The parting words are not what you might expect from college basketball teammates. On this January afternoon Oklahoma State freshmen Marcus Smart and Phil Forte are lounging in a windowless office in the winding innards of Gallagher-Iba Arena, regaling a visitor with stories about their adolescence, Smart's prankster streak and the origins of their 10-year friendship. But now Forte notices the time and realizes that he'd better set out quickly on the seven-minute trek to his 12:30 p.m. Teachings of Jesus class. "Love you," he tells Smart on his way out.
"We say that and mean it and don't think anything of it," Forte had said earlier. He and Smart, he explains, are "just like family."
"They're as close as any two players I've been around without being blood-related," says Cowboys coach Travis Ford, who should know. On the court he has been the beneficiary of this love as No. 15 OSU has shaken off its first losing season in 24 years and turned into a contender. Ford has seen Forte, the shooting guard, become a three-point threat; he's averaging 11.0 points while hitting 34.5% from deep, and he scored 26 in a Jan. 26 outburst against West Virginia. And the coach has watched the versatile Smart become the only power conference player in the country to rank in his conference's top 20 in points (15.0, fifth), assists (4.3, sixth), rebounds (5.7, 16th), steals (2.9, first) and blocks (0.8, 17th).
At 6'4" and 225 pounds, Smart is quick enough to lock down All-ACC guards such as N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown, who had seven turnovers and only six points in a 20-point loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 18, and he's sturdy enough to have muscled eight offensive rebounds in OSU's Feb. 2 upset of then No. 2 Kansas. "There's nobody on the court he can't guard," says Ford.
"When you have your best player out there diving on the floor, leading with his voice and by example," says Forte of his close friend's winning traits, "it's really easy to follow him."
But, then, this isn't a story about following.
IT STARTED WITH a slap.
Maybe Marcus deserved it. After all, he had been pestering Phil, his AAU teammate, during a tournament in Memphis eight years ago—typical fifth-grade stuff, really. But Marcus certainly didn't expect the slap, not from the runt of Team Texas, a relatively quiet shooting specialist who stood six inches shorter than Marcus and was affectionately known to team mothers as White Chocolate.
So when the 12-year-old Phil reached his breaking point and smacked his tormentor across the face in an elevator at their team hotel, Marcus was taken aback. This encounter could have gone one of two ways, but Marcus took the high road, his shock quickly turning into respect. "That showed me that he's not scared of anything," Smart recalls. "I knew, when we play on the court, he's somebody who will have my back."
It always came back to the court, the place where Marcus and Phil had met two years earlier, after Rick Roberts brought them into the fold of his AAU team. Marcus was the youngest of four basketball-playing brothers, a kid who'd learned the game in no-blood-no-foul scraps against his brother Michael, nearly 10 years older, on the family's backyard court in DeSoto, a suburb of Dallas, and from watching and dissecting the game with Todd (25 years his senior) and Jeff (24). Marcus was the rare high-motor grade-schooler capable of defending from sideline to sideline in a 1-3-1 press, so Roberts scooped him up. Phil came on board through his father, former Kansas defensive lineman Phil Forte Sr., who'd sought out Roberts in hopes of finding stronger competition for his son than was offered in his family's suburban Dallas hometown of Flower Mound.
As teammates the boys quickly forged a rapport. Phil learned to predict Marcus's cuts to the hole; Marcus found Phil on the wing so frequently that Phil's parents learned a tell: A glance to the left tipped off a quick dish to their son on the right. And as hoops brought them together, their social differences bounced away. "It's a beautiful relationship," says Marcus's mother, Camellia. "It was never like, Oh, I'm this little rich kid and you're over there across the tracks."
As the boys were shepherded across the country for tournaments, they found in one another relentlessly competitive kindred spirits. Holed up in hotels after curfew, they battled for hours on Phil's Xbox, and back in Dallas, between sleepovers, they worried Phil's mother, Julie, as they dueled one-on-one on the hoop in the Fortes' backyard pool. Then came Putt-Putt golf, go-karts, tennis—"anything they could compete in," remembers Phil Sr.
"It'd start out fun," Phil Jr. says now, "and by the end of the day whoever lost was just pissed."
The more time Marcus spent at the Fortes', the more Camellia Smart dreamed of a permanent escape from the dark influences present in the south Dallas area. She'd seen her son Michael's life derailed by the Bloods he ran with and by a cocaine binge that sent him to the hospital. He'd eventually cleaned up and quit dealing drugs, but when Marcus got into fights and was sent to an alternative school in sixth grade, the thought that a second son would slip through the cracks was too much for Camellia. When Big Phil suggested moving the Smarts into a home that he owned in Flower Mound, Camellia jumped at it.
The relocation would trigger an eligibility investigation—Phil Sr., who was a booster at Marcus High (where his son was going to school), charged the Smarts a less-than-market-value rent—but no violations were found. And united in Flower Mound, the families further meshed. Marcus razzed Phil's younger sister, Courtney, and told teachers at Marcus High, where he'd enrolled, that she was kin; Phil Sr. turned up at parent-teacher conferences on Marcus's behalf when Camellia and her husband, Billy Frank Smart, couldn't make it; and Camellia told strangers in the stands at basketball games that she had two sons on the floor, delighting in their confusion when she identified them by jersey number.
On Christmas morning each year the Fortes would head to the Smarts' home to share gifts. Phil and Courtney were saddened by their hosts' lack of a tree, and they drew perspective from the way the Smarts dealt with Todd's death from cancer in 2004. "My kids never said, 'No, sir; yes, sir' until they heard Marcus saying that," says Phil Sr. "Everyone talks about how Marcus got a better education [in Flower Mound.] We were educated too."
Meanwhile, under Marcus High's new coach, Danny Henderson, the boys flourished in the 10th grade. Phil, ripping through daily 600-make shooting routines, showed signs of the over-the-top drive that had helped his father become Kansas' alltime sacks leader. (Once, in eighth grade, Phil took jumpers on one side of a gym while a school dance carried on behind him.) And Marcus lifted pieces of his brothers' games—Todd's creative scoring, Jeff's dogged defense, Michael's deft passing—to become his family's most complete player.
For Henderson, open-gym sessions were at first confounding as the boys, compadres off the court, often went at each other with such fervor that he feared they would come to blows. "I thought it was going to happen many times," Henderson says. "But the second practice was over, they were in the same car together, and they were putting up shots later that night. Because of their intensity, everyone else on the team fell in line."
Example set, Marcus High soared. As sophomore starters Marcus and Phil led a run to the state 5A semis; as juniors and seniors they won back-to-back state championships. After last spring's title game, Fox Sports cameras lingered on Marcus, who'd been named MVP of the 2011 final, expecting that his name would be called again. When the P.A. announcer read Phil's name as the '12 winner, there was no trace of the cutthroat competition that had defined their friendship, none of the sulking that had accompanied their kickball battles—just a loving bear hug. It was as Henderson had always told his team: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Together, Smart and Forte have come to a sparsely decorated two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a balcony on the north side of Oklahoma State's campus. It's the site of contests both old (FIFA and NBA 2K13 on Xbox 360) and new (Smart raising the thermostat; Forte lowering it). Their quarters are closer than ever, but their social lives suggest independence. These days Smart might return home from playing Call of Duty with fellow Cowboy Le'Bryan Nash only to discover that Forte is out plastering freshman teammate Ford Stuen's Lincoln Navigator with Post-It notes. "In high school all we did was hang out with each other," says Smart. "Once we got here it was like, Let's branch out."
Though Smart and Forte joined the Pokes in tandem, theirs was not the typical package deal in which a school brings on a less-heralded recruit—in this case Forte, a mere three-star prospect—to land his five-star buddy. While other coaches might have viewed Forte as recruiting bait who would struggle defending D-I players, Ford saw a worthy heir to graduating OSU sharpshooter Keiton Page. On the pair's official visit to Stillwater, Ford whisked Forte away for a private tour, only later admitting that the Cowboys faced an uphill battle against Smart's offers from blue bloods such as North Carolina and Kansas. That honesty, in conjunction with Ford's enthusiasm for Forte, impressed Smart, and the boys mutually decided that Oklahoma State was their best fit. The school that most treated them as individuals would be awarded the pair.
Now Forte is rewarding Ford's faith, displaying on-court magnetism with Smart that inspires FRESHMAN TELEPATHY graphics on ESPN broadcasts and defending in ways that many recruiters would never have thought possible. Forte averages 1.4 steals (seventh in the Big 12) on the nation's 10th-most-efficient unit. "I always knew he would be a big part of this team," says Ford. "Physically, he came as ready as any player I've ever coached as a freshman."
Back at the apartment, tacked to the wall opposite standard-issue Ali and Jordan posters, are three blown-up stills snapped at Marcus High: images of the school's spectators and of team huddles. Next to those hangs a larger framed image. In the foreground Smart is seated on the bench, head hung in prayer, and in the background Forte runs through his teammates' high-five gantlet. The same poster is in Camellia's living room, adjacent to a fireplace covered with her youngest son's trophies, scrapbooks and souvenir basketballs. And the poster is in the living room of Phil Sr., which is so overrun with his two children's athletic mementos—Courtney will play soccer at Oklahoma next year—that he hangs medals from a chandelier.
But how long will Marcus and Phil continue racking up prizes together? NBA draftniks have Smart pegged as a 2013 lottery selection. And while Camellia bristles at the possibility that her son will leave school early ("I want that degree," she says), Phil has no qualms about the possibility of Marcus's ending their long run together.
Smart says he pays such things little mind, calling the NBA "overwhelming" and "a dream." He is more concerned with the now: setting off smoke bombs in teammates' doorways, cranking the heat when Forte leaves the apartment frigid, getting Oklahoma State its first NCAA tournament win in four years.
But the goodbye will come. And whenever that happens, Smart will know exactly what to say.
As hoops brought them together, their social differences bounced away.
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A Western Conference scout sizes up Smart
"If he could shoot he would be the Number 1 pick. He's 18, but he has an NBA body already, and he knows how to use it. He gets into the paint, absorbs contact and can finish. There is some Derrick Rose in his game. People say he is a good teammate, a good leader—exactly what you want to hear about your point guard. Defensively, he's not especially quick, but he fights through picks and is a tough guy to get around. This guy has the potential to be a big-time star."
Chris Mannix analyzes the players projected to be first off the NBA draft board in June
Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
The 6'5" freshman has been called a more athletic Ray Allen. With prototypical two guard size, he combines a feathery jump shot with the speed, handle and power to get in the paint and score. Says an assistant G.M., "He's a cold-blooded stud."
Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV
Scouts believe the 6'8" Bennett, a solid three-point shooter (37.2% at week's end), will thrive at either forward spot. He's a natural scorer with a surprisingly polished ability to deliver from the outside, off the dribble and in the paint.
Nerlens Noel, PF, Kentucky
The 6'10" freshman has always been billed as a project, so his season-ending injury (torn left ACL) likely won't stop a team from taking him this high. A defensive menace with natural shot-blocking instincts, Noel has won over scouts with his nonstop motor.
Alex Len, C, Maryland
The rugged 7'1" 255-pounder is an NBA-ready defender and rebounder, with a surprisingly soft touch around the rim. League execs believe his offense will get better, too: "In the NBA he'll get to the line," a G.M. says. "They don't call any fouls on big men in college."
Shabazz Muhammad, SG, UCLA
The heavily hyped Bruin is the draft's most tantalizing talent. Teams like his raw tools and see a 20-point NBA scorer encased in the freshman's 6'6", 225-pound frame. "When he goes left, he's the Number 1 pick," says a G.M. "When he goes right, he is 10 to 15."
PETER G. AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES (SMART)
PACKAGE DEAL Friends and teammates for a decade, Smart brought leadership and all-around skills to Stillwater while Forte (13) is a deadly three-point threat. Their run will be limited if Smart leaves for the NBA this summer.
ERIC GAY/AP (FORTE)
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO