STILLWATER — Marcus Smart has witnessed a lot in his 18 years.
Witnessed too much.
“I saw my friends doing all kinds of drugs. Snorting. Smoking. I didn't even know what it was,” Smart said. “Psycho-type stuff.
“I've seen people get jumped and beaten… shot.
“I've seen police chases every day.
“I've seen gang members drive through apartments, while little kids are in the street; don't give a care; little kids getting hit by cars.
“I saw my brother sell (drugs) to one of my friends.”
Then but a child on the battleground south side of Dallas, Smart also saw a beloved older brother die from cancer and saw his own future teetering; tilting at various moments between staying good or going bad, with one decision – conscious or unconscious – or maybe a misguided bullet perhaps all that stood as the tipping point.
That's when Camellia Smart flipped the scales.
Fed up and in growing fear of an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, Camellia, Marcus' mother, packed up the house for an escape.
It was bold and not without consequences, and only to the opposite outskirts of Dallas, the northwest suburb of Flower Mound.
Yet it might as well have been worlds away.
“The move was 100 percent,” Camellia said. “I saw gun shots, drugs, all the stuff that was coming in. I knew it was time to go. We couldn't stay there.
“You'd hear gunshots all through the night. You'd be in the bed asleep – gunshots. And a bullet doesn't have a name. A stray bullet does not have a name.
“I just didn't want him growing up around that.”
The rest of the story, the Marcus Smart success story, continues to play out on a stage that extends nationally.
Impact freshman at Oklahoma State. Physical, emotional and floor leader of the No. 17-ranked team in the country. Taking his Cowboys into a big Bedlam showdown on Saturday, with a six-game winning streak and a share of the Big 12 lead on the line.
It's a good story, made possible by Camellia Smart, the 58-year-old rock of the family.
“I thank God every day for giving my mom the strength and the confidence to move us,” Marcus said. “To just drop everything – that's where all my family was – to go to this place where we had no idea who anybody was or what to expect… she took a chance.
“That was a great chance she took.”
Lancaster, Texas, a city of 36,000-plus sits on the south side of Dallas County, near Cedar Hill and DeSoto and Duncanville.
Founded in 1852, the city was home to a Colt gun factory during the Civil War. And in 1934, Bonnie and Clyde robbed the R.P. Henry & Sons Bank, walking out with more than $4,000.
Things have gotten worse.
“You have bad parts, but you also have some good parts,” Marcus said. “You definitely have spots where it's just horrible out there. And those spots you don't want to be at.”
Spots where gangs and guns and Godlessness rules. Where lives are taken or tormented long-term.
Marcus saw it with his older brother Michael, who at 19 was sucked into all the trappings of the worst part of that neighborhood. Drugs, guns, prostitution – Michael got involved in it all, including the Bloods street gang.
“He fell victim to that,” Marcus said. “He'll tell you that he did some things that he regrets and wishes his life was different. He definitely ruined his life, not fully, but the best years of his life are gone, because of that life that he chose. He still feels it to this day.”
Only 10 at the time, Marcus looked out for his brother. Pleaded with his brother.
Also, as he got older, Marcus grew to understand his brother's plight.
“It's hard for teenage kids to have that maturity and step out and say, ‘I want to be different. I don't want to do what everybody else is doing,'” Marcus said. “Especially growing up in that kind of neighborhood, where if you don't, you're looked upon as weak or not a real friend.
“You want to be strong. You want to make something of your life. But it's hard for most teenagers to do, to make that evaluation and jump to being mature enough to say, ‘I'm not going to make that mistake. I'm going to be a leader. I'm not going to do what y'all are doing, I want you to do what I'm doing.'”
Marcus saw those same harsh elements around him, too.
Even at that young age, kids were falling into trouble, forming their own “little” gangs, sort of mirroring the older groups.
“They're going around throwing up gang signs, it's crazy,” Marcus said. “It's kind of weird, and it was very exasperating for me, because they were my friends, but I'm trying to embellish my life in a way that it is better than all of this.”
All that muck tugged at Marcus, too, testing his will and creating an inner rage that tore at him from deep inside.
He said that he could feel himself changing, becoming a bully even, getting into fights and other physical confrontations that unleashed his anger.
In a recent USA Today story, Marcus told of a time he and a friend threw rocks at a passerby on a bike, not knowing the subject was a member of the Bloods gang. Struck by a rock and falling from the bike, the man gave chase to the fleeing boys.
Soon, shots rang out and bullets buzzed all around.
Marcus said it was like that early scene in Saving Private Ryan, when the troops are being fired on while storming the beach at Normandy, except in real life.
“I definitely heard them whistling,” he said. “That sound, and when a gun fires how loud that is, it was a big shock to me. My heart felt like it was about to explode from my chest, literally running for my life.
“It's a terrifying scene to even imagine. But to be there, it's even more terrifying.”
Eluding the man on the wild chase that ensued, finally making it home, safely, Marcus said he reassessed where he was in his life.
And where he needed to be.
Marcus had already spent time at an alternative school, due to the fighting, and his return to his regular school painted him as a sort of bad boy.
Friends suddenly avoided him and viewed him with a wary eye.
“It was like I went to prison and when I came back, everybody was looking at me and I got labeled,” said Marcus of that ninth-grade year. ‘There's Marcus, I don't want to hang around with him. There's going to be some trouble.' “People looked at me different. I would go to class, people didn't want to work with me. Didn't want to talk with me. For a kid, 13-, 14-years old, dang.
“I went home crying to my mom and I told her, ‘I'm ready to move.' She said, ‘Me, too.'”
Marcus and Camellia had discussed moving before, with nothing coming of it. But she had sensed a disturbance in Marcus, recognizing the anger.
And his stint at the alternative school only hastened her action for a change.
“One day, I went to class, I get home and she's packing up,” said Marcus. “I said, ‘What's going on?' She said, ‘We're moving.'”
It wasn't all that simple. The Smarts – Camellia, Marcus, his dad Billy Frank Smart and an uncle – would be leaving behind friends and family and church.
And, Camellia said, home is home, never easy to leave. She faced her own issues, too, with a health condition requiring kidney dialysis three times a week.
“I prayed about it. I talked with my pastor. I talked with my sisters and brothers,” she said. “And they told me they didn't want me to go, but if that's what I had to do to make it better for Marcus, they would understand.
“And it was hard for me to make that move at first, because I was always around my family members. But they understood. And I knew what I had to do for my child.”
Still, where would they go?
Camellia looked to Lewisville and Carrollton, seeking guidance from a family friend, Phil Forte Sr., whose son Phil had played AAU basketball with Marcus since grade school.
Phil attended Flower Mound's Marcus High in the same area and suggested the Smarts take a look there. Liking what they found, the Smarts found a three-bedroom, ranch-style house in Flower Mound, and headed across town.
To a new home. And a new life.
The change was drastic for the Smarts.
Gunshots no longer framed the night, only silence. Outside, there was no constant fear of danger. Almost immediately, Marcus said a peace enveloped the family.
Camellia had already put Marcus in an anger management class, following the incidents that led to his stint at the alternative school.
“That helped a lot,” she said. “And the church, the pastor, going to the altar and praying. That helped out tremendously.”
But the move addressed a lot of the angst, although there was a time in the beginning when Marcus felt out of place, going from a predominantly African-American school and neighborhood to a predominantly-white environment.
“I walked into my first class, and I know when you're the new kid, everybody's going to look,” Marcus said, “but I was the only black kid in the class. I was saggin', they weren't used to that. I'm seeing kids dressed up in Polos.
“I'm like, ‘Why are they looking at me?' I'm wearing a hoody, my pants are hangin' below my waist. And they're just looking at me, like, ‘Who is this and why is he here?'”
Eventually, he fit in. Having a friend in Forte helped.
So did basketball, with Marcus and Forte forming a dual force that led Flower Mound Marcus to a 115-6 record over three seasons, capped by back-to-back state championships as juniors and seniors.
The two stars remained close, signing to play together at OSU, where they're roommates and still best friends. Phil's dad, Phil Sr., travels together with Camellia to most of the Cowboys games.
“Not that these kids up here don't get in trouble,” said Forte Sr., “but Marcus was surrounded by a pretty good group. And everyone loved one another and everyone was trying to help one another.
“Not that they didn't love him where he used to live, but when you have people who love and believe in you, I think it goes a long way.”
More than anything, however, the move released the stress on Marcus and his mom.
“I felt like it was a big boulder lifted off my shoulder,” Marcus said. “I felt like I could breathe again. I had no worries. I could see it in my mom, her health was getting better because she wasn't stressed anymore. That was a big key factor for me, seeing that my mom was OK.”
Marcus Smart has witnessed a lot in his 18 years.
Witnessed two lives worth, the way he sees it.
“Going back and looking back at both of my lives, when I was in Lancaster and when I moved to Flower Mound, those are totally different environments,” Marcus said. “That was my past there, with that school and everything.
“I'm glad I made the move. It bettered my life and it took a lot of stress off of my mom. This was a better decision for my life.”
Life is better all around now, too.
Marcus stands as one of the buzz stories of this college basketball season, regularly adored by TV announcers and praised for his intangibles by coaches like Florida's Billy Donovan and Gonzaga's Mark Few, who had him on the Team USA U18 team in Brazil.
And back in Flower Mound, the family is well, and that includes his brother Michael.
“He's doing great,” Marcus said. “He works at UPS. He's doing good. He's sticking with it. He's not making excuses. He doesn't have any get-rich schemes.
“He's becoming a man. And I'm proud of him.”
Personally, Marcus said he counts his blessings every day, taking nothing for granted, knowing where he's been over the span of two lives.
“Now I'm a D-1 college basketball player at Oklahoma State,” he said. “I'm living the life that most kids would chop off their right arm for, a paid scholarship to go to college for free. Kids parents are out here struggling to get them to college, my mom doesn't pay anything.
“It's a blessing. I thank God every day. I'm doing something productive with my life.”
No. 17 Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma
* When: 12:45 p.m., Saturday
* Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater
* Radio: OSU KXXY-FM 96.1; OU KOKC-AM 1520
* TV: Big 12 Network (Cox 11 and 711 HD; Dish 34; DirectTV 34; U-Verse 34 and 1034 HD)
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* The game is officially a sellout, OSU's second this season.
* OSU is 60-42 in Bedlam games inside Gallagher-Iba Arena and has won three straight in the series at home.
* The Sooners lost a key cog when guard Buddy Hield suffered a broken foot in Monday night's win over TCU. Hield scored 15 points and had four rebounds and four assists in OSU's win over the Cowboys in Norman.