No Other Way to Play

March 4, 2008

By Simit Shah

He didn’t need to do it, but Jeremis Smith doesn’t know any other way to play.

With his team leading by eight points with just 25 seconds left in an overtime victory against Wake Forest, Smith did what many would consider unthinkable. With a loose ball heading out of bounds, the senior laid out his 6-foot-8, 236-pound body, clearing the scorer’s table horizontally like a pole vaulter.

“My foot got caught in a chair, and then all I saw was ground,” Smith recounted. “There’s a lady [supporting] Wake Forest, she was like, `Oh my god, baby! You don’t have to do that, it’s the end of the game!’ I was like, `Look, that’s what I’m put out here for.'”

There’s no doubt about that, as the tumble was the grand finale of a half-dozen times that Smith tasted the floor of Alexander Memorial Coliseum that Saturday afternoon. The array included a collision with a courtside photographer, a handful of drawn charges and a valiant dive to disrupt the dribble of Wake’s Ishmael Smith, preventing a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation.

Smith’s 16-point, 13-rebound hustle-laden effort against the Demon Deacons served as a microcosm of the career that the Texas native has assembled in his four seasons in Atlanta, helping to set the standard for grit and physical play in the ACC.

Along the way, he’s been adorned with labels that show admiration for his willingness to work in the trenches and do the dirty work, but Smith shies away from those generalities.

“All that doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I take pride in doing whatever the coaches need me to do that night. Sometimes Coach (Paul) Hewitt will say, `I know you’re leading us in rebounds, and I’d love for you to get 15 rebounds, but we need you stop a guy that’s a great offensive rebounder. If you finish with zero rebounds and he finishes with zero rebounds, that’s what we need.’ The team’s goals are my goals.”

“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” added freshman point guard Moe Miller. “That’s why he’s the captain. He’s a leader in every situation on and off the court.”

Smith came to Georgia Tech in 2004 as a highly-regarded prep player, leading nationally-renowned Dunbar High School to a Texas state championship as a senior. He scored 3,000 points over the course of his high school career.

His career at Tech almost ended before it started. Late in just his second regular season game, Smith dislocated his right knee cap. The painful injury sidelined him for several months and gave him the option of taking a medical redshirt to preserve that year of eligibility.

“I remember exactly where I was when coach and I talked about it on the phone,” he said. “He explained it and asked if I wanted to take that redshirt. I told him no and that it didn’t even cross my mind. I wanted to play basketball.”

After sitting for more than two months, Smith returned to provide a spark that ignited a late-season surge that included an appearance in the ACC Tournament championship game and an NCAA bid.

“Ninety-five percent of the kids I’ve coached would not have made it back from that injury, and if he doesn’t come back, I’m not sure if we end up in the tournament that year,” noted Hewitt. “He made some important contributions in key games for us.”

Smith has been a chameleon of sorts for Hewitt. As a rookie, his services were required on the defensive end, while as a sophomore and senior, he’s been looked to contribute more on the offensive end.

Currently he is leading the team in rebounding this season and is second in scoring. Smith is also a close second in the team lead for steals, which is unusual for a post player.

“That’s not something you see very often,” admitted Hewitt. “What that tells you is that he’s very active and anticipates well. It’s a sign of a guy that plays hard.”

Smith hopes that style of play allows him to continue playing professionally next year, and he’s especially encouraged to see former teammate Mario West parlay raw effort into a NBA roster spot.

“Mario and I were tight last year,” Smith said. “We had a saying called `beast mode.’ We’d just go out and try to lock up on defense and do all those physical aggressive things that other people don’t want to do. He’s doing exactly that in the NBA.”

Beyond professional basketball, Smith has aspirations to return to his hometown of Fort Worth and work with youngsters.

“There are kids in high school that are just blinded,” he explained. “They don’t know about the clearinghouse process or the transition from high school to college. They don’t know, because there’s no one there to tell them. I can help with that.”

In the meantime, Smith is looking to help the Jackets make a late season run and carry momentum into Charlotte. He’s willing to do whatever it takes, which brings us back to the dive over the scorer’s table dive against Wake Forest.

So in a career full of tumbles, where did that one rank?

“That was number one, definitely number one,” declared Smith, who immediately sought out a place to sit prior to speaking to reporters as he entered the team’s weight room. “That’s why I’m sitting here like this.”

“It brings excitement to the team, but in that situation I don’t think he should have done that,” laughed Miller. “That just shows how devoted he is to playing hard and getting the ball until the buzzer sounds. We loved it, but we told him not to do that anymore.”

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