INDIANAPOLIS – When it was over Saturday, the coach of Butler sought out Curt Smith, the father who had just lost his son, with something for him to keep.
The game ball.
This day, they were playing for Andrew Smith at Butler.
"Hopefully, that was good for them to see,’’ Chris Holtmann would later say of Smith’s family. ``We tried to honor him with our play. Hopefully, we did that.’’The 78-58 win over St. John’s? The 13-4 BuIldogs needed that badly enough, after a 1-3 start in the Big East. But Saturday in Hinkle Fieldhouse was so much more than a basketball game. Smith died of cancer Tuesday at 25, not five years after he helped the Bulldogs to consecutive Final Fours. So it has been a long and emotional week at Butler.
It could not have been easy getting ready to play a game, though as Holtmann said, "I have really stayed away from saying anything is hard, given what we have just seen the Smith family go through.’’
They warmed up Saturday with big 44s on their shooting shirts, and played with AS44 patches on their jerseys. The line went down the concourse before the game of fans buying t-shirts and wristbands and headbands to help Smith’s family. The shirts carried the words #AndrewSmithstrong, and the St. John’s players were wearing them, too.
Wearing #44 shooting shirts today, here come Andrew's Butler Bulldogs... pic.twitter.com/LjRZsNisah— Butler Basketball (@ButlerMBB) January 16, 2016
Thank you to St. John's for joining us in wearing Stay Positive t-shirts today. pic.twitter.com/MuVn1ukPzJ— Butler Basketball (@ButlerMBB) January 16, 2016
A poignant video tribute was played on the scoreboard, and the sellout crowd, including 14 Smith family members, stood for a moment of silence. Then the game started in something of a surreal and muted atmosphere. Could 9,000 people really make so little noise? Maybe all that showed on the court. A Bulldogs team averaging 9.4 turnovers a game – third best in the nation -- committed eight in the first eight minutes.
The video tribute and moment of silence for Andrew Smith today at Hinkle Fieldhouse.... https://t.co/MLMRQbE3sc— Butler Basketball (@ButlerMBB) January 16, 2016
Two-time cancer survivor and Butler graduate Eric Day, who had grown to know Smith while leading a Stay Positive campaign on behalf of victims of the disease, spoke at the first TV timeout. Not a whisper from the stands.
Then at halftime, two mourning young people stood at center court and addressed a hushed audience. One was Samantha Smith, now a widow. The other Erik Fromm, a former Smith teammate who, while at Butler, lost his father to cancer.
"Andrew and I had this game on our calendar to come and to say thank you,’’ Samantha said to the crowd, with breaking voice. ``We were supposed to be here together. I’m not here because it’s easy. It’s really hard. But I’m here because it was important to him.’’
Smith was part of Brad Stevens’ Camelot at Butler. Those golden days when the college basketball world had truly fallen in love with the charm and triumph of the Butler Way. No strings attached to this story. No dark side. Just good kids, doing good things. Kids like Andrew Smith.
He was an Academic All-American, and played in two national championship games. Not many other guys out there can say that. It was the kind of career that was supposed to be celebrated at a future team reunion, with Smith and Stevens shaking hands and reliving the old days.
Stevens came back to Indianapolis see Smith earlier this month, not for a reunion, but because he knew the end was near. Lots of people talked of how they admired Stevens for that. No one should have been surprised. This was the Butler Way at work again, only in heartbreaking, tragic circumstances. Just like Saturday.
"The best part of our week was looking forward to games,’’ Samantha Smith said at halftime. "Andrew loved Butler so much.’’
She thanked the audience, with a story of her husband. `"The thing that Andrew was most worried and scared about was leaving me. He would ask, "Who’s going to take care you?"
"With all your guys’ generosity, you’re answering that question.’’
And then the game went on, as games must. Curt Smith had told Holtmann this week, "If your players start feeling sorry for themselves, just give me two minutes in the locker room.’’
Holtmann mentioned after the game, "I told him I almost took him up on his offer at halftime.’’
Saturday’s victory was important for the Bulldogs, with trips to Providence and Creighton ahead. A season once so shiny at 11-1 had turned wobbly in Big East play. There is an NCAA tournament bid to chase.
They have chased so many here lately. In Andrew Smith’s years, Butler basketball seemed like a fantasy story, but even fairy tales can take tragic and sad turns. This one just did. "Andrew, we all love you, buddy,’’ Fromm said to the crowd at halftime. "Rest in peace.’’
Nice victory for Butler, but it was still a somber Saturday in Hinkle Fieldhouse.