push the NBA to adopt an age minimum of 20. Seeing Smart’s reputation get dragged through the mud while his game gets nitpicked to death makes that idea seem even more unfair. For now, if players are good enough to get drafted, they should go.
There will still be mistakes and lessons, but instead of costing yourself money while that happens, you get paid to learn. If Saturday was a “teachable moment” for Smart, it was also a lesson for every superstar freshman who’s considering sticking around another year. College basketball works great for almost everyone who plays it, but for the guys who have the option of the NBA right now, there’s a lot more to lose than there is to gain.
That was the only thought from Saturday night that stuck with me till today. It sucks that he’s stuck in college, costing himself money with each bad game, and not getting paid a dime while SportsCenter and 100,000 people on Twitter turn five seconds of video into 48 hours of debate about his character and his future.
Marcus Smart is a guy who watched his older brother die when he was 9 years old, who had the rest of his brothers tell him it’s up to him to carry the family, and now he’s doing it. When he gets to the NBA, the first thing he wants to do is pay for a kidney transplant for his mom. Does he really need to put up with some college basketball writer crowing about all the lessons he needs to learn?
I never felt strongly one way or another about Smart, but after watching him make one stupid mistake and get pulled into the Nancy Grace sports machine for 36 hours, I’m pretty sure I’ll root for him for the rest of his career. Especially for the rest of this season. I’m an Oklahoma State fan now.
But a big part of me just wishes Marcus Smart was on the Magic this year. Being treated like an object that idiots can scream at, or a talking point in a thousand different columns, or the centerpiece of debates on national television, or just a name for a scout to criticize — all of it is kind of dehumanizing and unfair, and it’s part of life for a superstar athlete at any level. It sucks for all of them. It just sucks a lot less for the guys who get paid millions to live with it.