Gary Smith, the Daily Press Player of the Year in 2003, died Thursday morning after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. He was three days away from his 27th birthday.
It was nine years ago to the day when Gary Smith hit probably the biggest shot of his career. It was a floater from about 10 feet with six seconds left in the Eastern Region quarterfinals. And it gave Hampton a two-point win over Nansemond River.
Crabbers coach Walter Brower and assistant Eric Brown reflected on that moment an hour before tipoff at Scope Thursday night. The opponent, by sheer coincidence, was Nansemond River. And that morning, they had learned that Smith had lost his fight against cancer.
"That's one of the things I remember about him," Brower said of the shot. "But mostly, I remember him as the type of kid who worked hard and did what was asked of him. Something like this is just really hard to deal with right now."
Smith, the Daily Press Player of the Year in 2003, died Thursday morning at his home in Hampton. He was three days away from his 27th birthday. He is survived by his parents, Gary Sr. and Priscilla; his sister, Akia Gaines; and his brother, Jaraan.
Smith was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the white blood cells, in June of 2010. He underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, and by the New Year his diagnosis was looking good.
But last April, he developed toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection passed on by animals. The infection spread to his brain and caused a stroke, which left him frail and unable to speak clearly.
Then, in December after a scheduled checkup, he was told the cancer had returned. Because he was so weakened from the toxoplasmosis, there was nothing doctors could do.
"That was definitely unexpected," said his father, Gary Smith Sr. "But even then, he stood up and faced it and kept going. He kept his chin up the whole time. It's an amazing story. He never complained, he was dutiful about his rehab, he did everything he could.
"He kept fighting until the end. I'll never forget that about my son."
Smith Jr.'s positive outlook can be summed up by an e-mail exchange with the Daily Press last July.
"I'm feeling like a kid in the candy store," he wrote. "I'm just accepting of all the love and prayers I've been receiving. I'm definitely thankful for all the awareness my situation has brought to this issue."
Smith Sr. said his son died surrounded by "a house full of people." Funeral services have been scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at Zion Baptist Church in Kinsale.
Hampton's coaches learned of Smith's passing Thursday morning, the day of their Eastern Region quarterfinal game against Nansemond River.
"My little sister graduated with him, and she called me 7 o'clock and told me," longtime assistant Eric Brown said. "It's such a sad thing. He was a great kid to be around."
"I was kind of walking around in a daze (Thursday)," assistant Walter Brower Jr. said. "He's one of the finest young men I've ever been around. This is really tough for me to swallow."
Brower Sr. remembers Smith as a well-mannered kid who never gave him an ounce of trouble.
"He was brought up real well by his parents," he said. "By the time I got him in high school, everything was already in place. He always did what he was supposed to do."
Smith earned his degree from VCU and was working in sales and marketing at Xerox in Richmond. He was engaged at the time of his diagnosis.
Smith Sr. said the family is taking solace in the kind words and prayers they've received. Which, he knows, is a reflection of Gary.
"My son, in all his years, never had a problem with anybody," Smith Sr. said. "In his 26 years, he never had a conflict with any person from any background. We're just thankful for all the love people are putting out there for him. There's still a lot of love."Copyright © 2015, CT Now