Ishmael "Ish" Smith had to make it to the NBA the hard way, as if he knew any other way.
"I always came through the back door," he said.
Smith slaps his knee and laughs.
"High school. Back door.
"AAU. Back door.
"At Wake [Forest]. Back door.
Yep, back door.
Back door, side door, crawl space or opening in the gate, Ish was going to slip through and play basketball.
And there he was Wednesday night before the Magic faced the Bulls, wearing his NBA-issued warm-up gear and sitting on the bench, speaking for underdogs and dreamers everywhere.
"You hope there's room for you. I always hoped I was good enough," he said. "I try to make it fun, not life and death.
"No matter where I play, pick-up, two-on-two, out here…I love the game so much. I think you can see that. I play hard. I appreciate the game."
If there's a player who appreciates having his sneakered feet on the floor more than Ish, I haven't met him. Any pouting prima donna ought to hear his story.
Smith is the flip side of the superstars who have long-term security and make zillions, soaking up the non-stop adoration.
He lives life on the NBA fringe, thankful for every minute and every dollar he receives as a third-team point guard.
Here's his life: In the past few games before facing the Bulls on Wednesday night, Smith didn't get off the bench; moved to the back-up role after E'Twaun Moore's injury; and then inherited the starting job after Jameer Nelson got hurt.
Actually, his perseverance paid off when the Magic this summer signed him to a $910,000 contract this season and $950,000 next season --- all guaranteed. He has another year at $992,000 that's not guaranteed. He shakes his head and admits he doesn't know all the details. "I just know I'm playing," he said.
His contract is tip money in the NBA, and the Magic could release Smith when more talent comes along.
Which is why he says, "I was a guy who found my own niche. I'm still finding it, getting acquainted with coach [Jacque Vaughn]."
Guys like Smith are never comfortable, whether they have a guaranteed deal or recently scored 13 points with six assists at Toronto.
Smith is learning Vaughn's style and system, which was different than that of Stan Van Gundy. And so he clicks on YouTube to watch the league's great point guards, looking to pick up a pointer or two "to install them in your game and then add your own twist."
"My coach at Wake, Skip Prosser, always told me when you watched players, 'Don't criticize --- analyze,' " he said.
Smith, a wisp at 6 feet and 175 pounds, came off the bench to begin his high school career. AAU teams weren't lining up for him. He was Wake Forest's third choice among point-guard recruits. The NBA?
As good as he was at Wake, breaking Chris Paul's assist record and all, it wasn't good enough later to be drafted.
Never armed with a dependable jump shot, his water-bug quickness got him time with Houston, Memphis and Golden State before landing with the Magic late last season.
"No, I didn't have a back-up plan," he said when asked about what he would do if his basketball dream didn't work out. "I was just winging it."
No need for a back-up plan when you come through the back door and never leave.