WALTHAM, Mass. — Todd Westbrook’s life did not end the way it would happen in the movies.
Marcus Smart’s eldest brother never held his hand as the breath escaped his lungs and implored his youngest sibling to dedicate himself to basketball and one day make it to the NBA. He didn’t make some rousing speech in a rare moment of strength, before leukemia claimed him at age 33, with imaginary orchestra music rising in the background.
Westbrook didn’t need to do any of that. He changed his brother’s life without barely saying a word.
“See, the thing is, he never really allowed you to feel sorry for him,” Smart said. “Every time he saw me, he put a smile on his face. If you didn’t know who he was or what he was going through, you would never know he was in pain or he was struggling.
“But he did tell me one thing: Never take any days for granted, because as quickly as it’s given to you, it can be taken away just as fast.”
Much has been seemingly given to Smart, who was introduced Monday along with James Young as the newest members of the Boston Celtics. Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, is now assured of millions of dollars in what promises to be a long professional basketball career. Yet the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Texan also speaks with the soft, slow tone of someone who saw far too much of the “real” world before he was ever finished being a kid.
Westbrook died when Smart was nine, but Smart, the youngest of four, lived his adolescent years in the shadow of his other older brother, Michael, who dealt drugs and ran with a gang in Lancaster, Texas. Their mother, Camellia Smart, eventually moved her family to a less rough neighborhood in Flower Mound, because she had seen the effect of peer pressure on children and teenagers, working in the school system and community college in Dallas. She believed the only way to keep her youngest son from a similar fate to Michael’s was to change the environment.
Smart was hardly an angel as a teenager, due to having seen more before the age of 12 than many people see in a lifetime, but he never came close to approaching the life Michael lived (and has since quit).
“It made Marcus grow up faster than the other boys,” Camellia said. “That was a beautiful thing, because to see what his brothers went through in life, that made him decide to go another way. To see Todd sick and him passing, and to see Michael almost passing, yeah, it made a strong person out of him.”
That’s why the events of Feb. 9 were such a shock. Camellia was in the hospital for dialysis treatment, and ESPN was on in the room. Suddenly, video of Smart shoving a fan in the Texas Tech crowd flashed onto the screen, playing over and over. A nurse futilely tried to get Camellia to relax.
Later that night, Camellia got a hold of her son on the phone — and shattered any preconceived notions about Smart being a coddled athlete. Whatever Smart’s critics said on TV couldn’t measure up to what mom said on the phone.
“What is wrong with you?” Camellia demanded.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Smart said, over and over. “I know I was wrong. I know I was wrong.”
Humbled once more, Smart was the picture of discipline the rest of the season with the Cowboys. He continued to play in memory of Westbrook, who once scored 30 points in a high school game despite a tumor behind his left eye forcing his eyelid shut. He played for his grandmother, who once broke her finger in a game, had it reset on the sideline, re-entered the game, broke the finger again and just kept on playing anyway because stopping to have it reset had been annoying.
Smart wore No. 3 throughout high school, just like Westbrook, then switched to No. 33 (Westbrook’s age when he died) at Oklahoma State, where No. 3 is retired in honor of Dan Lawson, who died in the Oklahoma State plane crash in 2001. On draft night, Smart had Westbrook’s name printed on the inside of his suit jacket.
“Todd is here in spirit,” Camellia remembers saying in Brooklyn after the Celtics announced their pick.
With the Celtics, Smart’s number will change again. Nos. 3 and 33 are retired for Dennis Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively, so Smart chose No. 36 — signifying Westbrook’s number and the pick where Smart was drafted. He held up his new jersey on Monday, donned the draft cap he’s had to put on and take off numerous times for photo opportunities in the last few days, and soaked in the joy made possible by years of struggle.
“It’s amazing,” Camellia said, after a deep breath and a pause. “It really is. It’s a dream come true for my baby. It’s beautiful.”