“It’s more funny than anything,” Smith said. “It’s just kinda like, ‘No, I’m still here.’”
Smith spent more than two seasons on the IU men’s basketball team as a walk-on. A native of South Bend, Ind., Smith played basketball and ran track in high school. He received a few offers to play basketball collegiately, but none from any Division I schools.
Feeling slighted, Smith opted to go to IU to focus on his education.
As a freshman living in IU’s Forest Quad, a few of Smith’s friends said they were going to try out for the IU team and invited Smith to join them.
“Why not?” he said.
Smith said everything about the tryout, which took place in October 2010, was last-minute. He took a physical that actually discovered a slight heart murmur — “Nothing big,” Smith said — and then tried out for the team. Smith didn’t hear back from the team until January 2011, after watching the Hoosiers play Iowa in his dorm room. He got a call from former Director of Operations and Video Coordinator Drew Adams, who asked him what Smith’s class schedule was like the following day.
“‘After that, come to Cook Hall,’” Smith said, recalling what Adams had said that day. “‘Got some shoes? Bring those too.’”
Smith joined the team that spring, suiting up as a walk-on through the 2012-13 season. He experienced two Hoosier Hysteria dunk contests, IU’s upset of then-No. 1 Kentucky in 2011 and winning at Michigan to claim the Big Ten Title last season.
Despite all this, Smith said ultimately he had to be realistic with himself and his future.
“My main thing was — I mean, don’t get me wrong, great experience,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t trade it, exchange it for the world.
“However, it’s obvious and evident that not everybody makes it to the (NBA) and given the position that I was in on the team, obviously I wasn’t going there either. I’ve accepted that, which is fine. So, me personally, I had to get ready for life after college.”
He did not return to the team for the 2013-14 season, choosing instead to prepare for his future.
Smith is a senior who will graduate in May with a sports communication-broadcast degree, but plans to work as a mentor to children after graduation.
“I love working with children,” he said. “Even just the small things — like them smiling. The simplicity of them enjoying life while they can. I love that.”
Smith said ideally he’d like to work at a high school and get into coaching as well.
Smith has been accepted into the City Year program in Orlando, Fla., where he will work with children in a high school-type setting.
City Year does not provide an actual degree, and Smith wants to work toward a Master’s degree. He has applied to several Florida schools, including Central Florida, Florida A&M and Florida Gulf Coast, and said if he gets accepted into one of their graduate programs, he will enroll in school and forgo City Year.
“I did all my prep work as far as education-wise here ... I’m gonna be moving out of state, so I needed some extra money,” Smith said.
“Obviously, you know, with those hours in the gym and stuff, you can’t have a job,” Smith said. “It’s just not enough time between that and schoolwork.”
Knowing this, Smith got a job at Foot Locker, and after starting in late July, has worked his way up to Assistant Manager. Smith works around 30 hours a week, which led to his decision to not return to the team.
Smith explored the idea of not returning to the team with some of his teammates after last season ended, testing the waters to see what they thought of the situation.
None of his teammates persuaded him to leave the team. He remembers a conversation he had with Christian Watford at an Applebee’s where Watford told him he should do what was ultimately best for him.
The looming decision met with some pushback, however. Smith’s roommate for the past three years, Shawn Jacks, said he wished Smith would have stayed with it, citing how much work Smith had put in during the years he was on the team.
Remy Abell, Smith’s teammate for two years who transferred to Xavier this past summer, offered a different take.
“I felt like he felt like he wasn’t going to be a part of the team anymore,” Abell said of why he thought Smith left the team.
Smith, though, denies this.
He said he stood his ground when his older brother and father told him he should stay put.
“That’s how it was with pretty much everybody,” he said. “My brother said that. My dad said that too.
“But at the same time the only rebuttal I had for that was they didn’t do it, so they don’t know what was really going on in my head. So it’s kind of hard for them to completely fathom it. I just felt that I had to do what was best for me.”
After consulting with teammates and family members, Smith decided to leave the team. He would stay in school, get a job and save up to go to Florida after graduation.
Still, Smith had to inform IU Coach Tom Crean of his decision. If he really wanted to forgo his place on the team, Smith knew he would have to speak to Crean one-on-one.
He texted Crean and asked if the two could talk.
“He said he didn’t want me to feel as though I was being pushed out the door, or anything like that,” Smith said. “He said obviously he didn’t prefer for me to go, but at the same time he said he does understand.”
Smith reiterated that it was his decision alone. He said it was never a situation where he felt he was being kicked out.
“Kind of enjoy your last year of college,” Smith said. “It’s not that you can’t enjoy it, but it’s definitely different.
“Again, I appreciate everything the program did for me. If they need anything from me that I could help with, you know, always. But I just had to do what I felt was best for me.”
Smith has connected with some of the team’s new players. He and freshman forward Noah Vonleh got haircuts together.
Freshman guards Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson came in to Foot Locker during one of Smith’s shifts and the three talked.
Smith still keeps in touch with his former teammates. He mentioned dropping by Will Sheehey’s place earlier this year.
He also talks with former teammates who are overseas. One morning, he awoke to find a Snapchat from Jordan Hulls.
Smith said Verdell Jones III is doing well in Japan, although he remains skeptical of Jones’ dunking abilities.
“He put on Instagram that he dunked and he said that he dunked on somebody. I don’t know how true that one was,” Smith said, smiling. “A picture’s worth a thousand words I guess.”
He said both Watford and Derek Elston are doing great overseas.
“Derek’s pretty much a celebrity over where he’s at right now,” he said. “He’s lovin’ that.”
Smith also stays in contact with Victor Oladipo, who he saw at the first Orlando Magic-Indiana Pacers game Oct. 29. Because Smith plans on living in Orlando after graduation, Smith said he is going to stay with Oladipo during spring break to look for apartments.
To Smith, they are more than just teammates.
“My whole years that I was there, it was a family in there,” he said. “I love those guys to death.”
Last season, Smith had front row seats to every IU game from his position on the bench. This year, he watches from afar. For the Feb. 22 IU-Northwestern game, Smith sits in an Applebee’s booth drinking lemonade — with no ice — and munches on boneless buffalo wings to watch his family play.
The game goes back and forth throughout the first half, with neither team leading by more than four points.
As the second half starts, IU begins to pull away. Five and a half minutes in, Sheehey hits a layup and gets fouled, prompting some clapping from Smith.
“There you go.”
IU builds a 12-point lead with more than 12 minutes to play, but slowly Northwestern
starts to creep its way back in.
When Vonleh is called for a goaltend, Smith says, “No, no, no.”
A replay shows that the ball was off the rim when Vonleh touched it. “That is terrible,” Smith says.
IU maintains its lead as the game’s end nears. With over a minute to play, Northwestern calls timeout, trailing 56-50.
“This is where it gets interesting,” Smith says.
Out of the timeout, a Northwestern player gets fouled and makes one of two free throws. On IU’s next possession, Sheehey hits a 3-pointer that gives the Hoosiers an eight-point lead with less than a minute to play.
“There we go,” Smith says. “Finally. Big shot.”
Smith has enjoyed his senior year thus far. Needing only six credits to graduate, he is taking 12 credits this semester to remain a full-time student.
Among the classes he is taking are SPH-I 211: Advanced Basketball and HPER-P 445: History of Indiana High School Basketball.
He would have played intramural basketball but was barred from participating.
Smith said as a former player on the men’s team, he now has to wait five years before he can play intramural basketball at IU. He is unsure if this is an IU or NCAA rule.
Instead, Smith had to settle for intramural football, playing wide receiver.
Smith turned 21 last April, and his 22nd birthday falls during the week of this year’s Little 500.
He’s also looking forward to life after graduation. Smith said if he is accepted into a graduate program, he will try out for the basketball team.
“Smaller school, I would definitely play more,” he said. “It’s not like I hate the game. I still love basketball.”
Smith has no regrets about leaving the IU men’s basketball team. He said that looking back on his time at IU, including his senior year, he was able to have an experience that few get.
“Honestly, I actually thought about this the other day,” Smith said. “I really feel like I lived the entire college life.
“Coming in as just a regular student, I learned like what it was to be just a regular freshman. I learned what it was to be a freshman that played on the team. I learned what it was to be an IU player when we weren’t so good and then when we were great. I’ve seen the different fraternity and sorority life, all races and the athlete versus the non-athlete life.
“I felt like I did it all.”
Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.
More in Men's Basketball
It was an important win for IU, but it didn't feel like it.
Free throws and bench production helped IU hold off a tenacious Illinois team.
Al Durham and Justin Smith combined for 27 points.