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Memphis Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart understands basketball is a business

Former defensive player of the year talks relationship with teammate Ja Morant, his trade from the Celtics, former coach Ime Udoka and more

NEW ORLEANS – Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant was working out on the Smoothie King Center floor just an hour before his return from a 25-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league when his new teammate Marcus Smart offered some optimism for a season that started in disarray. Despite a mammoth hole to dig out of, Smart said he believes the Grizzlies can make the 2024 NBA playoffs.

Part of that optimism stems from Smart being on a Boston Celtics team that went from 25-25 to the NBA Finals in 2022. These Grizzlies had a more daunting task: a 6-19 record upon Morant’s return. More than two weeks later, Memphis is 11-23 entering Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) and are 5.5 games from the final spot for the NBA play-in tournament with lots of basketball to play.

“I don’t think we are too far off,” Smart told Andscape before the Grizzlies’ 115-113 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 19, 2023. “It’s definitely going to be challenging. It’s not going to be easy. But I’ve done it in Boston. We made it to the Finals. Halfway through the season we were under .500 and we turned it around. We saw the [Miami] Heat barely make the play-in tournament [last season] and then win it and then go on to win the eighth seed and then make it to the Finals.

“So, it can’t be done. But it definitely is challenging and we just got to keep a positive attitude and give everything we have.”

Smart was primarily the Celtics’ starting point guard over nine seasons, averaging 10.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 581 regular-season games. The 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year is a three-time NBA All-Defensive first-team selection and a three-time winner of the NBA Hustle Award. He was also known for his community work in Boston and helping the Celtics make five trips to the conference finals and one to the Finals. But on June 23, 2023, the Celtics shocked Smart by trading him to the Grizzlies as part of a three-team deal. While Smart acknowledged that it stung him to not have a heads-up about the trade, he has embraced the opportunity to play for the Grizzlies and become a mentor for his star backcourt mate in Morant.

The following is a Q&A with Smart as he talks about joining Morant and being an honest mentor, his beloved time in Boston, the suspension of former Celtics coach Ime Udoka, how he has been embraced in Memphis, Tennessee, and how he joked about the possibility of joining the Grizzlies.

Toronto Raptors guard Dennis Schroder (left) defends Memphis Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart (right) on Jan. 3 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Did the trade from Boston hurt a little bit?

It definitely hurt. It hurt because I grew up there. I built a relationship with Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum] and the rest of those guys on that team. We’ve been through a lot. Those guys pulled up to my mom’s funeral when my mom passed away. They took time out of their day to come show love and support. That means a lot. And our relationship was much deeper than basketball. Those guys can call on me whenever and I’m going to be there and vice versa.

And I think that was the hardest part over anything other than everything I have done. The way that I carry myself and the respect that I give, just to not get a heads-up. ‘Hey this is what we are doing …’ But there is no bad blood. Like I said, it’s a business. With that being said, you do business the right way and that is you don’t mix pleasure with business and that’s where you get in trouble. I can’t get mad in it for the business side. It’s just the respect and the fact that I’ve done so much for this organization and in this community that the least I deserve is a little heads- up.

What were your initial thoughts on the trade to Memphis and your thoughts now?

I remember the last game I played in Memphis when I was with Boston. I was in the locker room and I’m talking with some of the ball boys and we’re just kind of joking around like, ‘What if I came to Memphis? That’d be crazy.’ Everything that I stand for, everything that the organization stands for, ‘Grind City,’ all this. And every time we would joke about it, ‘You’re a perfect fit for a team like Memphis.’ And then the next season I’m there.

So, it was kind of like manifesting itself. But I love it. I love everything about it. The organization is great. They do a good job of really tending to these guys and getting them better every day, but also allowing us to be ourselves and not take anything from that. That’s all you can ask for from an organization. They listen. Coach Taylor [Jenkins] does a good job. I know it’s tough right now on him. He’s playing the cards that he’s dealt, unfortunately. And he’s doing a good job keeping it composed and keeping us composed and not letting us freak out as well. So, the organization is great and it is what I expected from Memphis. And I’m happy to be here.

The Grizzlies had a young team void of veteran leadership last season. Do you think the Grizzlies brought in veterans like yourself and Derrick Rose to give guidance to Morant and the other young players?

I believe [so]. Just really having those guys to be there who have been there. Derek has been exactly where Ja is. He has been at the top and his name has been in the lights with everything that he went through. Adding me brings somebody who’s a fierce competitor and has been in the stages of the Eastern Conference finals and the Finals. I know what it takes to win, not win the whole thing, but knowing how it takes to get there, what it takes and understanding that it’s a battle. And we’re just giving our experience to these guys. They’re so talented and they work hard. They never had somebody that that’s done it or been in their situation to tell them how to move and go out here work every day as a professional on and off the court.”

What kind of impact did Ja have on the team during his absence?

He has done everything the league has asked, the team has asked and us as his teammates and coaches have asked. Even though he wasn’t playing with us, he’s been in our ears knowing the system, explaining to me Derrick and Biz [Bismack Biyombo] things that we don’t know. We are a new team and he knows he’s been here. He knows what Coach Taylor wants. And he is being that leader for these [returning] guys. They all grew up together as young guys and they look up to him and he understands that and knows that. And to be able to have his voice heard day in and day out, even though unfortunately he couldn’t be a part of the team the way he really wanted to, speak volumes.

Do you have to be careful not to be overbearing as a mentor?

No. No. That’s what I’m here for. I’m not here to sugarcoat anything. I’m not here to baby anybody. I’m here to be a professional and teach these guys how to do the same thing. I understand what it takes. Winning is hard. Winning and trying to get to where we want to get to is even harder. And it’s going to take a lot and you can’t be crying or worrying about feelings around here because, unfortunately, in the world and in this game nobody cares about your feelings. You have to go out there and prove it.

But at the same time, [there is] understanding when to lay it on thick and when to just talk. And that’s the beauty about me. I can do both and I have a really good feeling and [I’m] keen with that. But no, definitely not sugarcoating nothing here. That’s not what he [Morant] wants. That’s not what we want. He wants to be great and continue to push each other.

Have you and Ja had a deep conversation?

Yeah, we have talked. We literally just sat down and talked. It had nothing to really do with basketball. Just life. We understand how blessed we are to be able in this spot, to feed our families and to do it be the highest level to live out our dreams. And not only that. Never to take this s— for granted. Excuse my French. Never take this for granted because it can be gone at any second. He’s had to deal with that. He’s had a little taste of how it can be gone and to try not to let that happen again. We’ve had great talks. It’s been good to hear from him about how he feels about everything in his life and to see him still have a smile on his face.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (left) talks to Memphis Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart (right) before a game on Nov. 19, 2023, at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

What did you learn about the business of basketball when you found out you got traded?

I found out what I already knew. It’s a business, exactly that. And you can’t mix business and pleasure together. So that’s when you kind of get in trouble. We work too hard and we got to treat ourselves as a business. And you leave it at that.

You missed the game to injury when the Celtics game to Memphis on Nov. 19. Have you thought about your return to Boston to play the Celtics on Feb. 4 at TD Garden?

Feb. 4 is definitely on my list. I can’t wait to get back there to see those guys, see those fans in the Gardens and get on the court.

The Celtics fans loved you.

Yes, they did.

Was there anything any Celtics fans said to you after you were traded that really meant a lot?

Just the love they showed me when I got traded. I stayed in Boston because I was dealing with my house situation. I was out going to the outside park games in the city with the community. And I went to [Bell Biv DeVoe singer] Michael Bivins, one of his little fundraisers he did outside the park for a community basketball tournament. And he just stopped the whole game and the whole crowd just showed me love. And everywhere I went, everybody that has seen me, it was all love. And I think that speaks value about who I am as a player and as a person.

Do you think you will get emotional when you hear the fans response in Boston?

I’m sure I will. I’m letting that be a surprise of its own. But those fans are phenomenal there. When they love you, they love you. And I think that comes with just the history that Boston has of winning and they win and they love hard and they hate to lose. So, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the reaction from those fans.

The Celtics made the NBA Finals under then-first-year head coach Udoka in 2022 but he was suspended last season for what was deemed by the franchise as an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer. Udoka didn’t return and is now with the Houston Rockets. The Celtics lost in the second round of the NBA playoffs last year. How much did Udoka’s suspension and ultimate departure affect the Celtics players?

It definitely put a dent in us. We were on a high of making it [to the Finals] and coming up short. We we’re expecting after a full [season] under him to do this again and really get into it. And we just didn’t get that chance. And when you get a taste of something like that, it’s hard not to want it. And then when you don’t get it anymore it’s like, dang, what happened? What could have happened? What could we do? And it definitely put a dent in us.

But the beauty about this game is we’re professionals. We got to go out and play. So unfortunately, it happened, but we definitely learned a lot, from me, from Ime and what he brought in attention.

Did you talk to Tony Allen about playing for Memphis after his Boston days?

You know, I did. It’s just funny because of how things transpired with him kind of happened with me as well. Very similar. And that was something that we talked about. But definitely coming to the Memphis, the organization has welcomed me with open arms and showed me love.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.