Coach battles cancer with ‘resiliency, perseverance’

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — After 33 years of coaching college basketball, this was the season Kalamazoo College head coach Jay Smith was looking forward to most.

“A big part of being here is that my son gets to play for me finally. It’s never really happened (before),” Smith said.

But his son Cooper aggravated a back injury last summer and has yet to play as a freshman. And Jay Smith himself was diagnosed with something far worse.   

“When you hear the word cancer, you can’t help it because the first thing you think about is death,” Smith said. “It’s a punch in the gut. It knocks you down.”

Smith burst on to the Michigan basketball scene more than four decades ago. A four-year varsity starter at Mio AuSable High School, he averaged nearly 37 points per game as a senior in 1979 and set all-time Michigan high school career scoring record. His 2,841 points shattered the old mark by more than 600. More than 40 years later, the record still stands.

“It wasn’t something I set out to do, or our team set out to do,” Smith said. “It just kind of evolved.”

Smith would go on to play at Bowling Green and Saginaw Valley State University before turning to coaching. He was a long-term assistant at Kent State; Michigan, including in the Fab Five era; and Detroit. He’s also been a head coach at Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan and now fills that role at Kalamazoo College.

“It’s been really a great run for me,” Smith said.

Now 56, Smith was in what most would consider to be very good shape.

“I thought (I was) healthy,” he said. “I jogged four, five miles a day. I’m lifting a few days a week. In fact, I thought, ‘I’m not even going to do my physical.’ I felt great. I was thinking about running a road race. And then all of the sudden, I’m like, no, I need to do it. I always do it the first week of June. I’ll do it, knock it off. Did it. Then all the sudden you get a phone call.”

His prostate-specific antigen levels had spiked. It was a sign of prostate cancer.

“(I) had no symptoms, no signs,” Smith recalled. “We did an ultrasound and also did a biopsy, and obviously it was 50 percent full of cancer.”

Originally diagnosed with intermediate prostate cancer, Smith underwent surgery in September. The pathology report came back with an elevated diagnosis.

“They said, ‘Yeah, you’re really stage 3,” Smith said. “It was aggressive cancer.”

After an eight-week recovery, he returned to his team.

“Then we had a follow-up in November and found out they didn’t get it all,” Smith said. “Then we wanted one more follow-up just to double-check, and that was Dec. 13 and that didn’t go well, either.”

Some of the cancer remained and had spread.

“That’s always the tough one,” Smith said. “You’ve got to tell your family, you have to tell our kids.”

Despite the situation, Smith stayed with the team.

“You’ve got such good relationships with your players, it’s hard to leave them,” he said. “You feel like you’re juggling two things, but at least basketball kind of takes your mind off it.”

Another follow-up in late January brought news he may no longer be able to do so. Some of the cancer is still there.

“It gets emotional,” Smith said, holding back tears. “I’ve got an eighth-grade daughter and a son. You want to make sure you’re around for your kids.”

Smith now faces seven grueling weeks of radiation, five days a week, beginning sometime in the next five weeks.

“The focus of your life changes,” he said. “You’re looking though a different lens right now. You appreciate a lot of the little things, and maybe it’s the good Lord’s way of waking me up a little.”

Smith has made it his mission to get the word out to men about the importance of early detection of prostate cancer.

“It’s 95 percent curable when caught early enough,” Smith said. “The cure for it is to find it early. Be detected, get your PSA taken. Your health insurance covers it. Do your physical once a year and get that taken, demand they take it. It is a little bit of a silent killer. One in every nine men are going to have it.”

The longtime coach is now game-planning against the toughest opponent he’s ever faced and hoping to help others avoid the matchup altogether.

“I feel like the good Lord has put it on me to show me how to deal with it and hopefully be an example for everybody of resiliency and perseverance,” he said.

“It’s taxing on you, it wears you out,” he continued. “But you feel like, hey, if we attack things in a  positive way, keep your faith and keep your family and friends close and you just keep battling, good things will happen. And that’s kind of what we’re doing right now.”

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Online:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Prostate cancer

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