In 49 other states it is just basketball... but this is Indiana.
I have seen that phrase many times in my life. It is pretty much the unofficial state motto. There is something about the game in this state that grabs so much obsessive attention. I was born and raised in Indiana on basketball. I grew up following my local high school around the state from Richmond to East Chicago and beyond. In my 36 years I literally cannot remember a time where basketball was not the main topic of discussion from November to March. I am probably the perfect example of how that love for the game develops from youth all the way through adulthood.
That love for the game goes beyond results and rivalries. As a Purdue fan growing up I was always in the minority, especially in the heyday of Bob Knight, but even in my hatred of the General and his Hoosiers there was respect. Sure, he was an asshole and sometimes a raging lunatic, but he was a winning asshole and raging lunatic.
It is that respect for opponents and the game that has me and the entire Indiana basketball community at large heartbroken this morning. Andrew Smith was one of us. He was born to an Indiana family and grew up in this basketball-mad state. He saw what the game meant growing up and since god decided, "Hey, you're going to be almost 7-feet tall" it was pretty much pre-ordained that he was going to be directed to the game.
Normally 7-footers attract a lot of recruiting attention simply because of their size, but not Smith. He put up good numbers for a tiny private high school on the west side of Indianapolis. Covenant Christian barely has 300 students and didn't even start IHSAA play until 2002, but smith led them to their first ever sectional title in 2009 while leading the state in rebounding.
That led to an offer from local Butler. Before 2010 Butler was like a secret only people from Indiana knew. They played in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, a basketball arena so perfect that it was like God Himself designed it. Even as a diehard Purdue fan I always enjoyed watching Butler because of their style built on hard work, fundamentals, team play, and everything else. They best represented how high school basketball has always been played in Indiana. Many people I speak to, regardless of college affiliation, has a mutual respect and admiration of Butler.
Smith played surprise minutes in the Elite 8 game against Kansas State as Butler reached the Final Four. We know the rest of the story. The tiny Bulldogs had consecutive NCAA runner-up finishes and Andrew Smith played a major role in each of them. He had a solid four-year career that led to a chance to play overseas and during that career he earned my respect as a player. My Boilers only played against him once, but it was a memorable game. His tip-in with a second left in the first ever Crossroads Classic (a quintessential Indiana basketball event if there ever was one) capped a furious Butler rally and a 67-65 win.
yeah, Andrew beat my Boilers that day, but he was an Indiana kid playing for Butler, my secret college basketball mistress that I enjoyed watching when Purdue wasn't playing. I couldn't hate on him, so I respected the hell out of him. I know I wasn't alone in those feelings, either.
It is no wonder that Smith's public battle with cancer captured the state's interest and people, regardless of team affiliation, were pulling for him. He was an Indiana kid playing our state game and he played for the team that few people in this state would admit to truly hating. A few weeks ago I was back at the Crossroads Classic just four years after Smith had vanquished Purdue. The Boilermakers and Bulldogs were once again playing, and Andrew Smith was there. In the second half the in-house camera found him in one of the luxury suites and put him on the scoreboard. A standing ovation followed not just from Butler fans, but from Indiana, Purdue, and Notre Dame fans in the building.
As it turned out, that was his final public appearance. He battled non-Hodgkins Lymphoma for two years. That would lead to a bone marrow transplant that failed and eventually turned in to full-fledged leukemia. His appearance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was a brief respite in that battle. He had only recently left the hospital to spend Christmas at home, and the grim news that a clinical study was his last hope was well known. Butler ended up beating Purdue that day, and it didn't bother me in the least because it meant he had a great afternoon in the middle of his fight.
Yesterday was the end of that fight. Smith passed away in the arms of his wife, Samantha, who is one of the strongest women in the world. She documented their fight on Twitter and via their blog. I say "their fight" because she was definitely doing the fighting too. Andrew could not have asked for a better partner in his fight because Samantha was the absolute perfect wife for him. She was patient, kind, loving, devoted, and a great partner. My own wife is pretty much like my best friend that I enjoy every experience with, and that is what Samantha is to Andrew. I wish their fairy tale could have had a better ending, but it was not to be.
The public knew Andrew because of the game of basketball. In that, the public got to know a humble young man that set an example of how to quietly live a good life and be a good husband. He spoke openly of his Christian faith how that gave both he and Samantha strength during their fight. It is strange to say that I view someone ten years younger than I as a role model, but that is how I view Andrew Smith. Few people can face what he faced with such grace, confidence, humility, and, somehow, even peace.
In the end basketball is just a game, but I am thankful that it is a game that introduced the world to Andrew Smith and his wife, Samantha. I am thankful that we got to know their story and even share in their grief. Like most of the nation got behind those Butler teams, the state of Indiana was cheering for Andrew Smith. It was behind him when he suffered sudden cardiac arrest and nearly died 18 months ago. It was behind him during the fight with this terrible disease. It is behind him today as he gets his well-deserved rest and peace.
And we are still behind you, Samantha, and your entire family. I don't know if these words will even reach her and the family, but I felt compelled to write them because Andrew was a great competitor that other teams and fans respected. He sounded like he was a great man and I felt compelled to simply tip my cap in respect and admiration of someone who not only played the game of basketball extremely well, but more importantly won the game of life and set a great example of how to live.