The Story of

Marcus

Smart

"I Love Boston,
Boston Loves Me"

In the Wake of Tragedy, Marcus Smart Leans on his Compassionate, Boston Family for Support

by Taylor Snow, Celtics.com

. . .

BOSTON – One week after his mother Camellia lost her battle with cancer, Marcus Smart returned to the one place that could help him cope. He boarded a plane from his hometown of Dallas and flew up to Boston, where his extended family was waiting for him with open arms.

On Sept. 24, 2018, two days after laying Camellia to rest, Smart joined his Celtics teammates at a studio in Canton, Massachusetts for their annual pre-training camp Media Day. He went about his business just as he did the previous four years: traveling from station to station, signing basketballs, sitting down with radio hosts, filming pump-up videos for the upcoming season, and more, all while maintaining his natural, vibrant attitude with an eager smile on his face.

His eyes, however, told a different story – a story of distress, devastation and emptiness.

There was a void in his life that he had never experienced nor imagined to be possible. This void that was left by his mother’s passing was unfillable, but being back in Boston, surrounded by his supportive Celtics family, could at least allow him to find peace.

Smart At The Podium on Media Day

“I look at basketball as like a storm. But it’s the eye of the storm,” Smart told reporters that day, as he leaned over a microphone at a podium, where he sat donning his No. 36 Celtics jersey. “The calmest place of it is to be right in the eye of it. And that’s what basketball is for me; it’s my eye. While everything else around me is going on – the destruction, and things like that – basketball keeps me calm.”

Smart had gotten to know the storm of destruction more than anyone should at his age of 24. Fourteen and a half years earlier, it swept through his life and took his brother, Todd Westbrook, who succumbed to the same disease as his mother would.

Westbrook, a hoops star at Lancaster High School just outside of Dallas, was the one who taught Smart how to fight through adversity. One night, after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation on the tumor behind his left eye, Westbrook checked himself out of the hospital and journeyed to his high school gym. Despite his eye being swollen over, he suited up and scored 30 points that night.

Westbrook fought his battle with leukemia for 18 years, before it finally overcame him at the age of 33. Smart, who was just nine at the time, took the loss hard, but through it he also gained a new appreciation for life and for the game of basketball.

“Watching him suffer day-in and day-out, not really knowing when his last day was going to be with us, it just put everything in perspective for me: that this could be gone at any given moment,” he says in an interview with Celtics.com. “So, when I’m out on the court, I’m going to give everything I can and everything I have until I have no more, because my brother didn’t have that chance.”

Smart At The Podium on Media Day

With that mindset, Smart has brought a resilient, unwavering attitude to Boston over the last four-plus years. He hasn’t been one to stuff the stat sheet with eye-popping numbers during that time, but his willingness to put his body on the line and to make winning plays for his team is what has earned him unconditional love from the city.

Through that love, Smart has developed a connection with the city, identifying as a part of its family – a family that he never wants to leave.

“I love this city,” he says. “I grew up here, I’ve been here for a while. I was in Dallas for a certain amount of time, and then I went off to college, but this is where I reside – this is my home. So, for me to say that I’m a Bostonian, it’s something that means a lot because Boston has embraced me as an individual, as a player, and for so much more.

“I love Boston, and Boston loves me.”

Match Made in Heaven

Danny Ainge doesn’t recall exactly when or where it was that he first saw Smart play basketball. The number of trips that the Celtics president of basketball operations made during the 2012-13 collegiate season to scout the Oklahoma State product was so vast that the games have all blended together by now.

What Ainge vividly remembers from his initial sighting, however, were the two thoughts that ran through his mind as soon as the 6-foot-4, 220-point guard stepped onto the court.

Smart At The Podium on Media Day

“I want him on my team.”

“I don’t want to play against him.”

The first thought wasn’t triggered by the 18-year-old’s skill set, but by the manner in which he played. Smart approached the game with a fiery tenacity by which Ainge, a passionate player himself in the 1980s and 90s, was enamored.

“I really appreciated how he played,” Ainge tells Celtics.com. “Like more than what he did as a basketball player, but what he was as a competitor. He was strong and smart. I just loved watching him play.”

The second thought was one of which college coaches around the country could relate to. That includes Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose final year at Butler University overlapped with Smart’s freshman year at Oklahoma State.

“It was clear that there were some things that other guys were better at, but nobody was tougher. Nobody was more physical,” Stevens says.

Judging by Ainge’s draft history, it’s no surprise that he was interested in a guy like Smart. During his tenure in the Celtics’ front office, he had plucked other tough-minded guards out of college, such as Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Delonte West.

Perhaps Ainge has a soft spot for these types of players because they are a reflection of what he brought to the NBA game during his playing days. Though, Smart’s grit, he admits, is at a much higher level than his own.

“I wish I was as tough as Marcus,” the former All-Star and two-time NBA Champion says with a chortle.

But Ainge’s aspirations to draft Smart seemed like a long-shot as the winter of Smart’s freshman year turned to spring. His playoff-bound Celtics were projected to land in the middle of the first round of the 2013 Draft, and by that point, the highly-touted guard would have surely been swept up by some other team.

Then, on April 16, 2013 – one day before the Celtics’ regular-season finale – Smart made a shocking announcement: that he would be returning to Stillwater, Oklahoma for his sophomore year.

“I thought he was probably going to come out at his freshman year,” Ainge says. “But I was glad that he went back. I mean, I think a lot of guys should go back, but I think it was a good thing for him to go back.”

For one, it allowed Smart to mature as a player and as a person. And for the Celtics’ sake, it gave them another shot at landing him in the following year’s draft.

That summer, Ainge flipped the Celtics franchise over by trading away cornerstones Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets. A new-look squad would go on to endure a 25-57 season under their rookie coach, Stevens, but the silver lining was that they would be ensured a top pick in the 2014 Draft.

To Ainge’s delight, Boston wound up earning the No. 6 pick at the Draft Lottery that May. He had his sights set on Smart, and, little did he know at the time, Smart had his sights set on the Celtics.

Smart At The Podium on Media Day

“Marcus wanted to play for Boston,” says Kenny Boren, a close friend and former coach of Smart at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas. “We were looking at the NBA Draft and we were actually at the lottery (in New York City) when they did the positioning. So, when it came out that we knew that Boston would have a good shot where he would probably fall in that draft, we actually – through his agent at the time – set up the interest that he had in Boston.”

Why would a kid from Dallas, who had no ties to New England, have such strong feelings toward Boston? Because he felt that the passionate, blue-collared city embodied who he was as a person, and that the championship pedigree of its basketball team was the cherry on top.

“My whole life I’ve worked,” Smart says. “My whole life I’ve been counted out. My whole life I’ve been the one to look myself in the mirror whenever everyone else is doubting me. I’m the one that had the most confidence in myself and I always betted on myself, and it’s worked out for me each and every time. So, to go to a city where they pride themselves on working and proving people wrong, and being with the top-notch, top-tier, cream of the crop [organization], it was the perfect fit for me.”

On June 26, 2014, both parties had their wish granted, as the Celtics selected Smart with the No. 6 overall pick. The 20-year-old kid from Dallas was about to enter a whole new world.

Hard-Earned Love

Despite residing in the South for his entire life, Smart was fully aware of the Boston sports scene. He was well-versed in its championship-laden history, the pressures of playing in front of its expectant fan base, and the rewards for athletes who manage to earn its love.

“I think everybody in this world kind of knows what Boston sports culture is,” Smart says. “It’s something that if you’re not ready for it (as an athlete), it can take you away, because Boston fans have such high expectations for every sports team here.

Smart Hi-Fiving A Fan

“They’re spoiled in a way – in a good way – because all they know is winning. They hold you on this pedestal and it can feel sometimes like, ‘Can I live up to this?’ And if you’re not living up to it, it’s like, ‘Is this for me?’ But at the same time, as long as you come out and you show the respect, and dedication, and how hard you work, and the work ethic, they take you in with open arms.”

Smart was eager for those arms to embrace him right away, but he hit a minor road block during the second week of his rookie season. During a Nov. 7 matchup against the Indiana Pacers, he injured his left ankle while awkwardly landing on an opponent’s foot. It swelled so much that Boston’s medical staff had to cut the shoe off of Smart’s foot. He was later diagnosed with a severe ankle sprain and would be sidelined for about a month.

Missing time at the start of one’s rookie year is not ideal from a development standpoint, but Smart rose up in the face of adversity, just as he always had, and emerged even stronger. In his first game back without a minutes restriction, he put up 23 points, five rebounds and four assists during 35 minutes of turnover-free basketball against the Washington Wizards.

That performance opened the eyes of Celtics fans. Then, two and a half weeks later, Smart did something that opened their hearts.

On Dec. 26, 2014, Smart earned his second career start in a matchup against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden. His stat line of five points, six assists, three rebounds and four steals didn’t jump off the page, but one play in particular did.

During the third quarter, Nets point guard Jarrett Jack was carrying the ball up the court when he briefly lost his handle. Smart seized the opportunity by diving on the floor for the loose ball. Just as Smart grabbed ahold of the rock, Garnett came flying in to try to jar it loose, but Smart acted quickly and tossed it over his head to a streaking Jeff Green for an easy, fast-break dunk.

The play was so impressive that Garnett, not known for showing any love to opponents during competition, patted Smart on the chest and let the rookie know he had made a great play. Celtics fans took notice, realizing they had something special in this kid.

“It’s his passion,” Stevens says of why Celtics fans latched onto Smart so quickly. “It was very evident when I got here, and I knew this coming in about Boston sports in general, that if you don’t play as a team and you don’t play really hard, then you probably won’t be a well-liked team. And Marcus is a team guy that always plays hard. Even when he makes a mistake, everybody knows that he’s doing it at a full tilt, and I think that that’s one of the many reasons that I think people really enjoy watching him play.”

The encouragement from Boston’s fanbase only made Smart want to play harder. Diving on loose balls became a trademark play of his that eventually earned him the nickname, “The Cobra.”

And this cobra struck in a variety of ways. Celtics teammate Al Horford learned that the hard way, when he was playing for the Atlanta Hawks. The veteran big man will never forget when he was first introduced to Smart during the first round of the 2016 Playoffs, not in hand-shaking fashion, but in a bone-shaking one.

Smart And Al Horford

“I’m known for setting good screens. That’s kind of my thing, right?” Horford says, setting the scene of that first memorable meeting with Smart. “So, I remember he was guarding Kyle Korver and he just rammed through my screen. I’m talking about leveled me. I think they called a foul on him, but I was like, ‘Who is this?’ Like, I knew who he was, but it definitely made me aware of how physical and how hard he plays.”

Horford had half a foot on Smart, but whenever they matched up, he always felt disadvantaged.

“He was the one guy that I could never really screen,” Horford says. “Going back, he’s the one I always had a hard time with, because he was so good at getting behind the offensive player, avoiding screens, and that makes it tough. That’s what makes him a special defender.”

The Hawks escaped from that first-round series in six games and Horford never had to face Smart again. That’s because when he entered free agency two months later, the then-four-time All-Star decided to sign a long-term deal with the Celtics.

“I was very happy,” Horford says with a relieved laugh of joining forces with Smart. “I just knew that he that he was fearless, he was a competitor, and that he embodies a lot of the things that being a Celtic is all about.”

Like Mother, Like Son

The qualities that have formed Smart into the quintessential Celtic were ones that were mostly passed on from his mother. Camellia’s personality was full of fire and passion, just like her youngest of four sons.

Smart And Al Horford

At times, Camellia could even be bit intimidating. Anyone who was around Smart during his youth would tell you that she would never back down from something she believed in.

“Oh, she’d tell you what’s up,” Boren says with a reminiscent chuckle. “She’d get in the middle of him if she had to get in the middle of him, and she’d get right in the middle of someone else, too. Hell, she’d even get in the middle of me.

“I still have a saved voicemail from her, that I’ll never delete, that she left simply because I didn’t answer her calls. She called, and I think I was right in the middle of something, so I didn’t see it, and she jokingly – but it wasn’t a joke – she just said, ‘Dammit, when I call you, you answer the damn phone. I don’t want to hear no voicemail.’”

Smart is the same exact way. And that is what allows him to be such a strong, vocal leader on the basketball court.

“Marcus is always going to have a fiery spirit about him and he’s always going to say what he wants to say,” Boren says. “That’s just who he is: he’s extremely blunt and straightforward, and that’s what I really love about him. There’s no B.S. with Marcus.”

But there’s also a soft side to Smart that most fans don’t get to see. Behind the scenes, he is as gentle and as caring of a person as one could be.

Every member of the Celtics has a story that could attest to Smart’s compassionate nature. The one that Ainge loves to tell occurred during a practice drill way back in Smart’s rookie season. This particular drill was a relay race with weighted sleds that were pushed between teammates from baseline to baseline. Of all the participants, Smart was the only one, who, when he finished his leg, would turn the sled around for his teammate to take it back in the opposite direction.

“Now that sounds like a real simple thing,” says Ainge. “But that’s Marcus. He thinks about other people. He’s this tough, physical guy with a rough exterior, but he has a soft side to him.”

It’s more than just his teammates that Smart thinks about – it’s the entire community around him. Inspired by his brother’s legacy, Smart created the Young Game Changer Foundation, a charity that allows him to bring light into the lives of seriously and chronically ill children, and one that also enables him to be a voice of encouragement to inner city youth athletes to be “game changers” off the playing surface.

Smart And Al Horford

“Marcus is a kid at heart, and so it’s natural that his No. 1 concern is kids,” says Boren, who serves on the foundation’s executive board. “You get him with a bunch of adults, and you put a suit and a tie on him, and he hates it. But you throw him out there with a bunch of kids having water fights with water guns and he’ll be there for three hours.”

Smart doesn’t get much free time during the NBA season, but any he finds is spent giving back to the greater Boston community. He lives for partaking in charitable off-the-court events just as much as he lives for making a game-saving defensive play on the court.

“It just goes to show you, when he says ‘I love Boston and Boston loves me,’ he really is invested in that city,” Boren says.

Smart’s compassion and giving nature also came from his mother. As tough and as intrepid as she was, Camellia had the most tender soul and giving nature about her. She loved those who loved Marcus, and treated them like family, too.

When the Celtics would go to play in Dallas, Camellia would often greet her son and his teammates at their hotel with a hearty feast made with motherly love.

“I’m telling you, she could cook,” says Horford, licking his chops with a wide-eyed grin. “It was just amazing. And then I got to catch up with her a few times after games in the (TD Garden) family room and got to know her well. Marcus and her were very, very tight.”

Camellia was a mirror image of her youngest son, inside and out.

“That lady, she just personifies Marcus,” says Boren. “Marcus is his mom.”

A Supportive Family

While recovering from hand surgery in mid-April of 2018, Smart paid a visit to Camellia in Dallas. It was then that he learned of his mother’s devastating condition.

Smart had been gearing up to return from his mid-season operation just in time for the Playoffs, but the news of his mother’s cancer diagnosis made him want to put basketball on the back burner.

Camellia wouldn’t have any of that.

“She told me she’d rather I was here than back there, doing what I love to do,” Smart said ahead of Game 2 of Boston’s first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, “because she loves to watch me play, and that would put a smile on her face if I got back healthy and back on the court.”

So, he pulled his jersey back over his head and put his heart and soul into making her proud one last time.

With the support of his mother, as well as that of the entire city of Boston, Smart would help lead an undermanned Celtics team all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would fall just short to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the time, he knew it could have been his final game in a Celtics uniform, as he was about to enter restricted free agency, but he made it crystal clear that he did not want to join any other team.

“I want to be here,” he said in his exit interview before departing for the uncertain offseason that lay ahead. "I love this city, I love this team, I love the atmosphere it gives off. I've been here for four years. My heart's here.”

For the rest of that summer, Smart’s heart would be in Dallas, where he spent hours and days and weeks by Camellia’s side. The combination of his mother’s waning health and not knowing where his career was about to take him created a great deal of anxiety for him. However, on July 19, the Celtics lifted some of the weight off his shoulders by signing him to a long-term deal.

“That meant more than I could probably sit here and say,” Smart reflects months later.

Smart And Al Horford

With his contract situation out of the way, Smart could place his full attention on caring for Camellia for the remainder of the summer. His unwavering presence, along with that of his family and friends, helped to keep her light flickering for two more months, before her sun finally set on Sept. 16.

Devastated beyond measure, Smart struggled to endure the loss of his greatest role model and his biggest fan.

“She was always either at the game, or after every single game she would call,” Boren explains. “She would call and tell him what he did wrong. She’d be like, ‘Will you make your damn free throws?’ And, ‘Quit turning the damn ball over.’ He’s not going to get those calls and that’s hard on him.”

Camellia would end every call in an affectionate manner, telling her son, “God love you. I love you.” That phrase is now tattooed on Smart’s right forearm, where he can look down and hear her loving, supportive voice whenever he wishes.

It’s those little things that have helped him cope. As has the support of one of the most family-oriented organizations in all of sports.

On Sept. 22, the Smart family held a celebration of life for Camellia, one of which the Celtics’ coaching staff and many of its players attended. Smart was beyond grateful to have them all there by his side.

“To see those guys show up at the service was actually a surprise to me,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody was really going to show up. I mean, Brad told me he was coming and a couple of my coaches, but my teammates Al, Terry (Rozier), Jaylen (Brown), Daniel Theis, Semi (Ojeleye) and those guys showing up — not only those guys but my friends and family — that meant a lot to me, and it just shows how much this organization, as a family, cares for one another.”

It's because those guys, and those who are around Smart every day, know just how special of a person he is.

“I care for Marcus more than just basketball and the court,” Horford says. “He’s a great guy, and the relationships that you build through basketball, I feel like they last for the rest of your life. So, in one of his darkest moments I just wanted to make sure that I was there for him and let him know that he has my support.”

The support extended well beyond his Celtics family, as Smart received thousands of messages from sympathetic fans and peers on social media. When he returned to Massachusetts, the love kept on flowing, as his fellow Bostonians lifted him up and wouldn’t let him come down.

“Those type of things kind of help you cope a little bit in a certain way,” Smart says. “To know that it’s going to be all right, it's going be OK, even when it seems like it can't get any worse. It just feels amazing to have a city, an organization, a group of people that actually care for you as an individual. Not just because you’re a basketball player or because you’re making them look good. They genuinely care for you.”

It’s easiest for Smart to cope when he’s on the court, in the eye of the storm. On the hardwood, he lives through his brother and plays for his mother. The passion that they instilled within him is what has allowed him to become the heartbeat of the Celtics. His coaches, teammates, the organization and its fans are what keep his blood flowing.

That’s why Marcus Smart loves Boston. And that’s why Boston loves him back.

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Isaiah Thomas with the Boston Celtics