What do most people know Marcus Smart for? His undeniable effort on the basketball court probably comes to mind. Maybe — just maybe — it’s his history of flopping... just a little bit. Or it might be his improvement as a point guard and shooter over the course of the last few seasons in Boston. All are applicable, acceptable answers to the initial question.
But for cancer patients at children’s hospitals in New England, Smart is just their friend Marcus. A piece published at The Athletic details how Smart has spent a great deal of his time with these patients since 2014. The feature — written and reported by former CelticsBlogger Jared Weiss — touches on not just Smart’s impact on children’s hospitals and the patients he meets within them, but the collective impact they’ve had on him for what is now close to a decade. Initially, he was just hoping to bring smiles to the faces of patients going through difficult times. It has since evolved into a broader mission involving his foundation and impacting children’s hospitals across the country.
Weiss writes that Smart made an effort to spend time with kids who needed a distraction, for one, but mainly a friend. Doctors and nurses would brief Smart on the difficult times these patients were going through, and how they hoped his presence might brighten their days.
But from Smart’s point of view, “[When] I get there... everything that the doctor just told me goes out the window. The kid has the biggest smile on her face. They’re getting up, they’re talking, they’re getting out of bed and that right there is what it’s all about for me.”
Spending time in hospitals isn’t something unfamiliar for Smart. “He endured years watching his brother Todd battle Leukemia when Marcus was in elementary school in Texas,” Weiss notes. “He held his mother, Camellia, as she faced bone marrow cancer a few years ago. He is all too familiar with the last place most people want to be.” So, a feeling of deja vu whenever he enters a patient’s room today is understandable. As Weiss puts it, “He remembers how it felt when his family was in the same situation, so he tries to be the shoulder he needed to lean on when he was younger.”
With that in mind, Smart spends a great deal of one-on-one time with the patients he visits in an effort to build a connection that goes far beyond the surface level. In 2017, he invited a patient he had established a relationship with years prior to be his guest at the Celtics’ Shamrock Foundation Gala. He wore a bracelet she had given him when they first met, and kept some pink hair extensions — also a gift from the young woman — in his pocket. After Smart’s mother died in September 2018, he hosted a dinner for families staying in Boston Children’s Hospital’s patient housing and “sat down with each and every person there,” according to Weiss.
But given that he is a professional athlete with obligations, a demanding schedule, and travel responsibilities both during the NBA season and during the offseason. He can only spend so much time in the hospitals, so he wanted to ensure that the children have something to keep them occupied and entertained — smiling is a more appropriate word — when he can’t be there. With this in mind, he created the Smart Cart, a mobile charging station loaded with tablets and video game consoles designed to become entertainment hubs for hospitals. Smart’s foundation partnered with Lenovo and Walmart to supply it with tablets and Nintendo Switches, and together, they have donated 13 carts to nine hospitals since 2016.
The Carts have had an impact that stretches far beyond giving kids games to play and videos to watch to pass the time. Smart envisioned that this program would ensure children confined to hospital beds could still have a social life and some semblance of a childhood. To say that they’ve delivered is an understatement. Patients at Connecticut Children’s Hospital had to shift their in-person activities to the virtual world due to the pandemic, but thanks to the tablets and the Smart Cart that had been donated to their facility, the kids were able to do things like go on virtual tours of aquariums. It was a way for these children to venture outside the confines of their room’s walls during a time that they couldn’t physically break free of them. It was an escape.
In addition to these experiences, these devices and Smart Carts allowed patients to connect with their loved ones for longer stretches than the five-minute periods Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Boston was able to provide before receiving their donation. After their Smart Carts arrived, “they had enough tablets to reduce the significant time constraints, and a locked storage unit to ensure they could keep track of every device,” wrote Weiss.
“Now we can have four different Zoom calls going at the same time because we can have the technology to make it happen, which is greatly appreciated,” said Franciscan Children’s child life specialist Olivia Bowie. “It’s something we can kind of advertise now that we’ll do for pretty much any patient whenever the family wants, so that they can have that connection with their kid while they’re here. It’s so hard and they feel so bad when they can’t be here because they have work or they have their own lives and can’t be here every day.”
Smart wants the patients he meets and forms bonds with, as well as those that he has yet to meet in person, to feel like “there is a life beyond their treatment.” Smart has seen it: his brother lived 19 years beyond his initial diagnosis. He has also seen the impact these meet-ups and interactions have had on him, and on the kids. “Smart knows when he meets a patient that it’s the highlight of their week,” Weiss writes. “But it’s really him who is left inspired.”
Today, anyone who reads Smart’s story will undoubtedly feel the same sort of inspiration.