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THE GRIND: Hoosier-born, pizza-making Forsyth Central guard CJ Smith having breakout season
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Forsyth Central senior CJ Smith had to bide his time with the Bulldogs, but the first-year starter has had a breakout season averaging a team-high 18 points along with four rebounds and 2.5 assists a game. - photo by Micah Green

THE GRIND: Forsyth Central Basketball Star CJ Smith

Kayla Robins/Host

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When CJ Smith’s parents opened Rosati’s Pizza Sports Pub two and a half years ago, he was instantly enlisted in the family’s business venture.

Smith went to the kitchen – specifically, he made pizza dough. He learned the proper technique to make the dough, then toss and manipulate it into Rosati’s Chicago-style crust.

And he was a quick study.

“I got the spinning down,” Smith said. “Probably six months, and then I was the go-to pizza guy.”

Smith quickly became Forsyth Central boys basketball’s go-to scorer this season, too. The senior guard is averaging a team-best 18 points along with four rebounds and 2.5 assists a game for the Bulldogs (12-11, 4-4 Region 5-7A) going into last night’s game at Milton (9-13, 6-2), which ended too late for this edition.

But Smith’s journey to that role has taken time.

As a freshman, he averaged three minutes a game. He made a leap as a sophomore, averaging 15 points a game – but on junior varsity. Last season, as a junior, he was a dutiful reserve on the varsity team behind senior guards Parker Biederer and Cale Jackson, both second-team all-county selections.

Still, Smith maintained a disciplined routine. He’d wake up every morning at 6 for an hour of shooting, then come back home to take his siblings to school. He’d work out after school, go to Central basketball practice, then head home and do school work.

“I’m always on the ball, on time,” Smith said. “Timing is everything for me.”

Indeed, Smith just happened to be born in Hoosier country – in Lafayette, Indiana, the seat of Tippecannoe County that’s home to Purdue University and 63 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

Smith’s grandfather was an athletic director at a local high school, and Smith had the run of the gym. He’d watch varsity basketball practices, and when they finished he’d borrow the court, grab a ball and shoot until his heart’s content. He’d be back in the gym on game nights, scrunched on the bleachers with a thousand or more fans.

“The basketball culture [in Indiana] is like the football culture here,” Smith said. “All the big basketball games, it’s just a packed gym and everybody’s going crazy. It’s awesome.”

When Smith and his family moved to Forsyth County before he entered the third grade, he found a much different kind of basketball culture. He joined a rec basketball team and was puzzled to find the league using 8-foot basketball goals instead of the 10-foot regulation-sized ones he was raised on in Indiana.

But Smith’s passion for basketball never wavered. He helped Otwell reached the semifinals of the middle school tournament in eighth grade. He joined the prestigious Atlanta Celtics AAU program, with alum the likes of Dwight Howard.

While his varsity time was slim, Smith kept up his stringent routine. He even got involved with a Special Olympics unified team the past two years, playing with special education students from Forsyth County high schools and helping them earn consecutive gold medals.

“It’s just humbling,” Smith said, “knowing that you’ve got so much to work with, and you can give your talents to other people like that.”

Now, Smith’s talent has been on display this season. It was on display when he scored 29 points against rival South Forsyth on Dec. 16 in Central’s ‘Domecoming.’ He’s had games of 27, 25 and 28 points against Milton, North Forsyth and West Forsyth, respectively, using deft shooting and confident drives to put Central in position to end a 16-year state playoff drought.

“Ever since this summer, playing with the summer team here, I just felt like I was the go-to guy,” Smith said. “I had the ball in my hands a lot. It gave me a lot of confidence to score the ball and play good defense and the ultimate goal of winning games.”