These young people, they died too soon — but first they showed us how to live. Lauren Hill with her face swollen from the steroid treatment for brain cancer, Andrew Smith with his head bald from chemotherapy for leukemia. Both of them refusing to die their death.
Both of them choosing instead to live their life.
They are linked by youth and cancer and basketball, and by something so much bigger. They are linked, they will live forever, by their impact on the sports community that carried their indomitable messages to the world beyond basketball.
Smith, the brainy young man from Zionsville who played center on Butler’s NCAA runner-up teams of 2010 and ’11, lived with grace and class, and he died Tuesday the same way. He died in his sleep, in his wife’s arms, the two of them comforted by their Christian faith — and in turn comforting who knows how many others.
Smith’s story, like that of Lauren Hill dying in April at age 19, resonated here in the state where both are from, and then went so much farther. Hill’s story catapulted the 2014 Lawrenceburg High graduate into national headlines after she played with her terminal disease in a November game for her Mount St. Joseph basketball team. She scored a basket before a sold-out crowd of 10,000 in a game moved to Xavier’s Cintas Center to meet the demand.
Smith played his last game for Butler in 2013 and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2014. He had the disease on the run, or so doctors thought until November when it came back, as cancer often does, without explanation or mercy. He was diagnosed with leukemia, meaning his cancer had morphed from a stationary mass into something mobile, something carried by his own blood to the rest of his body.
To share that heartbreaking update with the Butler community and beyond, his wife, Samantha, wrote beautifully on her blog. There are two amazing people in this story, we have come to realize. Andrew Smith, for staring down cancer with cheers for his beloved Butler basketball team and a smile for anyone who approached — and Samantha Smith, for sharing their struggle, the triumphs and ultimately his end through the written word. She writes with enormous skill and maturity, but more than that, she has written her husband’s story with honesty and hope.
Andrew Smith’s impact, like that of Lauren Hill, will extend well beyond his short time on earth. For most of us, our last public image of Smith was last month at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, shortly after the lymphoma had turned into leukemia, and Andrew and Samantha Smith decided to continue living on their terms. Needing “a miracle,” as Samantha Smith wrote, Andrew checked out of the hospital and went home.
He had a basketball game to watch.
Smith was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Dec. 19 to watch Butler play — to watch Butler beat — No. 9 Purdue. The Smiths let me into the suite to watch the game with them, a story I told the next day in the IndyStar. No interviews, was their request. I can watch as Andrew Smith sits in the suite with a germ mask over his face and pumps his fists for the Bulldogs — but no interviews. Which was fine. Andrew and Samantha Smith were a walking billboard of strength and faith. Their story was one of action and life, not talk.
They watched the game together, Samantha doting on her husband, Andrew doting on his wife. They smiled at each other after baskets and greeted guests, turning strangers into friends. Local IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter was invited into the suite by the same Butler fan who invited the Smiths. When the game started, Carpenter didn’t know Andrew Smith. When it ended, Carpenter was sitting next to Andrew, laughing with him, then helping Smith into his wheelchair for the trip home.
Last week when doctors told Andrew that death was imminent, ex-Butler coach Brad Stevens left his job — he coaches the Boston Celtics, and they had a game that night in Chicago — to visit one last time with his former center. That was no look-at-me gesture from Stevens, who very politely turned down my request for an interview after he left the hospital room. He wasn’t there for attention. He was there for Andrew, and for the family.
A guy like Andrew Smith, he lived his life in a way that produces such loyalty. Lauren Hill, she did the same thing. And when she died, she was mourned — she was thanked — by famous people she never met but who were awed by her final few months.
Andrew Smith lived his final months the same way. This is a terrible ending, just too miserably soon, but it is the ending only of his life on earth. It is not the ending of his impact here.
The ripples from Andrew Smith, they’re just starting to spread. Watch them go.