Darius Smith saw the object in the road, but it was too late. Suddenly his car was flipping … once, twice, thrice.
“Two of the three times I was in it,” Smith recalled. “The third time I got ejected.”
Life had already thrown Smith a curveball, his dreams of being a star at the University of Connecticut washing out after a tough freshman season and his subsequent decision to transfer.
Then, three weeks before his scheduled arrival at the College of Southern Idaho, he was lying in a Chicago street with injuries that would plague him for months to come.
Smith’s climb out of that canyon of disappointment wasn’t easy, but today, his smooth play on the court for the 12th-ranked CSI men’s team contrasts sharply with the bumps he faced in the road of life.
Still fresh, those bumps were evident in his face, his posture, his play during his first weeks at CSI this fall.
“I was timid,” said Smith. “I would say that I was very timid.”
It’s hard to blame him.
After putting up impressive numbers at Chicago’s John Marshall High School, Smith signed with the University of Connecticut. He played sparingly as a freshman at UConn last season, averaging just 1.0 points and 4.4 minutes in 19 appearances.
He decided to transfer and chose CSI. But the late-summer accident left bruises and scars on his body and psyche. Even though he was wearing a seat belt, Smith was ejected, the belt dragging him along by his arm.
“It was pretty serious,” said Smith. “I have a fractured shoulder blade and my arm still hurts me now and then. And I have chest pains from it.”
The chest pains limit Smith at times. He has to be careful to not overexert himself and doctors tell him to get plenty of rest, no easy task for a collegiate student-athlete. But he’s finding a way to thrive on and off the court.
“I think it took a little bit to get his legs beneath him, whether it was from the car wreck or recovering from his year at UConn,” said CSI head coach Steve Gosar. “But he’s starting to look like his old self and he’s really starting to help us.
“He’s really a calming influence out there with the ball in his hands. He has a way of getting the right guys the ball in a position to score.”
One of those right guys is CSI’s leading scorer Jerrold Brooks, who loves playing alongside Smith.
“He’s smart as in knowing what the situation is on defense,” said Brooks. “He’s good with his hands on defense and gets a lot of steals. And he runs the point. He’s the best point guard on the team.”
Smith credits several sit-downs with Gosar for lifting him out of his fog of frustration.
“He pushed me really hard,” Smith said. “Those one-on-one conversations really helped me out.”
Now Smith’s helping CSI out, averaging a team-leading 5.4 assists and 2.7 steals to go with 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. Although standing just 6-foot-1, he’s third on the team in blocks with 0.6 per game.
He’s also becoming a more vocal leader.
“Coach Gosar stresses four or five times a week that we have to have a leader out there,” said Smith. “I’m not always the loudest, but I feel if you can talk to a person and get them to understand without hollering at them, you’re being a leader.”
Smith’s quiet demeanor is reflected in his play, which is so smooth his contributions often fly under the radar.
“He don’t go fast for nobody,” joked Brooks. “He plays his own way, same pace all the time.”
“Smitty is so even keel,” added Gosar. “He’s not a roller-coaster of emotions. He’s really positive out there. He’s a guy that sees the game and has some great ideas.”
Smith said he’s moved on from his disappointments at UConn, adding that the Big East power “just wasn’t the right feel for me.”
While he hopes to return to the NCAA Division I level next season, Smith is seizing the moment at CSI, soaking up a season that’s off to a 12-1 start and having fun with teammates he truly enjoys being around.
“Our team chemistry since I’ve been here has been excellent, from the guys who don’t play that much to the guys who get the most minutes,” said Smith. “Our team chemistry is off the charts. That’s why we’re playing so well right now.”