Marcus Smart is a playmaker on the court and is now looking to be a game changer for people battling cancer.

The 2022 Defensive Player of the Year is the face of “Be the Match,” a new awareness campaign to get more people of color to register as bone marrow and blood stem cell donors to fight cancer and sickle cell disease. Those who are interested in supporting the cause can visit the campaign’s website for more details.

By increasing the number of people of color in the registry, it increases the likelihood that everyone fighting these illnesses can find a donor match.

He said it is a cause and mission close to his heart, after losing his mother, Camellia, to cancer.

“She definitely is my angel, because no matter what she was going through, she always made sure to make sure that I was happy, that I had a smile on my face, that, you know, she loved me,” Smart said.

Smart said that as his mom fought to survive, he did not want to keep going, and almost gave up on basketball.

“I said and I prayed and I told God, I said ‘listen, you can have it all, if I can just have my mom,” he explained. “I remember it was a time when she was sick, before she left us, that I really contemplated about quitting basketball, and she told me, she said ‘if you quit, I quit.’ And it hit home, from then on out – you know, I decided to never say those words again in my life.”

He credits the game with helping him get through the greatest loss of his life. Now, he is championing a cause that honors his mother: getting more people to join the stem cell and bone marrow registry.

Stem cells and bone marrow transplants can be lifesaving, curing many different blood cancers and blood conditions, and those who donate are most likely to match with some who shares your ethnic background.

Right now, the chances are not the same for everyone.

“Going through what I went through with my mom is a big reason for me to get involved and be the change, and get people registered and close that gap,” Smart said.

Currently, that gap is staggering. The odds of a Black patient finding a match is just 29%, while a white patient may have odds as good as 79%.

Asian American/Pacific Islander and Hispanic/Latino patients do not fare all that much better, with odds of 47% and 48%, respectively.

Justice Brooks, 19, who has sickle cell disease, desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. The condition causes his red blood cells to become misshapen, causing a great deal of pain for the teen.

“It’s just repeated sharp pain, really intense,” Brooks said. “It feels like somebody stabbing you, over and over again.”

Be the Match recently flew Justice to Boston to meet the man he considers a hero.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “We had a genuine conversation. You see him trash talking and getting passionate with the game, but he’s a really nice guy. Really, like a sweetheart.”

Justice’s mom, Rachelle, is asking people, especially people of color, to join the registry and possibly save his life, or someone else’s.

“Just please, understand that that little discomfort can add so much qualiy to another person’s life,” she told 7NEWS. “This is his last option, this is the only cure.”

And as the organization’s mission continues and Smart works to help to score the most important of wins for patients, he said he is finding healing as well.

When asked what he thought his mother might think about him becoming an advocate, he said she would be proud.

“I think she would be very proud of me right now and I honestly think she is, right now, looking down on me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m here right now, helping get people to donate and get on the registry,” he said.

“I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be, and I think my mom has something to do with that.”

(Copyright (c) 2022 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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