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Thursday, July 10, 2014
Smart: Outhustling his demons

By Chris Forsberg

WALTHAM, Mass. -- All these years later, he still seethes at the indignity of it all: the color-coded shirts (white for newbies, black for kids slogging through their penance, orange for kids hoping to get sprung), the beatings with a paddle for transgressions as mundane as a sidelong glance, the way, when he got out, his neighbors looked right through him as if he didn't exist.

Marcus Smart
"Yo, what's up?" 11-year-old Marcus Smart said hopefully when he returned from the Alternative Education Program (AEP) to be with his homeboys again.

They didn't crush him with slurs or insults. They slayed him with silence instead.

"Nobody would talk to me," Smart said. "I was the bad kid."

He landed in the AEP after being thrown out of his elementary school for bashing his classmate's head on the sidewalk.

He doesn't ever want to be that kid again. He is consumed with changing the narrative so people will stop passing judgment and appreciate how far he's come. He wants Boston to embrace his intensity, not question it.

The gravity of his basketball journey has been staggering. He is not just playing for himself but for his family, which has been pocked by tragedy, a responsibility he terms "an opportunity God has provided me."

His mom, Camellia Smart, trudges to dialysis three days a week and was bounced from the waiting list for a kidney transplant because she couldn't guarantee she'd be around on a moment's notice, not when she needed to be in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to watch her son. His father, Billy Frank Smart, is also experiencing health issues. Michael Smart, his brother, was once a promising basketball prospect who crippled his chances by choosing drugs and gangs instead. Another brother, Jeff Westbrook, experienced his share of squandered opportunities and pleads with Marcus not to make the mistakes he made.

"Marcus is playing for all of us," said Michael Smart. "Sometimes it can be a lot."

Yet it's the legacy of his late brother Todd Westbrook, gone from cancer at age 33, that weighs most heavily. Todd was 15 years old and coming off an all-district basketball season in Lancaster, Texas, when they discovered a tumor behind his eye.

One night, in the wake of the needles and the chemotherapy and the radiation, Todd checked himself out of the hospital, his left eye swollen shut, and scored 30 points. He was dubbed the Comeback Kid, but over time the cancer sapped his strength and stole his dreams.

Near the end of Todd's life, Marcus perched himself at the end of his brother's bed and fed him rolled-up socks to shoot at the wastebasket, the only thing Todd could hoist in the advanced stages of his disease.

When he died, his surviving brothers corralled a sobbing Smart and sat him down.

"I'll never forget it," Smart said. "They told me, 'Todd is gone, Mom is sick, Dad is sick, and you are all we've got.' My older brother Jeff told me, 'I had my chance, Mikey had his chance, and we blew it. Now it's your chance. We're depending on you.'"

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