Smile Politely

The Reverend Lenzelle

I spent midday Thursday with the Reverend Lenzelle Smith, Sr., whose namesake dropped 4-of-8 three-pointers on Illinois Thursday night, en route to a 62-55 Buckeyes win.

We were traveling from Chicago, on the Megabus. We shared the lower table, while a trio of the whitest western state Campus Crusaders for Christ occupied the high table.

I gleaned a few interesting tidbits about college basketball from Lenzelle Sr., and might have learned more but for the ongoing, unoriginal drivel about evangelism that kept coming from the kids.

In the western states, especially the Mormon states, one encounters a fascinating breed of white people. They are exactly like their worldlier peers, except that they seem unaware of a world not thoroughly dominated by church and Jesus. This trinity of young whities, two bearded hipsters and a college-aged Future Someone’s Wife, looked just like any cigarette-smoking, fedora-topped busker or Etsy-obsessed buckle-shoed graphic design student.

If they grew up in Ohio, they would be buskers and a graphic design student. Like most young people, they are the product of their surroundings, and they don’t even know it.

I’m pretty sure one of the dudes did actually smoke cigarettes. That dude also rested his slushy road-salt whitened North Face or Timberland chukka boots on my armrest, stretching his legs out across the aisle and presenting me with two huge crusty soles. An ironic homophone, I couldn’t help thinking.

Total lack of respect for others’ personal space is not uncommon among missionaries, in my experience. In fact, it’s sort of the goal.

The Reverend Smith was far more conscientious. And despite the fact that he takes up a lot of space simply by being present, we had no trouble fitting and accommodating ourselves and our stuff for our six-hour cohabitation.

Lenzelle Sr. will be moving to the Dallas area, once Lenzelle Jr’s college basketball career is over. As far as I can tell, he’ll be staying in one place, and administering (or “ministering” if you prefer the simpler form) to a particular community. He asked whether overseeing a single congregation appealed to the smoker. “That’s a good question,” responded the Badly Drawn Boy, before embarking on paragraphs of meandering non-answer.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. was very nearly an Illini. He played AAU ball with Rayvonte Rice and Ben Brust, two other ballers who would have accepted scholarship offers from Illinois, had Bruce Weber & co. noticed their innate abilities. The Smith family made a few visits to Champaign, and the younger Lenzelle made a few more on his own.

He chose Ohio State, according to his father, when “Jereme and Crandall” got onboard the U of I train(wreck). “He wanted to be a part of building something, not a bunch of one-and-done’s.”

Given Thad Matta’s recruiting success over the last few years (notably when John Groce was his top assistant), it’s impossible to ignore the irony of preferring OSU to Illinois on the basis that Ohio State resists short-term superstars. Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos & BJ Mullens are the names I was able to recall without assistance from the Google. Jared Sullinger stayed for two years.

So I prefer to focus on those two names, Jereme and Crandall.

In the late naughties, offering scholarships to Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head seemed like a good idea to a lot of people who knew very little about Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head. To the Smith family, it was a deal-breaker. They knew plenty about Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head, especially Richmond, whose Waukegan High School is seven miles from Lenzelle’s Zion-Benton High.

If Jereme and Crandall were going to Illinois, Lenzelle Smith Jr. was not going to Illinois. That was that. Lenzelle Sr. said his one major piece of advice, as a parent, was something that all student-athletes should consider before choosing a school: Would you feel comfortable there, would you want to go there, if you were going only for school, and had no scholarship offer.

The minister is different from the evangelist. Asking people what they need > telling people what they need. But then again, some people don’t know what they need. In that case, what they need is guidance.

Interpolate these data into a single Illini basketball worldview, as subjective as they are, and you get a better understanding of John Groce’s vision of program-building. He wants guys like Michael Finke and Leron Black, whom he views as high-character & long-term. He also wants guys like Cliff Alexander, whose college gestation period will equally almost exactly the amount of time they spent in utero. But even with the Cliff Alexanders (whose character many people questioned after the Hat Trick) John Groce consistently speaks about his recruits personalities, He’s not just a great basketball player, he’s a great person.

The Illini media pool continues to marvel at Rayvonte Rice’s peacefulness, mellowness, calm, serenity … however you want to describe him as a person, in person. The contrast with his violent, tempestuous court-presence is day and night. 

Groce recruited Rice out of high school, remember. He’s known about Rice the player, and Rice the person, for over five years.

If Groce is able to lead the Illini out of the valley of the shadow of darkness, it will be because he’s able to identify great players, and symbiotic personalities; put them together in a way that accommodates their needs; and teach them the things they think they know already.

Jereme Richmond sits in a prison cell. Crandall Head is the eleventh man in Larry Brown’s ten-man rotation at SMU.

The buskers are venturing to Florida, where I have no doubt the smoker will learn even more pleasures of the flesh, and possibly realize that spreading The Word is, historically, bad for the native populations.

I’m ambivalent about my choice against evangelizing him. Perhaps if I’d had some whisky, some women and no responsibility to watch bad basketball.

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