Josh Smith stood and talked softly into his chest, barely audible to this author's ears. He talked about playing in his hometown, how he hoped to improve with Mike Woodson and Billy Knight and how excited he was to be in the NBA.
From that time, at 19 years old in the Philips Arena practice court, he was already being told what he didn't do. Jay Bilas of ESPN famously said that, of all the players taken in the first round, Josh Smith was most likely to be a bust, even as merely the 17th pick.
It was said he didn't try all the time, he had no right hand and all he could do was run and dunk. Maybe these were fair critiques, but it was all you heard. It was as if his gifts were so great, they weren't worth mentioning. Only eliminating the flaws mattered.
Over the years, Smith improved and he never stopped working. Whether in the early years, working with Larry Brown's brother, Herb, on post moves or spending his summers trying to improve something specific. One year he worked with Hakeem Olajuwon, another year it was slimming down his physique. Smith never rested on getting better.
On the court, Smith continued to grow as well, establishing himself as one of the key pieces to a rising team, one that improved its win total every year since Smith's rookie year through his sixth. He was an efficient, productive big and was all Atlanta, from Atlanta, for Atlanta. He grew up listening to Steve Holman on the radio and now, there Steve was, calling Josh's name.
But for all the work, all the love for the hometown, something was missing.
He continued to drive to prove himself to everybody. From that very first day, the voice and echoes of critics like Bilas driving in his ears, he wanted to prove himself to Atlanta, the Hawks and to the NBA.
As a restricted free agent, he was stung at the cold, business-like manner in which his free agency was handled by the team. While his teammate, Josh Childress, got fed up and left for Greece, Josh and his agents eventually, months after free agency began, got an offer from the Memphis Grizzlies. While the Hawks quickly matched and announced that they were going to match all along, Josh didn't feel that the team showed that he was important, that his work hadn't been noticed.
In 2009, the coaching staff told Smith to stop shooting threes and focus on defense and he would make his first all-star game, a carrot Smith wanted dearly.
So Josh took that challenge from the coaching staff, hoping to do the good work that would earn him that respect. The team was winning and Smith was having his best season ever when the All-Star break rolled around. The Hawks were in the midst of what would be their finest season under Woodson and Smith was a large reason why.
At age 24, Smith was having what might have been his best season. While he was still taking long jump shots at times, there were few three-pointers, as requested. His defense was such there was an outside chance he would be considered with Dwight Howard as Defensive Player of the Year.
Surely this would be the year the coaches would take him to the All-Star game. But when the time came, Gerald Wallace was selected over him. Smith was stung and hurt by this. Smith felt as if the team and the league didn't support him. With the Hawks playing a very slow pace, Smith's counting statistics, often looked at by coaches to determine worth, were deflated. That nobody ever launched any kind of campaign to raise awareness for Smith was noticed. At the end of the year, Wallace again beat him out, this time for All-Defense, another individual award and recognition that eluded Smith.
That might have been the turning point for Smith. From that point, the level of productivity waned and the three point shots re-appeared. That Smith chose to re-launch his own campaign to take outside shots is, and was, his own choosing, his own self-immolating actions. No excuse for those resides in this farewell.
As such, Smith was routinely mocked nationally for taking these shots, as if you couldn't say the name Josh Smith without cracking on his shooting. Even the hometown fans got into the game by groaning openly whenever Smith wound up, no matter the situation.
There was no such equal time for the assets of his game: Finishing inside, the passing, help defense and, later, on ball defense. As the Hawks always seemed to have a negative stigma about them nationally, so too had Smith his scarlet letter. The adulation and recognition for being a top player in the NBA looked as if it would not come while in Atlanta.
Even when Al Horford, the can't-do-wrong of the Hawks who got all the respect and love from the league and team that he never got, got hurt, and Smith carried the Hawks into the playoffs in 2012 without him, grinding his own self down to jelly, there were few national attaboys or local hosannas for him to enjoy.
All the while, Smith maintained a professional profile with the media, fans and the city of Atlanta. Where Joe Johnson was the highly-paid All-Star, he eschewed being the face of the franchise. But there was Josh to be that for the team, always answering questions, being accountable even when some of his older teammates didn't want to be.
There were some run-ins with Woodson, and later Drew, and after those times he accepted the consequences without protest. He wasn't a coach-killer as sometimes he was accused of being, unless taking bad shots is a coach-killing action. If that's the case, there is a league full of those types of coach-killers.
This season he handled his pending free agency, and the first time he might have been traded at the trade deadline, professionally. But it ended up being his worst season since 2008-2009.
Josh has been looked at and defined for the wart on his game rather than the beauty the rest of it provides. It guides exaggeration and leads some to declare he is not the level of player he actually is.
I wish that to be different for him in Detroit. I wish that Pistons fans can watch the game and laud the good he brings. I wish that Josh would trust again and complete the journey to be the best Josh Smith he can be on the court, playing efficient basketball and making an All-Star team.
For nine years, a lot of us wished it could have happened here. It didn't. He was maddeningly exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. Sometimes during the same play. In the end, we never truly got to celebrate with him.
But what he did as an Atlanta Hawk was special. A hometown guy, a 17th pick with no handle, no right hand and a probable bust played 676 games, scored 10,371 points and blocked 1,440 shots wearing the franchise's colors.
It's arguable that he is the best draft pick the Atlanta Hawks have ever had. The temptation for Hawks fans would be to see is as an indictment of the franchise than an achievement of Josh Smith. Alas.
From this seat, Josh Smith provided an amazing amount of quality basketball to the Atlanta Hawks and its fans.
Nine years, from ages 19 to 27. So much growth, so much life and career. I have much respect for all the work he did to get as good as he got. I hope he finds acceptance and completion in proving himself to the Pistons, the league and himself.
I wish the best for Josh, in Detroit and the rest of his NBA career --- and to say, thank you.