Russ Smith and his Louisville teammates got to meet former President Bill Clinton Thursday night after their 74-55 Big East quarterfinal victory over Villanova, but that was a mere footnote to Smith on the day one of the most important men he’d ever met died.
As a faithful alum of Archbishop Molloy, Smith placed a friendly call to the athletic offices of the Queens school on Thursday morning to see if there was any chance his former coach, Jack Curran, might be able to attend his game at Madison Square Garden. That’s when athletic director Michael McCleary delivered the sad news of Curran’s death at the age of 82.
“Coach McCleary told me, and I paused for a second,” Smith said. “It was really hard for me to take it all in because a guy like coach [Curran], he’s old age, but you just wouldn’t ever think twice of him passing. It was really, really hard for me to just focus ahead and to just put it all together.
“I really have no words, but I’m going to miss him. He was everything to me and to my mom, my family. He treated everyone with respect. He taught me a lot of things, phrases, quotes. One of the main ones was: ‘The road to success is always under construction.’ I always say that, and I’ll always keep that to myself and I always work around that little quote.”
Smith said he was crying on the bus trip to the Garden, but all his teammates understood what had happened and how close he was with Curran. “It was really hard on me,” Smith said. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it. I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win. Today was definitely coach Curran day for me, and it will be for the rest of my life.”
The road to success in the Big East tournament got a little smoother for Louisville (27-5) thanks to a brilliant performance by Smith, who scored 28 points in 29 minutes while shooting 7 of 12 from the field and 10 of 11 at the foul line. He added two assists and two steals and, along with backcourt mate Peyton Siva, spearheaded a Cardinals press that forced 25 Villanova turnovers in an unbelievably physical game.
At one point, Smith left the game with a twisted ankle, but he returned and continued to excel. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose friendship with Curran goes back decades, said, “I told Russ we have to play this tournament and the NCAA for coach Curran. So, it’s very exciting that Russ could have that type of game and honor his coach like that.”
Pitino actually spent three years at a youth basketball camp run by Curran, whose career at Molloy spanned the past 55 years coaching both basketball and baseball. In Pitino’s view, Curran compared to the great UCLA coach John Wooden.
“He had all the traits of a great leader – very humble, great teacher, very wise man,” Pitino said of Curran. “Although he was a great basketball and baseball coach, he probably was an even better gym teacher. He was just a great teacher and a great person. Never lost his passion and his love.
“I don’t know how he did it. He led a blessed life, and a lot of people are going to miss him greatly.”