In an interview before the season, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart said Texas Tech was his least favorite opposing arena.
“The atmosphere just isn’t there,” he said.
On Saturday, the atmosphere at Texas Tech was too much.
Smart, a preseason All-American and one of the top prospects for the 2014 NBA Draft, shoved a fan in the final seconds of Oklahoma State’s 65-61 loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock.
As he fouled Texas Tech’s Jaye Crockett on a fast break layup attempt, Smart fell to the floor behind the basket. As he got up, Smart reacted to a man in the front row behind the baseline, shoving Texas Tech spectator Jeff Orr.
Less than 24 hours later, the Big 12 suspended Smart three games, and Smart issued an apology. Smart's return will be Feb. 22 during a home game against this same Texas Tech team.
In a statement released by Texas Tech, Orr volunteered not to attend Texas Tech basketball games, home or away, for the remainder of the season. Orr also iindicates he called Smart a "piece of crap." Texas Tech also released a video with inconclusive audio.
A Cowboy Radio Network analyst told the Tulsa (Okla.) World he heard Smart tell Oklahoma State coaches that a fan called Smart a racial slur. In a Sunday afternoon news confernece, neither Smart nor Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford provided details on what the spectator said.
"I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere apologies to Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Tubby Smith and the Texas Tech Men's Basketball program," Orr said in the statement. "My actions last night were inappropriate and do not reflect myself or Texas Tech - a university I love dearly. I regret calling Mr. Smart a 'piece of crap' but I want to make it known that I did not use a racial slur of any kind."
What’s clear is that no party comes out of this with any way to save face:
• Smart committed one of the most egregious acts an athlete can commit by physically confronting a spectator. The incident comes only games after Smart apologized on Twitter for losing his composure after a loss to West Virginia.
• The Big 12 officials assessed a technical foul on Smart but didn’t eject him, saying the rule book doesn’t provide for a disqualification for a player-fan confrontation.
• The Oklahoma State staff allowed Smart to linger on the court and on the bench despite only 6.2 seconds remaining in a game that had been decided. When Smart finally left the floor, the game had ended and Texas Tech fans were rushing the court. A incident could have escalated quickly.
• Orr’s conduct at games came under scrutiny following the incident.
The next step will be a suspension handed down by the Big 12 and Oklahoma State, probably both. The Cowboys have eight games remaining before the conference tournament.
The suspension, though, may end up being a footnote to how the incident shapes Smart’s reputation from now on.
Anyone who follows college basketball knows Smart as the player who came up from extreme poverty, who is one of the game’s great leaders and who shocked everyone by making a calculated risk to skip the NBA Draft.
Smart knew what he was getting into by returning to school — delaying his first NBA contract by a year and risking a drop in the draft. He often talked of the reward of returning and spending another year as a college student.
Smart also has to know he won’t escape this incident. College basketball is a niche game until the NCAA Tournament. Now, scores of fans know Smart as for this ugly confrontation first and the rest of Smart’s background second, if at all.
Entering this season, Smart's greatest assets were his maturity, leadership and intangibles. All that is in question.
Now, Oklahoma State’s season has spiraled out of control. An injury to Michael Cobbins hurt depth in the frontcourt. Smart’s backup, Stevie Clark, was kicked off the team after his second legal incident of the season. A team that was expected to contend for the Big 12 title has slipped to 4-6 and almost certainly will slide even further while Smart is suspended.
Smart himself has struggled. He had one of the nation’s most dominant performances of any player early in the year against Memphis. The last few weeks had been forgettable until Saturday. His reputation for flopping has been criticized. After a dismal game against West Virginia, Smart stormed off the court in a huff.
Smart returned to school to compete for a championship and dismissed criticism that he should have taken his shot at the NBA Draft.
“I bet on myself,” Smart told Athlon Sports in a preseason interview. “I know what I can do. I believe in my ability.”