For a player who’d been part of just 18 official victories over four seasons, this meant everything.

Minutes before taking the floor for his final home game in a St. Bonaventure uniform, just prior to leading Bona into its most anticipated contest of the year, against No. 7 George Washington, Ahmad Smith was told the most meaningful words he’d heard in his collegiate career.

“We gathered before the game and the guys said, ‘we’re going to try to win this for you,’” he recalled. “Just the fact they were thinking (about me), the fact that they would say that was huge for me.”

In the end, it was another forgotten game in the most forgettable era in program history, one of 114 losses, including forfeits, spanning the scandal season of 2002-03 and the four-year tenure of Anthony Solomon. That night, however, it was a reprieve from bad basketball, a reminder of what Bona had been before sin struck and what the Reilly Center could be on its best night.

The Bonnies hung with the heavily-favored Colonials almost every step of the way. For 35-plus minutes, they’d matched a team that was riding the nation’s longest win streak (at 16 games) and unbeaten in conference play (15-0).

Despite falling short of the biggest win of the mid-2000s, losing 89-78, they’d done well by the name on the front of their jerseys. And in those moments, they’d proved it was possible to create lasting memories in an era that almost everybody wanted to see end … recollections that Smith still holds dear over 13 years later.

“Walking off the court at the RC, I still have the picture that was in the Olean Times (Herald),” said the former standout guard, who had 14 points, seven assists and three steals on that March 2006 night. “The last time I walked off that floor was one of the hardest times of my life because it was my favorite gym. Walking off and everyone giving me a standing ovation, I’ll never forget that.”

HE COULD easily have left after misconduct marred what had otherwise been a successful freshman season.

Smith said there were a number of schools interested in his services. He could have joined the player exodus that included fellow rising star Mike Gansey and nobody would have blamed him.

To this day, he’s still asked the question: “Why didn’t you leave?” But for the Alexandria, Va., native, departing was never an option.

The school, and the relationships he’d shaped, had already meant too much to him to leave the program in its time of need. He continues to hold those same feelings over a decade down the road.

“If you’ve never been to Bona’s, it’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s a special place. I know it was a bad time in terms of record, but I just think it was a blessing for me to stay there through the tough times. I think that made me the man I am today — not giving up, pushing through.

“Of course, I could never get those years back, but they were the best years of my life up at Bona’s; both playing and off the court, as well.”

As Bona moves forward with plans for its centennial campaign, a theme has begun to emerge: the celebration of great players from great seasons.

From the Tom and Sam Stith-led teams of the early 1960s, to the hallowed Bob Lanier and the 1970 Final Four squad, to the NCAA Tournament years of 1978, 2000, 2012 and 2018, all-time Bona greatness has moved back to the forefront.

Then there’s Smith, a tremendous player from a trying time.

The 6-foot-5 guard is one of just 12 figures in program history to be named to multiple all-Atlantic 10 teams, garnering Third Team honors as a junior in 2004-05 and Second Team accolades a year later … despite playing for teams that won two and eight games, respectively. He sits 27th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,261 points

And he wants you to know: he brought it every night, even as the losses piled up.

“I just wanted to show everyone that I wasn’t going to be part of that whole clan that just left,” he said. “I just wanted to play my heart out for the fans. We have the most loyal and passionate fans in the country, and it was an honor just to hear them cheer every time I played in the RC.”

THE NIGHT he and the Bonnies almost knocked off the Colonials is just one of the good memories that have meandered beyond the bad.

His “biggest moment,” he said, was his first week in a No. 1 jersey, when Smith helped Bona open the season with wins over Michigan and Virginia Tech at the 2002 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, earning the A-10 Rookie of the Week award after only two games.

“I knew coming in the high expectations — J.R. Bremer; we had just beaten UConn the year before,” he said. “Starting my career off that way … being from Virginia and playing well against those big programs was like a highlight of my career. I know it was early in my career, but I never forgot those times.”

Smith build a camaraderie with any number of people in his four years, making lifelong friends with two of his former teammates, Tyler Relph and Greg Lewis, guys “I still talk to everyday.”

(After playing professionally from 2006-16, Smith actually helped the former with his Tyler Relph Basketball Training academy and began his own program, Evolution Basketball Training.)

And then there was this from an AAU Tournament in the summer of 2017:

“I ran into (Arizona coach) Sean Miller, who was at Xavier (when Smith played at Bona,” he remembered. “He just saw me out of everyone, shook my hand and said, ‘it was an honor to coach against you. I know the team wasn’t great, but you were a great player.’ A lot of things like that really stick with me besides looking back at the overall record.”

SMITH CONTINUED to work hard — to stick it out — despite enduring seasons of 7-21, 2-26 and 8-19.

How? Family, primarily.

“My dad never missed a home game, and we’re from the DC area, so that was huge for me,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, there were tough times. I was crying in the Country Inn & Suites across the street with him and just saying, ‘I thought it would be different if I stayed.’ But he would always just say, ‘we don’t give up on anything.’ So it was mainly my mom and dad (helping me through it), honestly.”

The former Bona swingman might not be viewed in the same historical context as Bremer or even a Matt Mobley, top-flight players who led their teams to record-setting seasons and March glory.

But he hasn’t certainly hasn’t gone unrecognized either: Smith was one of two Solomon-era players, alongside Michael Lee, to be included on the 60-player All-Time Bona Team ballot, a nod to the biggest names in program annals. And he’ll forever be appreciated for continuing to be prideful of his teams when pride was lacking the most.

“(When I found out I was on the ballot), I was speechless because it’s just an honor,” he said. “We don’t have football at our school, so basketball is Bona’s, basically. It’s surreal, and I’m honored to be a part of that fraternity.”

(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at jbutler@oleantimesherald.com)

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