Born, Raised and Educated In North Carolina, Ish Smith Took 13-Year, 13-Team Road To NBA Title

By David Glenn

Ish Smith started the 2022-23 season by setting an all-time National Basketball Association record in a relatively obscure category: most NBA teams (13).

The Denver Nuggets guard ended the season, his 13th as a professional, earlier this month by claiming his first NBA championship, becoming the latest in a long line of North Carolina high school and/or college prospects (see links below) to reach pro basketball’s promised land.

“Thirteen long years,” Smith said. “Hopefully, my journey inspires people.

“It’s been great. It’s been fun. I’m happy for all the guys, the whole team. This is where you come together, a true family, and sacrifice yourself. This is what it’s all about.”

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Smith, who will turn 35 years old next Wednesday (July 5), is a North Carolinian to his core. He was born in Charlotte, developed into a top-100 prep prospect at Central Cabarrus High School in Concord, then became a three-year starter at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2010 as a senior with the Demon Deacons. He even spent about half of the 2021-22 season with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

In the last 35 years, the only other NBA champion players who were products of both the North Carolina high school and college ranks are Michael Jordan (Wilmington Laney, UNC, six-time winner with the Chicago Bulls), Chucky Brown (Leland North Brunswick, NC State, 1995 Houston Rockets), Rusty LaRue (Greensboro Northwest Guilford, Wake Forest, 1998 Chicago Bulls), Brendan Haywood (Greensboro Dudley, UNC, 2011 Dallas Mavericks) and Steph Curry (Charlotte Christian, Davidson, four-time winner with the Golden State Warriors).

(For a more complete look at the North Carolina products — meaning those who played their high school and/or college ball in the state — who went on to become champions as NBA players, please see these lists:



The college programs represented are Charlotte, Davidson, Duke, Guilford, NC Central, NC State, UNC, UNC Wilmington, Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State.)

“I’m just thankful, and I would say that with or without a (championship) ring,” Smith said. “My faith and my family have been my foundation, and those things are much more important than any piece of jewelry. It’s gratifying to win, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the only thing.

“I’ve tried to be positive with my coaches and teammates whether I was on the best team in the league or the worst team, whether I was starting, coming off the bench or sometimes not playing at all, and sometimes not even being in uniform. (Laughs.) I’m old enough to remember when we had to wear suits on the bench if we weren’t on the active roster that night.”

Smith’s reference to the best and worst of things was not merely a hypothetical.

During his four seasons at Wake Forest (2006-10), he experienced the tragic offseason death of coach Skip Prosser in 2007, back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips under coach Dino Gaudio in 2009 and 2010, and Gaudio’s postseason dismissal in 2010.

In the NBA, Smith played for some of the worst teams in the league before being traded this past offseason to the Nuggets, who turned out to be the best.

An undrafted free agent out of college, Smith first signed with the Houston Rockets. He split time between the Rockets and their NBA Development League (now called the G League) affiliate before being traded at midseason to the Memphis Grizzlies. That rookie campaign marked the first of seven times Smith was traded and the first of six seasons he split between two NBA franchises.

In order, Smith played for the Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons, Hornets, Washington Wizards and Nuggets. Universally liked by his coaches and teammates, he had two separate stints with the 76ers and the Wizards.

Over his 13 NBA seasons, Smith has been a full-time starter only once — in 2015-16 with the 76ers, who finished a league-worst 10-72, the second-worst season in franchise history.

With the Nuggets this past season, Smith was a backup again, this time behind sixth-year veteran and former lottery pick Jamal Murray. Smith averaged about nine minutes, two points and two assists per game during the regular season, then played only sparingly in the playoffs, but as always he maintained his trademark work ethic, positivity and smile.

“He’s just one of the most grateful people — not just in the NBA — that I’ve been around,” TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy, who coached Smith in Orlando and Detroit, recently told The Athletic. “He appreciates everything that’s happened, and he’s worked his ass off to get all this.

“But he doesn’t even really talk about that. He’s just seriously grateful to be able to play in The League, and everything else … I never saw a day, not one, where Ish was down and didn’t have enthusiasm, didn’t have energy. Not one day.”

A free agent again entering the 2023-24 campaign, Smith may re-sign with the Nuggets or extend his own record by playing for a 14th NBA franchise. Whatever comes next, he’ll always be able to remember that his 13th pro season — and his 13th pro franchise — were anything but unlucky.

David Glenn ( is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987. does not charge subscription fees, and you can directly

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