Keith Smart isn’t sure if he’s going to have the energy to sit on the Heat’s bench Sunday for Game 1 of the playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets.
That might be something that happens down the road, once he’s able to eat normally again and regain some of the 27 pounds he lost as he battled a rare form skin cancer for the past six months. But for now, the fact the 51-year-old assistant coach is back with the team is a victory in of itself.
“I got here Thursday night,” Smart said Saturday after practice, his second since rejoining the team and completing 30 rounds of chemotherapy back home in California.
“I can’t do all of what I was doing before, but I can still give the mental aspect of what I know we’re going to see, what I know is going to be expected from them, what I know Coach [Erik Spoelstra] wants them to do. I was in [Friday’s] practice, just standing up on my feet. It felt like training camp. It was a tough day for me, first time around it. But [Saturday], getting back into it, getting into the meetings and game preparation stuff, was all brand new. It’s like I’m a new coach again.”
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Smart, who missed most of the season after leaving the team twice to treat the cancer, said he didn’t know when he might rejoin the Heat. It just so happened he made it back in time for the playoffs — something players and coaches had been telling he would do when they called and texted him throughout the season to lift his spirits.
Now that his radiation treatments are done, Smart said he won’t have another checkup with doctors for four months. So, he’s planning on being with the Heat for the rest of the season.
“He’s here for good right now,” Spoelstra said “And he’s going to be involved. Whether or not he’s on the bench, he’s going to be involved in every meeting.”
It wasn’t until a few hours before the Heat’s fourth game of the season on Nov. 3 against the Atlanta Hawks that Smart learned he had a slow-growing form of cancer called Dermatofibrosacroma Protuberans underneath his left cheek. Five weeks later on Dec. 14, he underwent 15 hours surgery to remove the tumor underneath his left cheek and then received a skin graft from his leg.
After recovering, Smart returned to the Heat in January. But a month later, he returned home again and began chemotherapy treatments. Smart said doctors told him in order to drop his chances of the cancer returning from 1-in-50 to 1-in-500 he needed to do chemo.
“They beat me up pretty bad,” Smart said. “I was going through the treatments and getting to the point where you can’t eat, you can’t move, you can’t do anything but lie around.”
All the while, though, Smart, who is in charge of offensive strategy and player improvement, continued watching the Heat from his home in the Bay Area and sending in his reports to Spoelstra after each game. He charted everything he could — until his health simply wouldn’t allow him anymore.
“I told Spo at one point between treatments of 15 and 18, ‘Well the reports are going to now start dropping, because I can’t keep up with them,’ ” Smart said. “And he said, ‘Well, why are you still doing those things anyway?’ But I wanted to be a little bit a part of it. I wanted to be close to it, and I was able to do a little bit of that.”
Smart met up with the team when the Heat went out West and played at Golden State on Jan. 11 and then in Sacramento on April 1. But Sunday will be his first home game with the Heat since Jan. 19.
Although he might not have the energy to coach the way he wants to just yet, players and coaches are happy he’s here.
Rookie Josh Richardson said Smart had been telling him for months “to be confident on offense because teams weren’t guarding me like they should.” Richardson eventually got the message and ended up winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors for March, posting the second-best three-point shooting month in NBA history.
“It’s big just from a coaching standpoint and a morality boost,” Richardson said of having Smart back. “We were all crushed when we found out he had that situation. When he was out we all stayed in contact with him. But having him back is big for us.”