Miami Heat assistant coach Keith Smart was reunited with the team Friday night for the first time since completing 30 radiation treatments for a rare form of skin cancer.
Just hours before Miami's Nov. 3 home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Smart was diagnosed with a slow-growing cancer called Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans. The former NBA head coach underwent a 15-hour surgery on Dec. 14 for the skin cancer that resided on his left cheek and also had a skin graft from his leg.
In order to drop his chances of the cancer returning to 1-in-500, Smart took part in 30 radiation treatments at University of California San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital that began on Feb. 17, with weekends off, and ended Tuesday. His visit with the Heat on Friday was his first game since he attended a home contest Jan. 19 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It's been an interesting ride," Smart told ESPN's The Undefeated. "I have a unique experience of understanding [cancer] now."
Three of Smart's teeth had to be removed prior to the radiation treatments because of concern about infection. He lost about 25 pounds while losing his taste buds and becoming extremely fatigued. He recently had a stretch of cancer treatment days so bad that his wife, Carol, had to force him to eat. He didn't have the energy to return some text messages from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
But with his radiation treatments completed, Smart said he feels energized and is expected to return to Miami for practice soon, with hopes to rejoin the coaching staff during the playoffs.
"As long as he has his energy, it's basically going to be about what he can eat," Carol Smart said. "My anticipation is in the next couple of weeks he will be good to go.'"
"Anytime he feels ready to go, let's go," Spoelstra told The Undefeated. "It's however he feels."
Recalling the time he was fired by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive in "a 26-second phone call," Smart said the support he received from the entire Heat organization during his cancer fight was deeply appreciated.
Heat players regularly kept in touch with Smart via text. Dwyane Wade gave him postgame shout-outs on television. The Heat would text Smart team pictures after some wins, and before Smart departed for his last radiation treatment, he received at his house in Dublin, California, a box from Spoelstra that included a written note, snacks, notebooks, pens and sentimental cough drops from his desk in anticipation of his return to work.
"I just wanted to let him know we're thinking of him," Spoelstra said. "After the Cleveland win, Luol Deng called him and put him on speaker phone so he can celebrate with him."
Smart has been looking forward to getting a soul food meal as soon as his taste buds come back and has even been looking at restaurant menus online.
"I want fried chicken, red beans and rice, greens and cornbread," Smart said with a huge grin. "Oh, and I want a great hamburger, too."
There is a cable car bell hanging on the wall at the Radiation Oncology clinic at Mount Zion, and it rings only when a cancer patient completes his treatment. With one strong pull of a string, a clanging and motivational sound can be heard by patients waging similar fights against the disease.
Smart enthusiastically pulled the string several times to evoke a joyful noise after completing the last of his 30 treatments.
"Some people won't ring the bell because their situation will change, but I got a chance to ring the bell, and of course, I had to get instructed on how to ring it," Smart said. "I was just going to pull it one time -- just 'bing' -- and be out of there.
"But I just went, 'bing, bing, bing.' I don't know what it was, but it was complete joy that I finally made it through."
Said Dr. Sue Yom, an associate professor of radiation oncology at UCSF: "That day is very emotional for people. You have to mark it in some way so it remains a positive, special thing for them."