On the Beat: Charlotte Family, Friends, Experiences Shape Smith

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

When the Sixers wrap up their home-and-home series with the Charlotte Hornets on Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena, Ish Smith will do what he did throughout his youth, and has done five times previously as a professional in the NBA.  

He’ll play the game of basketball in his city of birth.

“My mother, my cousins, everybody’s here,” Smith said Friday following the Sixers’ shoot-around.   “My whole family is here basically in North Carolina.  My girlfriend, everybody’s here.  Hopefully I can get a good little tax write-off with these tickets.”

For each away game, visiting players are usually given two complimentary tickets, free of charge.  

Need more?  You’re on your own.

Smith expects to have 35 supporters in attendance on Friday.

“I’ve heard worse,” he said.  “I’ve heard 50, some people have had 100 people come.  So, 30, 35 is actually not that much compared to other people.”

Smith’s arrival on this planet predated the Hornets’ inaugural 1988-1989 campaign by about four months.  The now 28-year old recalls a childhood of following the franchise.   

“It’s crazy because we were so good back in the day,” said Smith, referring to a stretch of the mid to late 1990’s during which Charlotte racked up three 50-win seasons.  “The Hornets had so much talent.  Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry coming off the bench as the sixth man.  We had Alonzo Mourning.  We had Larry Johnson.  We were loaded.  It was electrifying here, how much energy there was being a Charlotte Hornets fan.”

“My father used to record all of the old tapes on VHS, and we used to watch them later. Charlotte, obviously North Carolina, is big when it comes to basketball.”

Big, in respect to size, is something that Smith was not at that stage of his life.  Witnessing the success of Charlotte and its 5’3,” 136-pound point guard helped Smith combat whatever self-conscious anxieties he was feeling about his frame.

“Muggsy Bogues was my guy,” said Smith, who played with fellow Charlotte natives Stephen Curry (Golden State) and Anthony Morrow (Oklahoma City) when he was young.  “I seriously did not think I was ever going to grow, so I was like, ‘Muggsy Bogues is the guy. If I don’t ever grow, he gives me hope.’”

Ultimately, Smith would sprout up to stand nine inches taller than Bogues.  Like Bogues, he played four seasons of college basketball at Wake Forest.  Smith was drawn to the institution after seeing the likes of first-round draft picks Randolph Childress, Tim Duncan, Josh Howard, and Chris Paul pass through the program, and also because of the coaching staff.

“If you’re older, Carolina, Duke is great, but for me, as I got older when I got into like middle school, I started becoming a Wake fan,” said Smith, making mention of Wake Forest’s Tobacco Road peers. “They were good, but they were kind of like, and this sounds bad, they were kind of like stepchilds to Carolina and Duke, and even during that time, N.C. State was pretty good.”

Smith continued, “I don’t know what it was.  Carolina and Duke wasn’t appealing to me, and I liked Wake Forest.  The way they played, and the way how Coach [Skip Prosser] just had this freedom about allowing guys to play and stuff like that.  The way I played just kind of fit the way Coach P wanted us to play.  It was just kind of a match made.”

Wake Forest recruited Smith during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Central Cabarrus High School, located about half an hour east of Charlotte.  He was offered a scholarship the summer between his junior and senior years, and went on to become the only Demon Deacon to generate career minimums of 1,000 points and 600 assists.

Aside from a 70-game stint spent with Phoenix two years ago, stability was a luxury that had eluded Smith during his time in the NBA.  But even in that season with the Suns, he averaged under 15 minutes per game.

This campaign, Smith has shattered his previous personal record for playing time.  He began the year as New Orleans’ top point guard off the bench, and then became a full-time starter for the Sixers after being traded on December 24th.  Smith is on pace to pass the 2,000 minute mark on Friday, which would be a first.  

As he gets set for his first and only outing at Time Warner Cable Arena this season, Smith is making his return amidst a particularly productive stretch.  His past three games, he’s averaged 17.3 points, 8.3 assists, and even had a career-high 14 rebound performance in Portland last Saturday.  Going into that night, he had produced 7.3 points and shot 24.4 percent from the field over four contests.

“One thing I learned,” said Smith, “I was talking to some of the guys, some of the older guys, this is the first time I played a full year.  Last year, I played a fourth of the year here toward the end of the year, and this year, a little bit more full time since December, and I played a lot in New Orleans.   So I was asking some of the guys when I went through that little slump about it, and they were like, ‘A slump?’  They said, ‘Ish, you play 82 games man, it’s no slump.’”

“It’s just you miss some shots, you make some shots, you just got to keep pushing and keep going.  Your body gets tired a bit, mental and stuff like that.  Everybody’s scouting report, now they want to stop you.  So you have to get through all of that, and stuff you haven’t experienced before.  So it’s no slump.  You just kind of got to play through it, and eventually you’ll get your groove back and being playing better than ever.”

Just in time for an anticipated homecoming.    

“Me, my brother, my sisters, a friend of the family, my girlfriend, my cousin, we just sat around and talked and played spades,” said Smith of the visit he made to his mother Gwen’s house on Thursday, after the Sixers got into town.  “There was nothing extreme that we did, but just sit around, had some food, and reminisced about old times.  That’s my heart.  I kind of do that more than anything.  So whenever I get home and get a chance to see them, [it’s] always a blessing.”

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