Andrew Smith deserves to be first to have his number retired by Butler

There are 41 banners hanging inside historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. They give context to Butler’s proud traditions in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and, most notably of all, men’s hoops. Above the famous crow’s nest, in the north end of the arena, cloths and vinyls representing Butler’s improbable and magical 2010 and 2011 national championship appearances dangle and boast as the prized banners of the Bulldogs’ basketball palace. Those Final Four pennants are flanked by banners celebrating 21 league championships and postseason tournament appearances.

Forty-one banners. Forty-one reminders.

And at some point, be it on the 42nd, 43rd or, fittingly, the 44th occasion that Hinkle’s rafters accept another pennon, Butler should pull off the unprecedented and retire the first uniform number of any player in its history.

That number should be 44.

Andrew Smith’s number.

This isn’t a deed to be done in haste; it doesn’t have to be a ceremony elbowed into Butler’s schedule before the end of this regular season. It shouldn’t be something decided on raw emotion, either.

But in time, with reflection and removal, wouldn’t this be an amazing gesture? Perhaps to be done on the one-year occasion of his death, which will come on Jan. 12, 2017. Maybe even further in the future still, but eventually it would be an appropriate sight to look up at Hinkle’s bowed-and-brawny metal skeleton and see “SMITH 44” in all its esteem. Smith’s incredible story is secondhand nature to so many of the locals in around Indianapolis, but it’s also become one of the most impactful and powerful tragedies in sports in recent memory.

These are somber times for the Butler program, and everyone around the campus is aching because Smith’s heroic story loomed large in that community in recent months, as his wife wrote poignant and painful personal updates on her husband’s cruel deteriorating health battle during a second uninvited duel with cancer. My friend, Gregg Doyel, wrote eloquently about Smith’s life, and his death, and how it brings to mind the courageous fight and nationwide inspiration of the late Lauren Hill. The former women’s basketball player at D-III Mount St. Joseph was the most affecting story of the 2014-15 college basketball season. Her number was retired by her high school while she was still alive in 2014.

Smith died on Tuesday at the all-too-young age of 25. I fully admit I am writing this editorial with a bias, with a stake in the matter. I have inadvertently become personally vested in Andrew’s memory, because writing his story, detailing how he inconceivably dodged death on the carpeted floor of an office building in July 2014, it’s impossible not to be.

With his continued connectivity to Butler in the 2 1/2 years after his graduation, he’s forever cemented his legacy to that school by way of an unseasonable death. Andrew Smith was a strong human and a powerful person. His unfair ending brings a symbiosis that will affix his memory to Butler.

Will these banners one day have Andrew Smith’s name and number join them at Hinkle? (USATSI)

And Andrew’s legacy is based in actual basketball, too. Smith was no superstar during his time as a Bulldog, but he was a cog in the most critical and accomplished era of Butler basketball. He was Brad Stevens’ toughest player; the coach said as much just hours after Smith’s death. But he also said as much to me, in casual conversation, last year.

Smith is Indiana’s own. He’s Indianapolis’ own, too. He grew up in Zionsville, Indiana, a suburb on the northwest corner of the Circle City. When I talked to Andrew about his college choice, he reflected with an automatic reply: “It was always going to be Butler.” His role on the 2010-11 team was pivotal to the unbelievable: a second straight trip to the national championship game by a small private school out of the Horizon League.

Smith takes to the grave a winning reputation. He’s one of just three players in program history to finish his career with more than 100 wins and 1,000 points. Smith was the embodiment in so many ways of Stevens’ favorite qualities in a player. Teachable, humble, happy — and freaking tough as hell.

Butler’s tribute to Smith has already started in spirit but will show with evidence on Saturday, the team’s first game since his passing. Bulldogs players will wear a black patch with white lettering for the remainder of the season. The stitching will read “AS 44” Moments of silence will come with every Big East game.

The “Stay Positive” initiative, which has been a grassroots effort on behalf of the student body and young Butler fans, will rally and roar in Smith’s memory on Saturday. Bookmarks with some of Andrew’s favorite bible verses will be sold for the cause — and to help Sam pay for the mountain range of medical bills Andrew’s condition created.

Butler’s been staunch in its policy to not retire uniform numbers or hang the names of anyone in the rafters at Hinkle, but this church of a basketball gym has been subject to change since its opening in 1928. It was Butler Fieldhouse until 1966, when it became Hinkle in honor of the most important figure in the history of that school’s athletic department. And this came not only when Tony Hinkle was alive, but when he was still a paid employee.

Hinkle’s undergone three major renovations during its time. The 1980s were witness to its inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. In the 1930s the building had a capacity of 15,000 people and the basketball court was facing the wrong way. With each subsequent facelift, fewer seats have been put into the building. It was a barracks for the Air Force and Navy in World War II. Hinkle’s hosted six presidents (Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, H.W. Bush and Clinton), events with horses, three-ring circuses and the highest-attended volleyball match United States history.

There are many facets to Hinkle Fieldhouse’s history, and its interior cosmetic evolution makes all the steady pillars of the place that much more special.

“The program was better because he was in it, and the community was better because he was in it,” Stevens said on Wednesday.

Smith will be remembered fondly forever by the program. But traditions are often just customs stuck in a certain time and in a certain frame of mind. Sometimes, breaking tradition brings more pride to the proceedings. There doesn’t have to be a rule that Butler can’t retire a jersey. It can. It should. Andrew of course would have never even thought this to be something worth discussing, but since he’s no longer here, I think, at the absolute least, he’s up for the nomination.

The photo below was taken in 2011 on Christmas Day at the Smith family home. Andrew surprised his dad with an unusual gift. It was the ring from his second Final Four season. The two were crying at this moment.

“I can’t accept this gift,” Curt Smith told his son. “It’s your Final Four ring.”

But Andrew responded,

“It’s OK, Dad,” he said. “I have two of them.”

Premature death endears us all the more to those who’ve died because they’ve been robbed of a future they richly deserve. Thousands in this country alone will die this year from evil cancers and other vexing diseases. Andrew is emblematic of those tragedies and at the same time a symbol of strength. To me, that’s what makes it worth putting his name and number high in Hinkle. So future generations can see the name, find the story and discover that Butler basketball in so many ways was defined by a man taken too soon but eternally tied to this program at its proudest.

Curt Smith, left, and Andrew on Christmas in 2011. (Courtesy of Curt Smith)

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