Ray Smith on Thursday ended an Arizona basketball career that was bookended by ACL tears without a single regular-season appearance, but one that overflowed with effort and thankfulness.
The Wildcats’ redshirt freshman forward announced on Twitter that he would retire from basketball, just 10 minutes after UA confirmed he had suffered his third ACL tear in 28 months on Tuesday during an exhibition game with the College of Idaho.
Smith, who also suffered other ligament and meniscal damage Tuesday, first tore his left ACL as a rising high school senior in July 2014, just three days before he committed to the Wildcats.
Smith then tore his right ACL in practice in late October 2015, forcing him to miss all of last season. This year, Smith practiced for just over a month before he re-injured the right ACL on Tuesday.
A UA statement Thursday said only that Smith would miss the season and begin rehabilitating after surgery later this month, but Smith’s Twitter statement put a permanent and philosophical end to it all.
“I love the game of basketball but I have decided to step away from the game for good,” Smith said while also thanking fans, coaches, teammates and staffers. “I will still be involved with the team and I will still attend the University of Arizona. … But the 6-8 long athletic wing that can play multiple positions is out.”
Smith played 10 minutes Tuesday, having left the McKale Center floor twice before blowing out his knee, with the first time appearing to have a minor ankle issue and the second time for unclear reasons.
UA coach Sean Miller said Smith might have been simply “on edge” but was cleared to return, and Smith did both times.
But when Smith went down for a third time, midway through the second half of UA’s blowout win, he crumpled near the basket and signaled for help with a throat-cutting motion.
“In the 25 years I have been a college basketball coach, I have never felt as helpless as I did when I saw him go down on Tuesday night,” Miller said in a statement. “No 19-year-old kid should have to experience three season-ending injuries in a 30-month period of time. I have watched Ray work with our strength and conditioning coach tirelessly for two years. I have seen him in our training room around the clock, doing everything he can to play the game he loves. To witness his extraordinary efforts and see this happen to him once again is beyond disheartening.”
The loss of Smith also takes a permanent layer away from UA’s thin roster. The Wildcats have only nine healthy and eligible scholarship players left and two of them, guard Allonzo Trier (pending eligibility issue) and center Chance Comanche (academic suspension) are currently inactive.
UA declined the Star’s requests to speak with medical or athletic training staff about Smith on Thursday. But it was clear that Smith was fighting long odds in an effort to return to floor, and to the level that made him a five-star prospect in the high school class of 2015, a projected NBA draft pick who had prototypical size and skills of a professional small forward.
Yet when Smith appeared at UA’s media day on Sept. 29, he spoke confidently about his return, noting that he posted a 40-inch vertical that day that was the same height he reached a year earlier.
“A lot of mental problems with ACL tears is that people don’t trust their leg and what they tend to do is baby it, and they’ll hurt themselves,” Smith said then. “I’ve done things so hard that just being on the court is not even the scariest thing. It’s not one bit of scary.”
Smith said he believed that some ACL tears were simply a result of genetics while also noting that one ACL tear can lead to an ACL tear on the other knee. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says 10.5 percent of high-level male athletes suffer an opposite leg injury within 24 months of an ACL reconstruction.
That the ACL he tore this time was the same one he tore a year ago may have been inconsequential: The bottom line was that Smith’s career was in jeopardy, and hearts ached all around him.
Yet Smith, while expressing deep thanks to supporters, basically told everyone to stop.
“Sometimes in life all you can do is the best that you can do,” he said in beginning his statement. “I have worked hard to be able to be an official college basketball player. But as many people know, I have been injured for multiple times in a row. This is not a letter to be sorrowful about because when I look at the opportunities basketball has provided to me, I am grateful.”
Smith may have more opportunity yet in the game. Smith retweeted a UA fan who asked if he’ll “move into coaching?” and, during UA’s preseason media day, Smith spoke of how much he learned from a coach’s perspective while sitting on the bench last season.
“Being able to see the game at a level that many freshmen don’t get to see … (shows) how important the little things are,” Smith said. “There’s a sense of defensive schemes and tasks I feel like I have that in my back pocket just because of what I’ve been watching all year.”
Whatever Smith decides to do, though, it’s clear Miller and the Wildcats will be sitting firmly in his corner.
“Ray is surrounded by a community that loves Arizona basketball, current and former teammates that look at him as a brother, and a coaching staff and family that is beyond supportive and forever with him,” Miller said in his statement. “Although the mountain that Ray is climbing continues to change, my belief in him to be a resounding success in life has never been stronger. His intelligence, charisma and sheer will position him to be special in all that he does. I certainly look forward to helping him, as part of our basketball family, reach all of the goals that he sets out to achieve.”