Joshua Smith may be big and tall and loveable, the Panda Express, still smiling a shy smile at the tender age of 18, but that does not make him immune to pain.
He has grown even thicker skin because of the torrents of taunts that have been tossed his way, but it is a constant battle, and it’s about to get worse.
The UCLA freshman center, who hails from Kent, Wash., heads to Washington’s Hec Arena for the first time tomorow night. He’s anticipating a downpour of hatred from Husky fans who still think that the hulking center spurned them for the hated Bruins.
He’s seen it before, many times, especially the treatment of Seattle-born point guard Aaron Brooks, who became a star for the Oregon Ducks. UCLA fans have seen it before, too, in the accosting of Oregon-bred Kevin Love, who was vilified in his lone appearance in Eugene.
“I remember going to Oregon games when Aaron (Brooks) used to come back up and just how tough it was for him,” Smith said. “But it’s nothing to be scared of. … In their opinion, I’m a traitor, I’m this and I’m that. I made the decision that I thought was best for me, and I’m still sticking to it. I love it down here.”
Smith has grown accustomed to the heckling of opposing fans, but it’s taken some time.
Earlier this season he was roasted by USC fans at the Galen Center, heard chants of “Jenny Craig!” at Arizona and felt the brunt of criticism at Cal and Stanford.
Shylock had the right idea: If you prick him, does he not bleed? If you tickle him, does he not laugh? If you poison him, does he not die? And if you wrong him, shall he not revenge?
And revenge he has.
Smith has learned to channel the anger into production, as he has become one of the Pac-10′s most dominant big men in recent weeks.
Including his 17-point performance in UCLA’s 71-49 win over Arizona on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, Smith has scored in double-figures in 10-of-13 games for the streaking Bruins, who won 11 of those games, following a two-game slide to Washington and at USC.
It was in the loss to the Trojans on Jan. 9 that Smith snapped from the scoffing, waving a middle finger at a USC fan and lambasting the referees for what he perceived as ill treatment, an outburst that brought a public reprimand from the Pac-10.
“I remember the USC game pretty well; there was some dude who just kept talking and talking,” Smith said. “I really let it affect me. This won’t affect me at all. It’s just maturity. Fans are like that, they try to say whatever they can to get you under. On the road, all you should care about is the family and friends you have there, your teammates and your coaches. That’s all that matters.”
Howland needed to have a talk with his gifted but fragile center after that game, and it’s been relatively smooth sailing since then. Smith has mentioned the foul issues less and less – perhaps not coincidentally, he has four-or-more fouls in just three of his last 12 games – and he seems to be tuning fans out better.
“I’ve talked to him a little bit already,” Howland said. “He’s had some inappropriate things hurled at him on the road already at a number of places we’ve been to. This is the last two regular season games of the year, and he’s going home. He’s got a lot of friends and family in the Seattle area. He’s a big deal, both figuratively and literally.”
Only one thing concerns Smith as he braces himself for what is sure to be a hurricane of jeers.
“The last thing I need is to look up there and see my mom trying to tell the whole student section to shut up,” Smith joked on Tuesday.