Shaka Smart knew. But he couldn’t discuss Andrew Jones’ illness. Not with anyone. Not his family. No one.
So, he tried, as best as he could to seem normal, go about his day with his family and his Texas team. But he couldn’t hide his emotions. He was not an actor. He didn’t know at that time Jones had leukemia. He just knew he was seriously ill. And it was tearing him up inside.
“There was about a four or five-day stretch that I knew Andrew was really, really sick,’’ Smart said on this week’s March Madness 365 podcast. “The team knew something was bothering me. I was trying to do my job as a coach and compartmentalize as a coach. But they could tell something wasn’t right. I just told them that I would tell them as soon as I can.’’
He did the same with his family. The news was too serious. The diagnosis still unknown. Privacy had to be respected while Jones went through a battery of tests.
“My wife knew something was bothering me,’’ said Smart. “I was not coming home at the same time I normally would. I just told her there’s some stuff I’ve got to do with our guys, particularly with Andrew. I have a young daughter and one of things of us with kids of our own think about when you go through something challenging with your team and players, you relate it to your own child. It gives you a sense of perspective about how important things are for the immediate family.’’
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And then the news came, like a weight being dropped on all their chests. The news that Jones had leukemia and was in a serious battle leveled each and everyone of the Longhorns last week, the night before hosting TCU.
“It was an emotional 24 hours, literally 24 hours before the game started we communicated to our team the diagnosis with Andrew,’’ said Smart. “There were multiple guys on our team sobbing uncontrollably. Coaches are part therapist and part psychologist and we did our best to help them understand everything that could be done for Andrew would be done and hopefully he has a really, really good chance to make a full recovery.’’
Smart said the spirit in the building was something special. Ultimately, Texas beat TCU 99-98. The Longhorns have split the next two games since the news, losing at Oklahoma State by one and beating Texas Tech by nine. In both games, the Cowboys and Red Raiders wore shooting shirts with Jones’ name on it.
Official & family-approved web site has been created for donations to the family of @DrewdotCash to assist with medical & necessary family expenses as permitted within NCAA rules. #TexasFamily #AJ1 https://t.co/lnWqL9YqrM pic.twitter.com/rlEkuMhyNR
— Texas Basketball (@TexasMBB) January 12, 2018
“It means a lot when teams that we play against and compete against on a regular basis (did that),’’ said Smart. “They really care about Andrew and want to support him in any way they can.’’
Jones, a sophomore guard, was leading the Longhorns in scoring at 15 points a game before he suffered a fractured right wrist in a win at VCU on Dec. 5. He missed the next four games, before returning for the Kansas game on Dec. 29. He played in a win at Iowa State on Jan. 1, before falling ill.
“He was our leading scorer and by far the most natural scorer of anyone on the team,’’ said Smart. “(Without him) we didn’t have the same swagger offensively overall as a team. Our guys had to learn to adjust and play with him on the bench in street clothes and the guys did a good job of that.’’
That was when there was an assumption he would return. No one could have ever imagined what would happen a few weeks later.
The Longhorns have a special team, with center Mo Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski complementing each other, Kerwin Roach II back from injury and Matt Coleman leading this team. They have rallied around the cause of playing for Jones. And the community support has been overwhelming.
Stay strong, Andrew. Keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/sRdJZqZ77j
— Texas Tech Basketball (@TexasTechMBB) January 18, 2018
The school set up an Andrew Jones and Family Support Fund, which was approved by Texas’ compliance office. The Fund reportedly has had over $85,000 as of earlier this week.
“The fund is to help Andrew and his family with all the expenses and there will be a lot of expenses incurred surrounding his treatment,’’ Smart said. “People have been very generous. The reality is that they will need a lot of support in a lot of different ways.’’
Smart said the response from the medical community has been tremendous and “it’s our hope that absolutely no stone will go unturned. We will make sure everything is looked at to help Andrew get back to full health. Every type of specialist and type of treatment or options is being reviewed and looked at so he can get the best possible care anyone can have.’’
Meanwhile, NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt also joined the podcast to discuss the selection and seeding process and the overall health of the game this season.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin, fresh off the Final Four run last April, was also on the podcast.
Martin went over how the Gamecocks handled injuries this season. South Carolina beat Kentucky earlier this week in Columbia and is back in the mix in the SEC, with the quest of still reaching the NCAA tournament.
Martin also relived his emotions of standing on the floor at the Final Four, seeing Hall of Fame coaches watching him. He said he told his team after returning from the national semifinal loss that he had the itch to be standing on that same stage — on Monday night in the national title game.
“I’m going to push like never before until I get rid of that itch,’’ said Martin.