Out on the wind-swept plains east of Greeley, Jason Smith grew up on desolate prairie lands, where he shot baskets into a rickety hoop nailed to the side of a house his father built.
Instead of a polished hardwood floor, Smith, now 19, pivoted on loose bits of gravel in his attempts to bag letters in games of "h-o-r-s-e" with family members.
"I lived out on a farm without any cable," Smith, the starting forward on CSU's basketball team, said in a recent interview while relaxing on a black leather chair at his girlfriend's condo. "Our court was nothing special, but it was the place where I grew up."
Basketball, he said, "became my life's entertainment."
It's not as if the now 7-footer didn't know organized basketball would be such a strong presence in his future, but he probably never imagined being an NBA prospect.
Inklings may have started by growing up in a home where the kitchen counters had to be custom-built high enough to strike most people in the chest.
It was probably a little clearer at Platte Valley High, where the combo forward-center was named "State Player of the Year" and "Most Outstanding Player" at the Colorado High School All-State game.
But even those barely conveyed the potential.
Smith received scholarship offers from Gonzaga University – home of some of the country's greatest basketball – and the University of Wyoming. Instead, he chose to enroll at Colorado State University to stay close to home, the tiny town of Kersey where his parents, Jack and Roberta, still live.
"I'm really close to my family," the brown-haired sophomore said. "I want them to see me play, see me succeed."
The game clock blares as the CSU men's basketball team walks off the court into the locker room after defeating Northern Colorado, 70-57, in the first game of the regular season in mid-November.
The players, including Smith, are all smiles. Those grins would eventually grow wider as the team progressed to a 7-1 record as of this week.
After a short meeting with coach Dale Layer, the players go their separate ways for the remainder of the evening. Many may hit the party scene, but not Jason.
The self-proclaimed "homebody" instead is sprawled on his king-sized bed, focusing on the team's next game.
In the UNC game, Smith scored a career-best 26 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked seven shots. Single-game achievements like those prompt Smith to call home – something he does often.
Born March 2, 1986 in a town of about 2,000 people, Smith said he remembers becoming interested in basketball around the age of seven.
Unlike many young college and professional athletes with war stories from the suburbs, Smith's youth was even-tempered and fun.
"My childhood was very good with lots of love in my family," Smith said. "But I still had to work hard to get where I am now."
While sandlot-style basketball started as a way to cure boredom, Smith grew eight inches between eighth and ninth grade, prompting him to try several sports.
"I was too skinny for football, and was told that I was too lengthy to run track," he recalled.
Ultimately, Smith remained loyal to the sport he believed would offer him the most rewards: basketball. And in addition to family loyalty, attending CSU was also part of a legacy. His parents are both CSU graduates.
Smooth as silk
In his first year at CSU, Smith was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year after averaging 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.
Current teammate Mike Harrison recalled Smith's first-season triumphs, and how Smith's nickname of "J-Smooth" came to be.
"I was watching Jason play and he made a move on the baseline that only a 6-foot guy could make," Harrison said. "I said 'That was smooth.'"
Smith continually strives to do his best, even when people may assume that a 7-footer will always be really good and really clumsy.
"I like proving people wrong," Smith said. "I am 7 feet tall but I'm just as agile as any other player. A big guy like me can move."
Off the court, Jason can be pretty smooth too.
Despite some initial reluctance, Smith admitted he was the best dancer at the Fort Collins home he shares with teammates Mike Harrison, Ryan Brown and Andrew Patterson. In fact, the star player has even taken his moves to a local dance club with his girlfriend.
"He's the goofy, comical boy-next-door," said Ashley Prothe, a sophomore speech communications major, who Smith has dated for more than a year.
A smiling Prothe recalled times when Smith was too loud in movie theaters or acted silly in public.
Goofiness aside, Prothe, who met Smith her freshman year in the dorms, said her boyfriend is "one of the most driven people I know."
To explain this, Smith describes his obsession with constantly maintaining the strength of his immune system – something that doesn't come without a price.
"A lot of people don't know that my protein shakes aren't very forgiving to my digestive system, or to my girlfriend," Smith said.
This is not to say there haven't been bumps.
Since arriving in Fort Collins, he's had three traffic citations and a nasty battle with mononucleosis.
These events are what Smith describes as strong reality checks in an environment that can often over-inflate egos or make players feel "untouchable."
Smith has emerged this season as a team leader, posting double-doubles in three consecutive games early on.
For his efforts, Smith was even named MWC Player of the Week after the Rams won their first three games of the season.
The progress hasn't come easy though. Smith compares his first season struggles to the 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
"Like Dirk, I struggled early on but have come back stronger every year. (Last season) was a learning experience because the team had injuries, and we didn't have enough leadership. We needed to improve in a lot of areas."
Although he admits to being shy at first, Smith believes the basketball court is the one place where he can truly be himself and unwind after something like a "horrible microeconomics class."
"I'm not a vocal leader, but I lead by example," Smith said. "I let my teammates know that I want to win and that I care about them."
Although a typical day during the basketball season is jammed with Smith attending classes and practices, he still makes time to be an active member of the community. In fact, he has previously volunteered to read to children at local schools.
"I tell little kids that I'm 5 feet 24 inches tall and they can't believe it," Smith said.
Smith also uses those visits to remind young people they shouldn't place all their hopes on athletics alone and that academics are even more important.
A business major with ambitions toward real estate sales, Smith strongly recognizes the need to excel in academics.
"My parents always stressed education first, and it's easier for me to focus on school this year now that I'm out of the dorms. I have fewer distractions," he said.
Paying attention to studies can't be easy when Web sites like NBADraft.net are predicting him to be selected eighth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. The prospect of being a pro has crossed Smith's mind, but he uses the thought to fuel his ambitions, rather than take it easy.
"My focus right now is CSU. I'm in the moment. Making the NBA is all about 'what-ifs' at this point, but it's definitely an accomplishment to be recognized," he said.
"If everything works out right, and if I have the opportunity, I'd probably enter the draft. I just want to play as long as I can. I love the game."
Head coach Layer said Smith may have what it takes to succeed in the big leagues, but must continue to work on his game.
"I think that anyone who sees Jason will realize he has great potential but he must continue to improve in order to have success at the next level," Layer said. "It is unusual to have a good skill set, great passion for the game, athleticism and versatility – all in a 7-foot frame. He has a chance to be special."
Smith's mother, Roberta, said during halftime of a recent home match against IUPUI that she is also aware of the NBA's interest in her son and the effort he needs to put forth.
"I think he will be (in the NBA) someday but he has a lot to work on," she said. "I'm definitely very proud of him."
Jason Smith knows the sky is the limit for his aspirations, yet he remains humble and grateful for his opportunities.
"Basketball has given me an education, and something I love to do," Smith said while still in that black leather chair. "I'm focused."