KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Marcus Smart lives forever linked to the number 3.
It's tattooed on the back of both his arms. It's on his jersey, doubled as 33.
It's the family number, worn by each of his three elder brothers in high school and now carried on in tribute to the oldest of the boys, half-brother Todd Westbrook, the first to wear 3, who died following a long battle with cancer in 2004.
“Every time I put that No. 3 on,” Smart said, “it meant something special.”
Still does mean something special, even as 33, the number Smart adopted when he arrived at Oklahoma State and learned that No. 3 had been retired to honor former player Daniel Lawson, one of OSU's 10 killed in the plane crash in Colorado.
“I doubled the 3s,” Smart said. “That's how I look at it, more 3s. And my brother died when he was 33.
“I look at it as No. 3 was done in high school, this is a new stage in my life.
“And a new number.”
Always, however, Smart said he'll be tied to Westbrook and an earlier stage that helped form who he is today, with his role as the Cowboys' game-changer and Big 12 Player of the Year but a piece of what defines him.
The big brothers, Todd and Jeff Westbrook, were born to a different father significantly ahead of the younger boys, Marcus and Michael Smart. Still, they were all close, with Todd serving as a mentor, especially to Marcus.
Todd could play, too, with near legendary status as a shooter at Lancaster High, south of Dallas. But doctors found a tumor behind his eye at the age of 15. The cancer eventually spread to other areas of his body, taking a toll over the course of 18 years.
“That's a slow type of death,” Marcus said. “It was killing him slowly. He had to go through so much pain. And he had to sit through this while his body was getting destroyed. And to see him fight, it's so tough to see that happen to someone you're so close to.
“I was the youngest, he was the oldest, so we had a connection. It was weird, him being the oldest, I stuck with him a lot, whenever he felt like he could get around.”
Todd didn't always feel like it, but sometimes he pressed himself to get moving, for Marcus' sake.
“I remember one day, it was hot, like 102,” Marcus said, “and me and my cousin were like, ‘There's nothing to do, we're so bored.' And up and out of nowhere, Todd grabbed a towel and said, ‘Get some swim trunks, let's go swimming.' He didn't feel that swell. He got up, struggled out of bed and took us to the city pool.
“He got in the pool, swam with us, took us for ice cream. I was like his son. And he treated me like his son, but also his brother.”
Todd died when Marcus was 9, finally passing in a hospital bed with family surrounding him.
Gone was Marcus' brother and mentor and second father.
“It was devastating,” he said. “When they finally declared that he was gone from this earth, I think everybody's heart stopped. It took their breath away. We couldn't believe it. I woke up the next day asking my mom, ‘Was I dreaming? When is he coming back?'
“It didn't hit me until a couple years later. Out of nowhere, I just broke down and cried.”
Camelia Smart, the boys' mother, understood the bond between Todd and the rest of the boys, especially Marcus as the youngest. And she watched helplessly as Marcus struggled to deal with his death.
“Todd was a beautiful young man, he really was,” Camelia said. “He was the glue to the family. He was awesome. And the boys looked up to him.
“So it was hard on Marcus, being so young. Not only that, my mother had lived with us, and she passed a couple years before Todd. Even though Marcus was small, that was hard, because grandma was always there. And then Todd. That was rough.”
Marcus carried Todd's death – and life – on with him.
As a high school freshman, he got his first tattoo: “Rest In Peace.” The No. 3, and now 33, also provides a constant reminder.
And as Marcus grows and matures, family and friends say they can see Todd shining through him.
“From what they tell me, he was a heck of a ballplayer,” Marcus said. “I hear all the stories. And I hear it all the time, ‘If Todd was here, man, he'd show you all what basketball really is.'
“But he is here. They all say I look the most like Todd. Every year, they say I look more and more like Todd. It puts a smile on my face. And like my brothers say, you have met Todd, through me. I feel like that's actually true. And I actually feel like when I'm playing on the court, the sixth man, I feel like my brother's out there playing with me, through me.
“When they say they can see Todd in me, I feel like I'm finishing what he started.”