When Marcus Smart used to go to the Celtics locker room at halftime, there was always a text message waiting from his mother, Camellia.
If he had missed a free throw during the first half, she would joke that he owed her $100. Other times, she would tell him to keep his focus when she could tell an opponent was irritating him.
But most often, the messages were just small reminders that she loved him. Smart would smile and text back that he loved her, too, and then he would go back onto the court and try to take over a game with the tenacity with which he usually takes over games.
Camellia Smart, 63, died on Sept. 16 after battling cancer. Smart said he does not look at his phone at halftime anymore. And when the Celtics face the Knicks Thursday — Camellia’s birthday — the pain might be a little more piercing.
“It’s going to be an emotional day and it’s going to hit me pretty rough, just the simple fact that I’m used to those texts,” Smart said Wednesday, his eyes welling as he sat in a quiet corner of the practice gym. “When I played on her birthday, I’d send her texts before the game, at halftime, after the game. It’s going to be tough.”
Camellia’s death crushed Smart, but he was enveloped by so many friends, family members, and even strangers in the days that followed that it almost kept it from sinking in. Everywhere he turned, someone was offering hugs or condolences or a story of their own loss.
But nearly three months have passed now, and as time moves on, that comfort from others inevitably fades. And for Smart, the pain is still very real and raw.
It is still difficult for him to sleep at night. He either cannot doze off at all, or he wakes up suddenly and cannot go back to bed, usually because he is thinking about his mother.
So sometimes he drives to the Celtics’ sparkling new practice facility in Brighton by himself and talks to his mom while he is there. He talks to her as he takes jump shots. He talks to her as he sits in the cold tub or the steam room.
He has done this at 2 a.m and 3 a.m. and even 4 a.m. this season.
“I tell her how much I love her and miss her, and I just talk about my day and everything that’s been going on,” Smart said. “If you don’t talk about them out loud, that’s when they really die.
“So I just try to talk about her as much as I can, talk to her when I’m alone, and just never forget that she’s always here in spirit and always here in my heart.”
Other times in these gym visits, Smart will just sit in silence and reminisce. He’ll think about the games his mother used to attend, and how grateful he is that she could see him grow into an NBA player who last summer signed a four-year, $52 million contract.
Smart said he does not think anyone on the team knows about his late-night trips to the practice facility by himself. He has never asked anyone to join him, partly because of the hour, and partly because he just wants to be by himself. There is no clutter and there are no distractions.
“It’s really my time for me just to be alone and really grieve on my own,” Smart said. “With everything that happened, I had to be back in Boston so quickly that I really haven’t had enough time to just grieve. It hit me, but it hasn’t really hit me. And at moments it hits me, being alone is something that works.”
The moments of solitude are important to Smart, but he says that the emotional comfort he has received from the Celtics has been essential, too. Point guard Kyrie Irving, whose mother died when he was just 4 and whose grandfather died earlier this year, has been a constant source of support.
Smart said Irving continues to call him and send him text messages checking on him. It has meant so much to Smart.
“It’s never easy, even when you’re prepared for it,” Irving said, “dealing with something like cancer, dealing with a sickness, dealing with anything where you have to wait for someone to stop suffering.
“So I called him right away and let him know I had his back. It’s a tough thing to lose a loved one, no matter how prepared you are for it. I just want to be there for him.”
Smart enjoys looking at old pictures and videos of his mother. He has collections from Mother’s Days, family reunions, birthdays, and holidays. He can still hear her voice and see her magnetic smile.
It crushes him that he can no longer look into the stands and see her there. He wishes she could be there Thursday, or that he could at least receive a text message from her. But he knows that he can still talk to her whenever he wants, no matter the time or place.
“That brings comfort,” Smart said. “It eases my mind.”
. . .
Forward Jaylen Brown, who has missed the last three games with a bruised tailbone and back spasms, completed full practices the last two days and has been cleared to play against the Knicks. While he was out, Brown was replaced in the starting lineup by Smart and the Celtics rolled off a three-game winning streak.
“I’m expecting to keep going how it’s been going,” Brown said. “Smart and [Marcus] Morris have been playing extremely well, and our team is looking completely different in the first initial start of the game, so that’s what I would expect.
“I haven’t talked to Brad [Stevens] or anybody else, but whatever, however we can keep this going, playing the right way and continue to win, I’m 100 percent for it.”