MATTHEW VANTRYON | Asst. Sports Editor
When those close to him describe the 6-11, 23-year-old Butler University graduate, one word comes to mind: fighter.
Former men’s basketball center Andrew Smith fought his way onto the court as a freshman during Butler’s first NCAA National Championship tournament run.
He fought in the paint for parts of four seasons.
He fought in the classroom to be named second team All-American for the Senior CLASS award, which is reserved for student athletes of the highest caliber.
He fought to earn a spot on a National Basketball Association Summer League roster after college. Eventually, he earned a spot on a professional basketball team in Lithuania.
Now, Smith faces the biggest fight of his life in a battle against cancer.
Two weeks after Butler University’s “Stay Positive Day,” an event designed to raise cancer awareness, the disease has affected another member of the Butler family.
Smith, a 2012 graduate, announced Thursday that he has been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Smith was in the midst of his professional playing career in Lithuania for Neptunas, which competes in the Eurocup League. Smith averaged 6.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in five contests with Neptunas.
Smith began to feel ill soon after arriving in Europe in September and noticed a growth on his neck around December, according to Samuel Porter, Smith’s agent from Exclusive Sports Group.
However, a biopsy on the growth came back non-cancerous.
Smith’s health continued to regress after the scan, and he went to Lithuanian doctors for a second visit. It was during this visit that it was evident something was wrong.
“It became clear that he wasn’t doing so good,” Porter said. “It looked like there was potentially something more serious.”
Porter said the language barrier in Lithuania proved problematic, forcing Smith and his wife Samantha to take swift action and fly back to Indianapolis immediately.
Smith’s wife, Samantha, began a blog—http://kickingcancerwiththesmiths.wordpress.com/—and described the impact of her husband’s diagnosis on their new marriage.
“An adventure that was supposed to kick off our marriage into a whirlwind of experience and culture was cut short when we were sat down at our kitchen table in Lithuania and were told there was a sizable tumor taking shape inside of Andrew,” Samantha Smith said.
Andrew Smith went directly from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to an Indianapolis hospital. He was not officially diagnosed
until he returned to the United States but began treatment immediately afterward. Smith has since undergone two rounds of chemotherapy.
Smith is not the only member of the Butler athletic community to have been affected by cancer in recent years.
Jim Peal, Butler’s head strength and conditioning coach, was diagnosed with colon cancer toward the end of January last year.
Peal said good luck and good people have helped him fight the disease.
“I was very fortunate to catch it early, and I was fortunate to have prayers and support from people,” Peal said.
Peal has been cancer free for a year and went in for his annual exam yesterday. He described his cancer as “best case scenario,” with treatment going smoothly.
As words of advice for the former Butler standout Smith, Peal said being proactive is essential.
“You’ve got to get up in the morning, (and) you’ve got to get yourself moving,” Peal said.
Peal said he has no doubt Smith has what it takes to overcome this challenge.
“Andrew is a special person,” Peal said. “Andrew will do what he can do (to fight his cancer).”
Women’s basketball coach Beth Couture was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2009 and has been cancer-free for five years. She said her lifestyle helped her mentality when fighting her illness.
“Being an athlete and competitor helped me,” Couture said. “You have to go into fight mode.”
Couture said she believes Smith will benefit from the same mentality.
“I know that he’s a fighter,” Couture said. “He’s going to understand the journey he has ahead of him.”
The diagnosis hit close to home for many current members of the Butler basketball team, including junior guard Alex Barlow. Barlow played with Smith for two years and lost a cousin to cancer.
“I’m just kind of in shock,” Barlow said. “At the same time, you want to be there for Drew. I know Drew will fight it and beat it.”
Barlow said Smith always showed grit and determination on the court and is used to overcoming adversity.
“He was always fighting on the court,” Barlow said. “He’s dealt with adversity. Going through chemo, he’ll take it head on just like he (took on being) a captain his senior year.”
Junior forward Kameron Woods also reached out to Smith via Twitter, posting, “Easy to get wrapped up in wins and losses when in the grand scheme of things it’s much deeper than that…praying for Big Drew and his fam [sic].”
The announcement of Smith’s diagnosis elicited widespread reaction, not only among the Butler community, but throughout Indianapolis as well.
Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano—who was diagnosed with cancer in September 2012—reached out to Smith to offer his well wishes, as did Indiana University men’s basketball head coach Tom Crean.
“Andrew Smith is one of the toughest players we have ever competed against and has a Very Bright future in this World [sic]. Get healthy soon,” Crean said via Twitter.
Xavier men’s basketball head coach Chris Mack also voiced his support via Twitter.
“If former Butler great Andrew Smith attacks cancer like he attacked basketball games, cancer has no chance. Prayers from Xavier Basketball,” Mack tweeted.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma affected 69,740 people in 2013 and accounted for 4.2 percent of all cancer cases, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma generally affects those over the age of 65, with only 3.8 percent of cases affecting those between the ages of 20-34.
As for Smith’s professional career, all plans are currently on hold.
How the remainder of Smith’s contract with the Neptunas will be handled is currently unknown.
“Right now, we and his family and friends are 100 percent focused on his health,” Porter said.
Porter echoed the sentiment that, if anyone can beat cancer, Smith is that individual.
“If there’s a guy who can bounce back, Andrew is that guy,” Porter said. “He’s a fighter, a grinder, (and) he’s tough minded and tough spirited. If I had to pick a player to come out on top, Andrew would be that guy.”