Sunday, May 19, 2024

In the Cards: Men’s basketball becomes family affair: Love-Smith and Williams, Cardinals since youth, now get their shot

(From left to right) Volunteer Assistant Coach Travis Gorham, AJ Williams Jr., Jeremiah Love-Smith and Ikechukwu Ezike sit on the Plattsburgh home bench in the Memorial Gym Dec. 6.

 

By Collin Bolebruch

Team chemistry is something that’s earned through conflict, resolution and hard work. For Plattsburgh Cardinals’ men’s basketball, this year’s squad has been in the works for almost 20 years.

Curtis Smith and Anthony Williams are two of the most decorated members in the program’s history, and have been friends since high school in Brooklyn, New York.

Smith, who played from 2003 to 2005, earned All-SUNYAC and All-Region selections and finished sixth in all-time program steals. 

Williams, who played from 2005 to 2008, led the team to three-straight SUNYAC Championships and earned All-American and East Region Player of the Year honors. 

Both are in the Plattsburgh State Athletics Hall of Fame.

While they never shared the court at Plattsburgh, the two developed a strong relationship, akin to brothers when Smith student-coached in 2005-06.

Now, their sons — Jeremiah Love-Smith and AJ Williams Jr. — wear Cardinal red.

“It’s going to be a lot of pressure, living up to the standards,” AJ said. “They laid that down. They gave us the opportunity.”

 

By Collin Bolebruch

AJ Williams Jr. holding the SUNYAC Championship trophy.

 

EARLY YEARS

Curtis and Anthony were both fathers in college. Jeremiah and AJ were on campus, around the team and surrounded by good role models early in their lives. Anthony’s proud they were able to expose their sons to what they achieved.

“It’s not easy being a young father, to know what’s out there, and all of the distractions and obstacles young Black men have to overcome,” Anthony said. “To them, in [AJ and Jeremiah’s] mind, college was just something you were supposed to do. It was something we dreamed of when we was that age.”

The kids became familiar with their fathers’ teammates and then-Head Coach Tom Curle. AJ was always at the Curle household, becoming “another grandchild” to Tom. AJ and Jeremiah played basketball together in the Curle driveway. They’ve been friends since they were toddlers.

Their experiences as children didn’t immediately guide them to basketball.

AJ’s first sport was baseball. He played tee-ball early on in Plattsburgh. AJ was so committed, it was nearly his college sport. Watching Anthony and his uncle, Edwin Ubiles, a former NBA star, play basketball was a major influence in trying out the sport. He played both through high school, and Curtis coached him in junior varsity.

Curtis, of course, shared his expertise with Jeremiah, too. His son didn’t immediately click with basketball.

“It was already instilled in me that I was going to play ball,” Jeremiah said. “But he never forced me to play basketball. Never. Ever.”

Curtis let Jeremiah find his love for the sport on his own.

“I never wanted it to be my situation where I lived through my child,” Curtis said.

Jeremiah learned how to play every position on the court, becoming a jack-of-all-trades, learning the court inside and out and playing “the right way.” With tough competition in New York, he became a defensive player.

“He had to earn his minutes,” Curtis said. “His mother had the nerve to call me and say, ‘He only played five to seven minutes?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s a freshman.’”

AJ and Jeremiah also learned from each other. The boys played in summer league games through high school, coached by Curtis, to hone their skills. The game strengthened their bond and gave each other a second sense of how they played.

“We go to war together. It was great memories, we won a lot of tournaments,” AJ said. “We always had chemistry.”

During AJ and Jeremiah’s school years, they met Ikechukwu Ezike. Ike didn’t play high school basketball until he was a junior, but he played on their summer team. He became a close friend to both and a teammate of AJ on varsity.

 

IN THE CARDS

Plattsburgh Head Coach Mike Blaine attended multiple of AJ and Ike’s games. Blaine and AJ had discussions about coming to Plattsburgh, but AJ still had choices in Oneonta and Hartwick. Anthony had no bearing over his decision to commit to the North Country.

“College was a non-negotiable,” Anthony said. “It was AJ’s decision. Nobody wanted to sway him one way or another.”

Jeremiah was also recruited by Blaine out of high school. Originally, college hoops wasn’t the route for him. He committed to joining the Marine Corps. After his boot camp report date kept getting pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he retracted his name.

Jeremiah committed to play at Jefferson Community College, Curtis’ alma mater, for the 2021-22 season. There, he got his footing, and learned how to become a better basketball player.

“I think he plays with an excellent motor. He does a really great job competing with high energy at all times,” Blaine said. “He’s an excellent passer. He does a great job delivering the balls to teammates and creating opportunities for others.”

In his second year, 2022-23, he recruited Ike from Cayuga Community College, and they became teammates once again.

The same season, AJ arrived in Plattsburgh. He saw his first game action against New Paltz December 2022, finally donning the same jersey he saw his father wear.

“That was the dream. That was everything. That was like cutting down the net at the SUNYAC Championship,” Anthony said. “When I’m playing, when I’m working out, in my mind, I’m winning a championship. But you can’t plan that, and you can’t plan your son.”

Jeremiah and Ike decided 2023-24 was the right time to make the jump to the NCAA. While Ike considered Brockport, and Jeremiah talked to other schools, Plattsburgh felt right. It did to Curtis, too.

“It touched me. It really touched me,” Curtis said. “It was so surreal. My son is really in the same position I was in 20-something years ago.”

 

By Collin Bolebruch

Curtis and Jeremiah Smith during  alumni weekend 2023.

 

BIG PICTURE

AJ, Jeremiah and Ike live in a suite on-campus together. Being college teammates has only helped them grow tighter on and off the court, just as it did with their fathers.

“We’re family. I don’t ever call them my friends not no more,” Jeremiah said.

The boys’ long-term connection has only benefited the team. Making up three of 16 roster spots this season, their unspoken chemistry on the court and competitive nature in practice has kicked the team up a gear.

“We’re very fortunate in that regard,” Blaine said. “That’s made things a little bit easier in terms of adjustments and building those connections across the roster.”

Travis Gorham, Plattsburgh ‘09 alumnus and Hall of Famer, played with Anthony and was coached by Curtis during his tenure with the program. Today, he’s a volunteer assistant coach for Plattsburgh, guiding AJ and Jeremiah to greatness. He’s a bridge between eras.

The team has a strong, proud alumni network cultivated through team success and a positive environment. It still benefits the team today.

“We want to continue to tap into the great work that our men’s basketball alums are doing after graduation,” Blaine said. “These guys know that when they come to join our program, they are walking into a network, walking into a family.”

Most importantly, it benefits its players and individual lives. AJ, Jeremiah and the Cardinals have a long road ahead of themselves going into SUNYAC play this year. Whether they win out or never play a game again, they’re set for life.

“Although we played, and basketball was our ticket out, we didn’t work this hard for basketball to be the only option our kids have,” Anthony said. “I’m already proud of his reality. His obstacles is different from mine.”

Curtis is on the same page.

“I’m so proud of him. It hasn’t been an easy journey. I am hard on my son because I know it’s a cold world out there,” Curtis said. “I see college as a safety net from the realities. I just want him to be the best in why he’s there.”

 

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