Former Butler star Andrew Smith dies after battling cancer
INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Smith's basketball skills made him a fan favorite at Butler.
Teammates, coaches, family and friends always knew there was a lot more to Smith than that.
On Tuesday, the former Bulldogs star, who played in two national championship games, died at the age of 25 after a two-year battle with cancer. Athletic director Barry Collier spoke with Smith's family before issuing a joint statement with university President James Danko.
"What made Andrew special was the way that he genuinely cared for others," they said. "Within his large frame was an even larger heart. He is, was, and always will be a Bulldog."
Smith personified the school motto of living life the Butler way, working to get better each day and remaining selfless. His deep religious convictions gave him and his family the hope he could win this fight.
"The last two years he's been through a lot and he just never gave in," said an emotional Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who coached Smith at Butler.
After he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma early in 2014, Smith's wife, Samantha, started documenting her husband's battle by providing updates and inspirational messages on a blog called "Kicking Cancer with the Smiths." She continued writing even as Smith's condition worsened recently.
In mid-November, she announced Smith was having a bone marrow transplant. About three weeks later, she delivered the somber news that his body had rejected the transplant.
On Dec. 19, Smith attended Butler's game against Purdue in the Crossroads Classic and was cheered when he was shown on the big screen above the Indiana Pacers' home court. Last week, Smith's wife, parents and former college teammates began pleading for more prayers on social media and Stevens skipped the Celtics' game in Chicago to visit the Smiths.
"I was happy that I got a chance to say goodbye, and this is really about when you coach somebody, I mean you get a lot more out of coaching them than they do from you," Stevens said Tuesday before the Celtics' game in New York. "I could go on and on and it wouldn't do him justice.
"He was special, he was tough. Set a great example," Stevens added.
Samantha Smith posted a heartbreaking message Sunday to express how dire the situation was.
"I can't wrap my head around the fact that there is nothing left to do for Andrew except tell him how much I love him, hold his hand and be with him for every second we have left together," she wrote. "The doctors tell me death is imminent and that Andrew is going to die from this disease. There are no treatments, no clinical trials.there is nothing left to do. I struggle to grasp what they've told me and I spend my nights crying and moaning in pain as I think about losing the one I hold most dear and close to my heart — my husband."
The fact Smith was so ill was a stark contrast to the player so many fans watched grow up on a basketball court.
As a high school senior at Covenant Christian, Smith led the state of Indiana in rebounding. When the 6-foot-11 center arrived at Butler, he was considered a talented prospect who needed to fine-tune his game.
As a freshman, Smith played limited minutes after coming down with mononucleosis and enlarged lymph nodes. Early in his sophomore season, though, Smith won a starting job and quickly became the model of good health. He started 102 of his last 105 games, including the 2011 title game against Connecticut.
He finished his career with 1,147 points, 648 rebounds and two national championship appearances and played with some of Butler's best-known players — Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, who went on to play in the NBA, and Matt Howard — before starting his own brief pro career in Europe.
Current Butler coach Chris Holtmann said Smith spent as much time as he could with the team last season and the players embraced getting to know him, making Tuesday a tough day for everyone.
"When I talk to Brad and those who were here with him, what they always bring up is the fact that he was tough, he made his teammates better and he was a good person," Holtmann said.
The Bulldogs plan to wear a patch on their jerseys in honor of Smith, and Holtmann said he plans to attend the funeral with at least some of his players.
Former teammates offered condolences and thoughts on Twitter, too.
"Devastated for Sam and to lose him so soon but also relief that he is no longer in pain," read a statement on Howard's Twitter account. "Thankful for our few years we had. Love you Drewski."
Smith made an indelible impact on Butler's program, too, including a memorable game-winning tip-in against Purdue in the 2011 Crossroads Classic.
"We saw the way Andrew fought on the basketball court and we saw the way he fought for his health," Danko and Collier said. "In both cases, we saw the best of Andrew Smith."
The man who grew up just outside Indianapolis, in Zionsville, stayed in town to attend college, became an academic All-American, eventually married his much shorter high-school sweetheart and survived after his heart stopped beating for roughly 20 minutes in July 2014.
"My heart breaks into a million pieces thinking of all who would lose so much if he goes — a friend, a son, a brother, a teammate, and an inspiration to us all," Samantha Smith wrote Sunday. "We would all lose so much because he has impacted every single person that he has ever come into contact with. His kindness is instantaneous to strangers and his caring nature and ever-gentle heart is felt by every person lucky enough to have any sort of relationship with him."
She added: "It is not lost on me how many care so deeply for Andrew. He's an easy one to love."