Friday, May 18, 2012

He's taken life to the Max

        His given name is Brian. Never heard anyone call him that. It's always been Butch ... Butch Smart. And beginning in the mid-1960s at Louisiana Tech, to many of us associated with the basketball team, it became Maxwell Smart -- yes, just like agent 86 in the TV show Get Smart.       Max, for short.
       He was a team manager -- and a friend to everyone. He had played high school basketball at Summerfield (more on that place later) and he was a basketball savant. Sometimes at Tech, he would take part in team scrimmages as a fill-in. Mostly he absorbed the game.
       He has just concluded a 44-year coaching career, filled with championships and more than 700 victories. He's gone from North Louisiana to a decade in the Baton Rouge area, and finally, to 16 years in a comfortable place a distance away -- Highlands, N.C.
Coach Butch Smart (with blue tennis shoes) is honored
 at a Highlands High School basketball game
 (photo from Macon County News, Franklin, N.C.)
       Here is the point of this piece: Butch Smart is one of the toughest, most courageous, most inspirational people I know.
        And as I told him, he doesn't even look tough. Anything but.
        He is one of America's thinnest men. Imagine a 6-footer at about 150 pounds. And that was before cancer repeatedly struck at his insides, before hours and hours of surgery -- a couple of times, most recently within the last month.
         He also has a Southern drawl -- Suthern drrraawwwllll -- that is off the charts. If my sister's friends up north think they have trouble understanding me, with Butch, they'd have no chance.
         Love hearing Butch expound on matters of life. It's always fun to talk with him. No, to listen to him.
          He's so mind-mannered. But as I said, there is a toughness, a resiliency, within this guy that cannot be measured.
          Not that it manifest itself outwardly. He was more a scholarly teacher -- in the classroom and on the basketball court -- than a screamer. I'm sure he wasn't too rough on officials or on his kids. Beloved would be an apt description. That's not always the case with coaches.
         There were guys in Coach Scotty Robertson's program at La. Tech who became prominent coaches -- most notably Leon Barmore, Mike McConathy, Tim Floyd, Jim Wooldridge and the late Tommy Joe Eagles. But none were closer personally to Scotty than Butch, and he adopted most of Scotty's coaching methods.
           Back to the Summerfield connection. Butch arrived at Tech many years before Karl Malone came out of that small place in Claiborne Parish and he had been there a couple of years in the mid-1960s before Charlie Bishop -- the top prospect in North Louisiana as a senior -- became Tech's first 7-footer. Butch was Tech's secret weapon; his role, as a hometown guy, was to be Charlie's guardian/confidante.
          Tough assignment. Getting Charlie to classes and keeping him out of places he wasn't supposed to be was a chore. Butch didn't always succeed, but Charlie became a player on title teams and was an NBA draftee.
         So Butch was always taking care of people. After his first serious bout with cancer, and treatment a dozen years ago -- odds were good he wasn't going to make it -- he willingly counseled my wife as she began her own colon cancer treatments. Butch recommended surgeons and oncologists, and talked to Bea about what she could expect.
         They both fought back. I've seen Butch described as a cancer survivor in print. That's not enough. He's a cancer fighter, a battler. He's kept his faith; it's a crucial part of his life.
         And through it all, there was this -- he never stopped being a friend.
         Barmore says Butch is the only person, other than Rachel Barmore, to attend all four of his Hall of Fame inductions ... in Springfield, Mass., Knoxville, Tenn., Natchitoches and Ruston. Butch has never missed a Tech basketball reunion, made all the functions honoring Scotty Robertson, many of the old gang's golf outings. Made every NCAA men's Final Four until this year.
        "He has unbelievable loyalty," says Barmore. And, "he's been through a lot ... he is one tough cookie. ... And he's never once complained to me about what's happened to him."
Coach Smart draws up the play.
(photo from Macon County News, Franklin, N.C.)
        "He such a positive guy, always upbeat and looking ahead," says Jim Pruett, Barmore's partner at guard in the mid-1960s and also our close friend who's visited with the Smarts in Highlands a few times.
        At the end of the past basketball season, the folks in Highlands gave Coach Smart a recliner to use in his retirement. When we talked earlier this week, Butch said he was given two standing ovations at the high school's end-of-year all-sports banquet.
       "I told them I wasn't dead," he said, laughing. "I'm still here."
        He and his devoted wife, Judy, have plans to move back to the Ruston area. They've bought a lot and plan to build a home. Stephanie, after earning all sorts of honors at Highlands High, will enroll at Louisiana Tech soon.
        The thin man with the drawl -- who is anything but the bumbling CONTROL agent from whom he drew his nickname -- looks forward to lots of golf with Barmore and Barry Canterbury, and others.
        His dream, I was told, is to beat Barmore consistently in golf. "That's not a dream," Butch said. "That's a fact."
          I wouldn't bet against this Maxwell Smart.

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