CHARLOTTE — Ikenna Smart left Nigeria as a 16-year-old who had never played basketball.
Now he’s wrapping up his career as a 23-year-old who’s had his life partially formed by it.
Wake Forest’s 6-10, 245-pound center is from Umuahia, Nigeria. He came to the United States without ever having touched a basketball, and in three years of high school at New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, earned a scholarship to Buffalo. Smart graduated from there with a degree in geography and international trade and transferred to Wake Forest for his final season.
Those last two words have more meaning for Smart. Whereas this is the “final season” of college basketball for seniors Luke Maye of North Carolina and Marcquise Reed of Clemson at this week’s ACC Tournament, they’ve got futures in basketball.
“I’m going to take this summer and reflect on what I want to do. Definitely this year will be it for me, for basketball, due to issues with my back,” Smart said. “I’ve battled back injuries, pretty much, for a while now. So I’ve gotta make the right decision to be able to transition to something else.
“I think this summer I’m going to take some time off and reflect on what I can do, besides basketball.”
Smart is averaging 2.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game this season — both the lowest totals of his career. It’s obvious NBA and other professional teams aren’t knocking down the door for him.
But what makes this ending — whether it comes in Wake Forest’s first-round game against Miami on Tuesday or otherwise — an actual ending instead of merely a transition to the next stage of his basketball is that doctors have advised Smart to stop playing basketball past this season.
Smart underwent back surgery that delayed the start of his final season at Buffalo. It’s an injury that has continued to limit him this season, and he’s missed four games because of it.
“This year has been really the hardest, seeing doctors and getting feedback from them really helped me envision what I can do and what I can’t do,” Smart said. “It’s clear for me that this will be it for basketball.”
For lack of a better term, Smart will do the smart thing and shut himself down. He said he’ll try to shoot a basketball every now and then and won’t quit the game cold turkey, but that organized basketball doesn’t seem to be in his future.
Playing in adult or recreational leagues interests him — but that’s all it is at this point, an interest that could or couldn’t be followed up.
“It’s tough. When I was a child coming to America, I had a dream of, you know, playing professionally, making money,” Smart said. “And then when I hurt my back, I thought, ‘OK, it’s just one back injury. You’re going to get through this.’”
If the optimist in Smart is gone, it doesn’t show in his deep voice. Twice in the past three days, Smart has remarked at how well the Deacons have played in losses to Duke and Florida State and that this team has finally hit a stride.
Ikenna Smart will play Senior Day today at Wake Forest, and it's the first time that his parents, Pastor Smart and Comfort Amaobi, will see him play ... ever.— Conor O'Neill (@ConorONeillWSJ) March 9, 2019
Smart’s parents, Pastor Smart and Comfort Amaobi, are on their first trip to America and have been here to see it. They were in Charleston, S.C., on Monday night to see College of Charleston play in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament because Smart’s brother, Osinachi Smart, is a sophomore forward for the Cougars.
It’s the first time that Ikenna Smart’s parents have even seen him play basketball in person. He was — as tends to be the case for basketball players from Africa — a soccer player first.
“You think about soccer, it’s the No. 1 sport in Africa, right? So every kid — it’s just like basketball here, most kids in middle school play some type of recreational basketball game,” Smart said. “They don’t have to be organized, but that’s how it is in Nigeria, we play soccer.”
Ikenna Smart’s host parents when he came to the U.S. were Nick and Cinda Purrington, who have become family to Smart. They're traveling with Smart's biological parents as they bounce from league tournament to league tournament.
“I stayed with the host family for about seven years, and they’re also my family,” Smart said. “They’ve really taken me in and my younger brother, they’ve really treated us like their own children, and that’s my family too. So it’s good to see both families (unite) for the first time.”
On Senior Day, Ikenna Smart was joined by his biological parents, his host parents and his wife — Jillian Smart, a former rowing team member at Buffalo.
“Ikenna has only been here for a year, but he’s got a presence on our team, he brings something to our program that is very unique, in the sense of he’s a graduate and he’s married,” Coach Danny Manning said. “And it just brings a different perspective on life to our team, to our players.”
Now at the end of his basketball career, Smart played at a venue where he had something of a breakout performance as a redshirt freshman at Buffalo.
That place just happened to be Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Smart scored six points and grabbed nine rebounds as a redshirt freshman for Buffalo on Dec. 5, 2015. Those totals matched his season-highs through the first eight games of his collegiate career.
He matched the scoring total when the Deacons went to Duke last week and upped the rebound total by one — that being the only double-digit rebound performance he’s had this season.
“I love playing at Duke. The atmosphere there is phenomenal. A standing student section, a fan base, just the energy — even though you think the home team will feed off of the energy, I think the (road) team should also feed off the energy,” Smart said. “I had a good game there (as a redshirt freshman) and I was like, ‘If I can do that as a freshman, I should be able to do that again.’
“I had the mindset going into that game that I was going to do it again.”
The 27 minutes he played in Wake Forest’s one-point loss is most of any game in Smart’s career, at either Wake Forest or Buffalo.
“Leaving Buffalo was a decision I made just to come here and be around my family and I love this program, so I’m just going to give it all I’ve got and try to soak it all in and enjoy the process,” Smart said.
As the Deacons are playing out the end of their season, Smart is playing out the end of his career and pouring out everything he has.
After all, there’s no point in saving it.