Former Butler big man Andrew Smith dies at 25

Andrew Smith and his wife, Sam, during their engagement shoot in 2013. (Photo courtesy Sam Smith)

Andrew Smith, the workmanlike big man who helped establish Butler’s rise to national college basketball prominence, died on Tuesday morning in the arms of his wife, Sam. He was 25. Smith’s father, Curt, told CBS Sports his son passed at 10:55 a.m. in Indianapolis at University Hospital’s Simon Bone Marrow Transplant Center.

Sam Smith first shared the news of Andrew’s death via Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.

Smith’s life was cut short by a relentless battle with cancer, one that first surfaced in late 2013. Days after graduating from Butler in May of 2013, Andrew and Sam married. Later that year he began his basketball career in Europe, but by December it became clear to him there was something wrong with his body. Within a year he’d be done with the hellish chemotherapy treatments, but come the spring of 2015, his struggle had returned and morphed into a fight against leukemia.

In March 2015, CBS Sports extensively detailed the incredible resistance against his own body that Smith endured throughout 2014, including a cardiac arrest episode that left him unconscious and technically dead for 22 minutes. It was during his time at Mina Leasing and Financial Services, at the end of July in 2014, that Smith faced death the first time — and unimaginably beat it. Miraculously, Smith was able to walk out of the hopsital with full cogntitive ability four days after the incident. Medical experts told CBS Sports last year it is practically unheard of for anyone to undergo cardiac arrest for more than 20 minutes and not suffer from any apparent brain damage.

“Andrew packed more living into his 25 years than most of us will enjoy in a full 75 years,” Curt Smith said. “He lived his faith, relished his family, selflessly served his wife, and pursued his passion of basketball at the highest levels.”

Smith continued to keep basketball in his life after his playing career was forced to finish. In 2015 he coached Indiana Faith, a grade school-age basketball team, and loved it very much. After overcoming his heart scare, and beating T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, the Smiths bought a house and Andrew began trying to resume a normal life.

But the cancer would not quit, and by late spring of 2015, his battle was renewed. As the year went on, Smith’s situation worsened more and more. Last week, Sam penned an emotional blog post detailing the deteriorating condition of her husband, including the harrowing phrase, “death is imminent.”

“He is afraid of death and I am afraid of life,” she wrote.

Smith found a donor for his bone marrow transplant this past fall, and received that transplant on Nov. 6, but it didn’t take. For most of the past three months, Smith spent his time in the hospital. However, he and his family made sure to see his alma mater in person this season. It was against Purdue on Dec. 19, at the Crossroads Classic. Butler rallied late to defeat the Boilers. Less than a week after that, Andrew spent his last Christmas at home with his wife and family.

Butler released a joint statement from its president, James Danko, and athletic director, Barry Collier Tuesday afternoon. It reads:

“The Butler community is profoundly sad today with the news of Andrew’s passing. We saw the way Andrew fought on the basketball court and we saw the way he fought for his health. In both cases, we saw the best of Andrew Smith. But that’s what we always saw from Andrew. He gave his all, all the time. As an Academic All-American, he represented the best of Butler in the classroom and on the court. Above all else, what made Andrew special was the way that he genuinely cared for others. Within his large frame was an even larger heart. He is, was, and always will be a Bulldog. The Butler community is proud to have been part of his life, and our thoughts are with his wife, Samantha; his parents, Debbie and Curt; and the rest of his family.”

Smith is one of only three Butler players ever — alongside Matt Howard and Joel Cornette — to finish his career with the Bulldogs having accrued more than 100 wins and 1,000 points. Smith averaged 7.9 and 4.6 rebounds during his time at BU and was part of a Butler team that accomplished something that might not happen for another half-century in college basketball, if not longer. Butler’s 2010 and 2011 national title game appearances came before the Bulldogs were members of the Big East and, for one year before that, the Atlantic 10. Coach Brad Stevens’ program was the pride of the Horizon League, and in reaching consecutive Final Fours, accomplished something never before seen by a mid-major team in college basketball.

In Smith’s senior season, he was part of the Butler squad that reached another NCAA Tournament in what would turn out to be Stevens’ last season with Butler, before heading to the NBA to coach the Boston Celtics. In Butler’s win against Bucknell, Smith’s 16 rebounds set a Bulldogs NCAA Tournament record. Smith was also an academic All-American honoree.

On Tuesday, Stevens tweeted:

Stevens, who could not hold in his emotions as he met with the media prior to his team’s game on Tuesday night, took the time last week (and missed coaching Boston’s game against the Bulls in the process) to visit Smith in his final days. The 6-foot-11 man who they called “Moose” played his way onto Butler’s roster after catching Stevens’ eye in the summer before his senior season of high school. Smith earned All-City honors as a senior, being named the best high school player in Indianapolis in 2008-09.

Andrew Curtis Smith was born in Sept. 9, 1990, in Washington, D.C. Measuring just shy of 11 pounds and 24 and 1/4 inches long, he was the second-largest child ever delivered by the doctor who guided Debbie Smith’s labor. He loved bands such as Explosions in the Sky, Snow Patrol and Dashboard Confessional.

Ronald Nored, who played on those Final Fours teams with Smith, visited his teammate alongside Stevens last week. Nored told CBS Sports, “My favorite part about my visit was how Andrew spoke about about how he wanted to give to others. He was saying that at his sickest. I got to hug him and tell him I loved him. His fight inspired so many people, I’m happy I got to be a part of his life and more importantly that he was a part of mine.”

Smith was visited by many Butler players, old and new, in his final weeks; current Bulldogs Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, who played with Smith, visited recently, while Butler’s been putting together a strong 2015-16 season. Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano (a cancer surivor), as well as state senators and the governor of Indiana also made sure to see and/or be in contact with Smith at various points of his battle.

Smith died before big plans that had been arranged for him could come to pass. The Indiana Pacers wanted to honor him, but Smith’s health declined too quickly. Smith was most excited about arranging a special, hospital-room-viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Plans had been made with power players at Disney, “but things moved too fast,” his father said, and said that was his “one regret” for his son in his final days.

Curt Smith also said every Big East program plans on having a moment of silence this week to honor Andrew. And Butler coach Chris Holtmann told CBS Sports the team will wear uniform patches the rest of this season to honor Andrew’s spirit and memory and time as a Bulldog.

Andrew Smith is survived by his wife, Sam, as well as his father, Curt; mother, Debbie Sutter Smith; brother, Stephen Smith and sister-in-law, Jennifer Foley Smith; older sister, Julie Webster, and brother-in-law, John Webster; sister, Kimberly Smith; and his grandparents, James and Nedra Sutter.

The date is pending but the location is not: Zionsville (the Indiana town where Smith grew up) and its Traders Point Christian Church is where his memorial and funeral services will be held. Andrew Smith’s story is now at once his own and also forever tied to Butler. One of college basketball’s most historic programs now has a hallowed hero to enshrine inside its sacred palace, Hinkle Fieldhouse. Smith’s tragic, premature death brings him peace and a luminary legacy that can shine forever.