Russ Smith always wanted to play for Rick Pitino. The only problem? Pitino didn't want to coach Russ Smith.
The coach had seen plenty of the diminutive, scattershot guard as a seventh- and eighth-grader at the Louisville basketball camp, where Smith was the MVP. Pitino knew Smith's father, Russ Sr., whom Pitino jokingly described as "crazy." He couldn't imagine one day putting the offspring in a Cardinals uniform.
But on the advice of assistant coach Ralph Willard, Pitino agreed to see Smith play at Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., and eventually Willard's relentless campaign won him over.
"I never considered recruiting him," Pitino said. "Ralph kept hitting me, saying, 'That's the kid you should go after.' I said, 'Russ Smith? I knew his dad when he was Russ' age.' I said, 'He's 5-foot-8.' Ralph said, 'No, Rick, he was 5-foot-8 in the eighth grade. He's 6-foot now.'
"So I called over Russ and said, 'Come here, Russ,' and he gave me a big hug," Pitino recalled. "And I said, 'You know, Ralph, you might be right.'"
A few years later, as Louisville made its unlikely run to the 2012 Final Four, Smith's teammates would recall another hug, one he asked of his coach after a particularly vicious mid-timeout dressing-down this season. "OK, Coach," Smith said. "Now let's hug." Smith stumped Pitino with the request, but hugged him anyway. As guard Kyle Kuric would later tell it, "that's the moment when Coach just decided to accept Russ Smith."
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