Celtics rookie Marcus Smart’s hard past drives his future
LANCASTER, Texas — Marcus Smart exits the silver Ford Mustang, surveys the apartment complex, and shakes his head. In the overcast morning light, with thunderstorms stretched gray across the summer sky, he tries to remember the last time he returned to this Dallas suburb and retraced his childhood steps. But he cannot remember. It has been that long.
“This is a place,” says the 20-year-old Celtics rookie guard and top draft choice, “that you don’t want to come back to.”
. . .
Eight years ago, Marcus prayed: “Just please get me out of this.”
He prayed as he sprinted through the complex’s parking lot while a Bloods gang member gave chase, pulled a gun, and started firing.
He prayed as he zig-zagged between cars while seven bullets whizzed by. He prayed as he ran harder and faster than he ever will, knowing that this could be it.
“I promise,” he prayed, “I’ll do better.”
Today, Marcus calls that moment the lowest point in a life racked by tragedy, with so many family members and friends dying from everything but old age — a toll so steep it does not seem real.
One relative dropped a loaded shotgun during a children’s game of cowboys and Indians in this town many years ago. It discharged straight into the heart of another relative, who was 5.
Another relative was found shot to death one morning in a front yard in Tyler, Texas. He was 16.
A train struck one of Marcus’s ex-Amateur Athletic Union teammates four years ago in rural Oklahoma. He was 17.
Then there was Todd Westbrook, Marcus’s oldest half-brother, who died at 33 from cancer.
The deaths came in rapid order.
“Oh, God,” says Marcus’s mother, Camellia, as she fights back tears. “At one point, it was like ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.’ ”
When Marcus was 3, his grandmother — Camellia’s mother — died. He was close to her and attended the funeral, but after that, he told Camellia, “If I don’t have to go, I don’t want to.”
“I used to hate seeing someone up there and it was someone you know, you care about,” he says now, “and there’s nothing you can do to help them.”
Marcus has a guaranteed multimillion-dollar contract with the Boston Celtics, who selected him sixth overall in June’s National Basketball Association draft. He has a multiyear apparel deal with Adidas, also worth more than $1 million. He has his health.
And with Celtics star point guard Rajon Rondo out 6 to 8 weeks because of a broken left hand, Smart figures to play a more prominent role, perhaps starting through the first month of the regular season.
But what he has seen makes him more grateful than most.
“I just wake up and I thank God every day,” he says, “because I easily could’ve been in jail or six feet under.”
. . .
Marcus stands on a sidewalk in front of a single-story, multifamily brick home on the 1500 block of North Bluegrove Road. A large magnolia tree shades the front yard.
“This is it,” he says.
There is a metal gate on the door; that was not there when his family moved here from DeSoto just after Todd died, when Marcus was 9. Across the street is a notorious trio of apartment complexes — on the left and right called The Pinks; in the middle, the Meadows.
Marcus recalls the area, known as the “1500 block,” as a place where Crips and Bloods gangs waged war, where drugs were rampant, where police sirens howled, where the Fourth of July was an excuse to fire off more gunshots than normal because outsiders mistook them for fireworks.
“At the time when I was here,” Marcus says, “if you heard ‘Lancaster, 1500 block, Meadows,’ everybody said, ‘Oh, you live by the Meadows. We won’t come over there. We’ll talk to you later.’ ”
. . .
Born three weeks prematurely at just 6 pounds, Marcus spent nearly a month in the hospital with a feeding tube as doctors ran tests to make sure he was OK. He would be fine; more than fine. When Camellia took him back for his two-month checkup, he dwarfed other children his age. By age 1, she called him huge.
“Ever since then, he’s been big,” she says.
But for as big and old as Marcus always appeared for his age, there came one harrowing night when his family asked him to become a man.
He was 9 years old.
His aunt sat Marcus and a cousin down on a couch and tried to talk, but could only cry. Finally, she started to say “Todd . . . ”
“And I just knew what she was about to say next,” Marcus says.
He burst into tears.
“Todd is dying,” the aunt told Marcus. “The doctor said he’s brain dead. His heart is still beating, but he’s not there anymore, and they’re ready to take him off life support.”
Marcus bolted out of the house, shattering a glass door, screaming in the yard. Neighbors looked on, concerned. His cousin tackled him. “This can’t be happening!” Marcus wailed.
Todd, who had become a father figure and mentor to his siblings as their mother and father worked nights, teaching his brothers how to dress (always clean, ironed clothes), speak (yes sir, no sir), shave, shake a man’s hand, and more.
Todd, who would take Marcus swimming, to the gym, to get haircuts, doughnuts, ice cream, or just horse around. And when chemotherapy sapped Todd’s energy, Marcus and a brother would go into Todd’s room to watch the Discovery and History channels and shoot balled-up socks into a hoop-shaped wire hanger hooked on the door.
Todd, who was 15 when doctors found a tumor behind his eye following an all-district sophomore basketball season, but who went through treatment, returned as a senior, and led his team to the state semifinals.
Todd, who checked himself out of the hospital one night, played in a high school game with his left eye swollen shut, scored 30 points, and was called “The comeback kid” by newspapers.
“This can’t be happening!” Marcus wailed.
The cancer spread to Todd’s lungs and stomach. Marcus had learned there was no cure.
Then in late 2003, Marcus was asked what he wanted for Christmas, and he said he only wanted one more Christmas with Todd. He got his wish, and Todd gave him a gold chain with his initial “M” to hang around his neck.
Early the following year, after one family visit, Todd gave Camellia a long hug, called her the best mom in the world, and said he loved her. She said she loved him, too, thinking he would fight another day, as he had for 18 years.
Marcus saw family in the hospital waiting room, everyone in tears. He tore down the hallway into Todd’s room and Camellia grabbed him.
“She’s crying and I’m crying and I just see Todd’s body there, lifeless,” Marcus says. “It’s like a mannequin.”
He touched Todd’s feet.
“Why is he so cold?” Marcus asked his mom.
“It’s because he’s not there anymore,” she said.
He climbed on top of Todd’s chest and started shaking him, shouting “Wake up!”
Remembering it all now, sitting in an apartment near downtown Dallas on a recent afternoon, Marcus pauses. Tears stream down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping his face.
After a deep breath, he resumes his story.
“My mom grabbed me and she’s holding me and she said, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do for him now.’ ”
He kissed Todd on the forehead.
Then, as he exited the room, Marcus’s other brothers, Michael, nearly twice his age, and Jeff, even older, stopped him.
“The family is all on you now,” they told him. “It’s time to grow up. We had our chances, and we blew it. Now it’s your turn. You’re the last one. You’re all mom has left.”
Marcus’s first love was football — he played strong safety and wide receiver — but when Todd died, Marcus switched to basketball.
“What happened with him kind of intensified the game for me even more,” he says. “Basketball became my love.”
He is often told he shares an uncanny resemblance to Todd on the court, with his aggressive style, but Marcus says he does not understand how that is possible. He says he never had a chance to study Todd’s play; a house fire destroyed Todd’s game footage.
But Marcus honors Todd with his all-out effort, a trait that coaches have praised for years.
“I’ve always played hard,” Marcus says. “That’s how I was raised. But now I’m playing more with a purpose. Now I’m playing not just for myself, I’m playing for my brother, for my family. I’m going to go out there and give it all I have, because he gave it all he had for 18 years, and he lost his battle. I don’t want to lose my battle.”
. . .
Marcus, back in Lancaster, is wearing a lime green shirt, black shorts, and sneakers. No one has recognized him — yet.
“It feels weird being here,” he says. “It really does.”
He is standing on the 1500 block.
“I got kicked out of these apartments plenty of times,” he says.
He recalls hitting a mailman with a rock, then the mailman calling police and describing what Marcus was wearing. Marcus stripped down to his boxers, raced down to the street, turned the corner, and hid in his house.
“I didn’t come out for about three days,” he says.
Marcus liked throwing rocks — at people, cars, windows, anything. It was fun, a competition among friends to see who could hit the most difficult targets from the longest distances.
“It just turned into something where you’re constantly doing it and you get addicted to it — the adrenaline rush,” he says.
Michael had warned him not to throw stones. He said that one day he would hit the wrong person.
. . .
Not long after Todd’s death, Camellia noticed a hole in one of Marcus’s sneakers, which she found odd. Todd had taught him to keep up appearances, but with Todd gone, Marcus said, “It just wasn’t as important anymore.”
His new stance worried Camellia, who says, “That’s when the changes started.”
There is no manual for how to channel grief, and Marcus channeled his into anger, engaging in several fights per week at school.
“The smallest thing would set me off — just the way you look at me would set me off because I was so angry,” he says.
He took anger management classes. They taught him exercises to calm down — take a deep breath, close your eyes, count to 10.
“I thought it was all stupid,” he says. “What is counting to 10 going to do for me? I’m still going to be angry when I’m done counting.”
His anger boiled over in a school fight that ended with Marcus slamming a student’s head face-first into the concrete, again and again, before a teacher finally pulled him off.
“They said I almost killed him,” Marcus says.
For that, he was kicked out of school and sent to the Texas Alternative Education Program, which he described as prison, with paddlings for punishment and mandatory uniforms. After serving 30 days, he got out and returned to public school, but said students looked at him like a criminal.
“So I put a wall up,” he says. “I kind of established this mean personality, this person that you don’t want to talk to, that you don’t want to mess with.”
Another way he lashed out was by throwing rocks, and late one spring evening, with a friend on a second-floor balcony in The Pinks complex, Marcus hit a man in a hooded sweat shirt from about 15 yards away, knocking him off his bike.
Marcus and his friend shared high-fives and laughs, and then looked away. When they looked back, they saw only the bike. Soon, they heard heavy footsteps running up the stairs toward them.
Marcus and his friend jumped over the balcony, sprinting to the adjacent complex. The man followed and pulled his gun. Drenched with sweat and full of fear, Marcus and his friend ducked into a nearby apartment.
“I thought my life was over,” Marcus says.
But when the door opened and the man saw who Marcus was — the brother of Michael, a fellow Bloods gang member — he walked away.
The next day, on a playground, Marcus was playing basketball with Michael when the same man approached. Marcus dropped the ball and started backpedaling. Michael was not sure why.
“Your little brother was throwing rocks at me last night,” the man told Michael. “He almost got hurt.”
. . .
Marcus once found a crack cocaine rock in Michael’s room. He did not know what it was, and he nearly tasted it.
“But something told me not to,” Marcus says.
Michael had given up basketball and fallen into a gang life filled with drugs, guns, and violence.
Marcus saw his friends buy drugs from Michael, and he saw Michael accumulate goods that matched what his friends had reported stolen.
“How do you tell your friend, ‘Oh, I think my brother stole that?’ ” Marcus asks. “You don’t, because that’s your brother.”
Though just 10 at the time, Marcus tried to convince his brother to change his ways. And Michael, resorting to threats if necessary, kept the gang leaders from recruiting Marcus to the life. But Michael did not turn his own life around until after he nearly died from a cocaine overdose.
Eventually, Camellia was determined to leave Lancaster, and they moved to Flower Mound, a suburb west of Dallas. To demonstrate how different it is, Michael points to an open door in their home there on a recent afternoon.
“You couldn’t leave the door open in Lancaster,” he says. “If you do, you’re crazy. They’ll come in and steal your stuff while you’re probably sitting on your couch.”
In Flower Mound, Marcus reunited with a best friend, Phil Forte. They played basketball together in high school and then at Oklahoma State.
Marcus nearly turned professional after winning the Big 12’s Player of the Year honors as a freshman, but he returned for one more year.
Then in February of his sophomore year, just before tip-off at Texas Tech, Marcus was told that his mother had been rushed to the hospital and that she did not want him to know.
“I was scared,” he says. “It was heavy on my mind and my heart.”
Camellia, whose blood pressure was acting up, watched from her hospital bed as Marcus lost his temper on court, engaging in an altercation with a fan late in the game — an altercation that began with the fan allegedly calling him a “trashy [racial expletive],” Michael says.
Said an Eastern Conference scout: “If the racist comment was true, I know for certain, me, I’m not confrontational but I would’ve punched the guy.”
No matter the provocation, Marcus says there is no excuse for his actions, which resulted in national headlines, a three-game suspension, and revealed a side of Marcus that he had worked so hard to keep in control — his temper.
“Off the court, I’m a totally different person,” he says. “I’ve heard people be like, ‘Oh, so sweet, like a big ole teddy bear.’ But I guess I still have that look on my face in a game. I guess I still have a vibe where it’s intimidating.”
His fire should fit in fine in Boston. After all, from Red Auerbach punching out an opposing owner to Larry Bird mixing it up with Dr. J, to Rajon Rondo bumping a ref, fire is in the Celtics’ DNA.
“I guess that’s why they have all those banners up there,” Marcus says.
. . .
Marcus has done better, as he promised God on that night when he ran and prayed for his life, a night that marked both his lowest point and a turning point.
“When you experience things like that at a young age, it does change you,” he says. “It humbles you in a way that you would never imagine.”
But more than anything, he has been humbled by the loss of a father figure, a brother, Todd.
“I could’ve easily let the passing of my brother control how I live my life,” he says. “But I was determined not to let him die in vain and to make a negative into a positive. I thank God every day because now I’m here, not only living out my dream but his dream, too.”
On the night he was drafted, Marcus wore a bespoke blue suit jacket with several images stitched into the lining — an Oklahoma State logo, a map of Texas, an “M” for Marcus, and a copy of the tattoo that graces his arms, an RIP for Todd.
. . .
Before he climbs into the Mustang, leaves Lancaster, and heads to a workout, Marcus pulls up to a single-story, three-bedroom brick home on Princeton Drive where his family lived before leaving Lancaster for good. He was in sixth or seventh grade then. He and his brother still got in trouble over at the 1500 block, which was a walk or a bike ride away.
As he stands in the road, a man exits the house, short and upbeat with a country accent.
They make small talk, and the man asks Marcus what he hopes to achieve in the NBA.
“Just to have a long career,” he says. “That’s it.”
It is a simple answer, but there are layers there.
He is playing for something he values in a way few others ever will, something that is fleeting, something that ran out too soon for those he loved.
He is playing for time, as much as possible, for him, for them.