Cruz, Smith buddies since AAU days

The date was Feb. 5, 2012, the evening of Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, when breakout star Victor Cruz scored a touchdown to help the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots.

Twelve days later, it was J.R. Smith's turn to capture the attention of the sports world. He took to Twitter, saying, "New York Knicks It Is!" After signing a one-year contract, without even a practice under his belt, he scored 15 points in his Knicks debut.

New Yorkers had two new players to cheer for -- a wide receiver and a shooting guard who had been friends for years.

"It was crazy that he was in New York and we're both playing for New York teams. It was a great feeling," Cruz said. "Once my offseason kicked in and he was in season, we kicked it a lot in his free time."

From 2002 to 2004, Cruz and Smith starred on the same legendary AAU hoops team, The Playaz Basketball Club. Cruz attended Paterson (N.J.) Catholic High School and Smith was at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, but they teamed up on Playaz, competing in top tournaments against future NBA players such as Kendrick Perkins and Sebastian Telfair.

"We went everywhere: Minnesota, Hawaii, Vegas, California," Cruz said. "We got to go to a lot of different places, so it was cool."

And everywhere they went, Cruz and Smith were inseparable.

"He was my roommate on a lot of the road trips," Smith said. "We took long bus rides -- six, seven hours -- going to Virginia, D.C., and stuff like that. We sat in the back of the bus chilling and goofing around. He's a hell of a basketball player. A lot of people don't know that. He's a great dude."

Cruz, now 25, and Smith, 27, were also in the backcourt together -- and interestingly enough, Smith had the role of the wide receiver, capitalizing on alley-oop passes from Cruz, the team's point guard.

"My biggest memory was one game with J.R. and we were playing, I think, in Florida," Cruz said. "I had about a double-double. I was shooting 3s, I was throwing alley-oops to J.R. Everything was clicking. It was one of those games where everything just felt right and everything was going in. It was cool."

Cruz was a longtime member of Playaz because the team's founder, Jimmy Salmon, is his godfather. Smith joined the team after his junior year at Lakewood (N.J.) High School before transferring to St. Benedict's.

"We actually met at Rutgers University at a state championship game," Salmon said of Smith. "I was wearing one of our player's jackets and he was wearing a Lakewood jacket. We wound up talking at a food stand. I really didn't know who he was at the time, but here's a 6-5 kid who looked like a pro athlete. I told someone and he said, 'Man, that kid's the best athlete down in the shore area.'"

When it was time for Smith's first tryout with Playaz, it didn't take long for Cruz to realize the new guy was talented.

"Instantly, I knew that he was one of the better players here, and we just started hanging out," Cruz said. "I was from Paterson, about an hour away from him, but we were both from Jersey. He was close enough to hang out from time to time and kick it."

"It was only natural for those two guys to become friends because they were both multisport athletes, and they both just had something special about them," Salmon said. "The two of them liked to out-athlete their opponent, and that came very natural to both of them."

Smith, who played basically every position at Lakewood -- safety, cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver and even quarterback -- was offered a scholarship by Clemson based solely on his game film. But as good as he was on the gridiron, Smith was set to make the jump from high school to the NBA.

"He was always dominating," Cruz said. "He was always taking over the game. I mean, there were periods where it was just 'give him the ball and move out the way' kind of thing. We always knew he had the talent, and it was just a matter of timing and what he wanted to do."

Cruz was being recruited by mid-major college hoops programs, including American and Creighton. According to Smith, Cruz could've received more love from the bigger schools, but they knew his main focus was football.

"He could score and he's athletic, strong, could get past anybody he wanted to," Smith said. "I think he was just such a football player, but basketball came so easy to him. He was so nonchalant about it. I mean, he could have definitely played college basketball."

Cruz said he started to favor football more during his sophomore year because of his lack of height and the belief that there were more opportunities to play the sport at the next level.

"Basketball was my first love," he said. "Once I got to high school, I thought it was basketball, basketball, basketball. But later on, the head football coach came up to me and said, 'You know, there's more scholarships in football than there are in basketball,' and I was like, 'Well, I am 6-foot tall.' That's kind of when things switched up."

Cruz went to UMass and signed with the Giants in 2010. Smith was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets in 2004 and then played for the Denver Nuggets. But even with the distance between them, their friendship never wavered.

"Without a doubt," Smith said. "That's my man."

"We would call each other all the time," Cruz said. "I still speak to him almost every other day."

These days, Smith and Cruz have a fun competition with their sneaker collection, mostly consisting of Jordan Brand kicks. Cruz, who has about 300 pairs, is trying to catch up to his buddy's bigger stash of about 500.

While Smith is hoping to get to a Giants game soon, Cruz already has a Knicks ticket -- opening night against the Nets at the brand-new Barclays Center.

"I'm definitely going to be there," he said. "It's going to be nuts."