His eyes are open now and he no longer needs a machine to breathe. His movements, even something as uncomplicated as scratching a leg, are incredibly laborious but purposeful.
And when you call his name and he looks at you and his arm shakes and frustration settles across that gentle and kind and familiar face, you just know.
Robert Smith is in there and, by God, he’s fighting like hell to come back.
There is a saying for those who have suffered a stroke, especially the massive kind that struck one of the greatest point guards in UNLV basketball history last month, about not having to see the whole staircase when it comes to one’s path to recovery.
Just take the first step, is all.
Smith has certainly done that, and yet in no way does such a flicker of positive light lessen that which is so infuriating: That in a final examination of why terrible things happen to the best among us, it’s pointless to judge the universe.
“I just know you have to believe that somewhere out there, and I know this is going to sound somewhat metaphysical, there is a recognition of what a truly good person is,” said Jon Sandler, UNLV’s radio play-by-play voice who called games with Smith the past 10 years. “The fact Robert is such a genuinely good person has to count for something. We’re hoping all of that leads to him coming back from what has been a terrible, terrible setback.
“I miss my friend.”
The TV hanging from a wall inside a room at a long-term care facility in Las Vegas on Wednesday was turned to — what else? — basketball. Smith was propped up in bed, his eyes open and darting about, still being fed through a tube, family members and an attending nurse speaking about progress made the last several weeks.
The fact he is breathing on his own is beyond significant.
Now, the long journey back really begins.
It’s one of the more exasperating truths about some stroke recoveries, awaking to others speaking a language you might not understand. Or when you try to talk, the wrong words come out. Or, in the case with Smith at this point, you can’t speak at all.
There is an invisible wall between you and the world, and no matter how much you fight internally to remove it, you remain prisoner to an existence of thorough aggravation.
And yet such truth is far better than those days immediately following Smith’s stroke, when doctors sat family members down and intimated that should things not improve over a set timeline, difficult decisions would have to be made about a man who was in a comatose state and on a medical ventilator.
“No matter what the doctors said or how bad it looked, we knew he could come back from this because we know the man,” said Future Smith, Robert’s daughter-in-law and married to Jamaal Smith, who plays basketball professionally in Brazil. “I know this sounds crazy, but when I was in the room with him those first few weeks after it happened, that’s when I felt most at peace and absolutely sure he would eventually be OK. He’s a fighter like nobody I know.
“Jamaal just sat there telling him, ‘Dad, we’re here fighting for you. You keep fighting.’ The body and brain need time to heal, and they will. Like everything in his life, Robert won’t ever give up.”
He is 64 and never has.
Tark loved the smile
Smith wasn’t recruited much out of Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, so he enrolled at Arizona Western Community College in 1973, after which his coach convinced Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV to take a chance on a second-team all-conference point guard.
The smile is what Tarkanian would later say stuck with him most.
Few have a better, more infectious one than Smith.
He would play three seasons for the Rebels, direct them to their first Final Four in 1977 as a member of the “Hardway Eight” and become the school’s all-time leader in free-throw percentage and ninth in assists. He then departed for a pro career that included seven NBA seasons and playing time overseas.
Forgive me if you have read or heard my numerous rants on the subject, but the fact that Smith’s jersey isn’t retired and hanging from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center is a bigger joke than anything you’ll hear at a comedy club on the Strip.
“He was our leader on and off the court,” said “Sudden” Sam Smith, teammate to Robert at UNLV and having coached Las Vegas youth alongside him for years. “He did everything perfect. Man, when we were on the road, we’d always have to wait for Tark to fall asleep so we could sneak out and get into stuff. But not Robert. He would just say, ‘Guys, don’t stay out too late, and when you’re ready to come back, call me and I will open up the door for you.’
“No player was ever more respected by his teammates. There he was, praying before every game. Kept everyone in line. Robert taught me how to be a better man and a loving husband. No one is more loyal on this earth. Why would this happen to Robert Smith? I don’t know. I know some things are out of our hands. But if being the best person in the world counts for anything, he will make his way back to us.”
Costly medical bills
When the mysterious and cruel parts of fate rain, they can also downright pour.
Gloria Smith, Robert’s wife, recently underwent surgery for breast cancer, which Future Smith called a success this past week and said follow-up radiation and chemotherapy treatments would commence soon.
But the bills for Robert and Gloria have piled up in a monumental manner, causing the family to open a GoFundMe account and arrange fundraisers to help with medical costs.
I wanted more than anything else to see that smile again Wednesday, standing beside Sandler as he recounted to Smith details of UNLV’s game at California the previous evening.
“One of the most heartbreaking things is you’re not really sure he’s hearing you, but you hope,” Sandler said. “Robert is a part of the fabric of the UNLV program. I wish he was around for what I think is a very promising future. He, as much as anyone, deserves to be part of whatever success and promise the program delivers.”
The basketball highlights played on a TV above as Sandler spoke about what was an overtime loss for the Rebels in Berkeley.
And in that instant, Robert Smith’s eyes darted and his arm shook.
We know you’re in there, friend.
Fight like hell.
Fight all the way back.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.