GARLAND, Texas — Zhaire Smith will embark on 76ers training camp Tuesday morning, 10 months after it seemed unlikely.
The Sixers’ second-year shooting guard has overcome a life-threatening allergic reaction that left him speechless and 40 pounds lighter. Smith has worked hard to regain his weight and bounce while improving his game. Now, the Sixers look for him to be a key reserve contributor on what is expected to be a NBA championship-caliber team.
Some of the motivation for his recovery comes from his father, Billy Smith.
Billy, who was left temporarily paralyzed after back surgery in April 2013, made a vow after seeing his frail son in a hospital bed in October.
“He texted me,” Zhaire said. “He knew what I’d been through, and it did hit him. He said, ‘You’ll never see me in a wheelchair no more.’ "
Before that time, Billy, who has since regained the feeling in his legs, relied heavily on the wheelchair. Most of it had to with his muscles being weakened to the point that it was hard to stand up and walk.
But he vowed in that text message, after traveling back to Texas, to do whatever it took to get rid of the wheelchair.
Billy now gets around with a walker and strengthens his leg through weight training and swimming. While he won’t put a timetable on it, his goal is to be able to walk completely without a walker. Right now, Billy can take limited steps on his own.
“I got to show him how to fight!” Billy Smith said.
Billy Smith, 52, and his former girlfriend, Andrea Aaron, have two children together: Zhaire, 20, and Aayinde Smith, 17.
Andrea and Aayinde relocated to Cherry Hill to remain close to Zhaire shortly after the Sixers acquired him via a first-round trade during the 2018 draft. A standout athlete herself, Aayinde is a 5-foot-11 middle hitter/outside hitter on the Cherry Hill East volleyball team. The senior is committed to play at Towson University.
Billy Smith still lives in the Dallas area, where he’s a raw-material coordinator for Pepsi Cola Co. He played a major role in his children’s upbringing and athletic prowess.
A former youth track and field coach, the Garland resident introduced both of them to the sport once they turned five. Billy also coached Zhaire in youth football and basketball.
He took Aayinde to volleyball and basketball practice. But he and Zhaire were basically inseparable.
After Billy and Andrea split up, she moved six blocks up the street with the children. Zhaire slept over his mother’s house, but he was with Billy most of the time. And that didn’t stop after Billy Smith’s life-changing surgery.
“Even when I wasn’t working, I got my vehicle modified,” Billy said. “I was taking him to school every day.”
Disabled or not, he wouldn’t allow anything to stand in the way of providing for his children.
Being stuck in a wheelchair was indeed a change of pace for Billy Smith, the player once recognized as “Bigg Dogg” for having a massive build.
After a two-sport playing career at Kansas State, Billy Smith, who stands 6-foot-5, took up weightlifting as a hobby. He bulked up to a muscle-bound 300-pounder.
Like Zhaire, Billy was a great athlete. He’s actually a basketball legend in Garland. As a standout at South Garland High School, Smith averaged 25 points and had memorable head-to-head battles with Larry Johnson, a Dallas Skyline power forward and eventual NBA standout.
Billy went on to team up with another eventual NBA standout and Garland native, Mookie Blaylock, at Midland Community College. He was listed by Sports Illustrated as one of the top five junior-college transfers in the country upon signing with Kansas State, then coached by Lon Kruger, in 1988.
But an Achilles’ heel injury in junior college, a position switch, and a change in on-court pace were his undoing at K-State.
He lost some of his leaping ability because of the injury, so the Wildcats moved the undersize player to small forward. The problem was that he didn’t have the offensive perimeter skills needed for the position to excel in Kruger’s walk-up-the-court offense.
He went on to average 5.3 points during his two-year career at K-State, starting in 28 of 62 games played.
But Billy needed one more semester to complete his social science major after completing his basketball career in the 1989-90 season. Basketball teammate Reggie Britt talked him into trying out for the 1990 K-State football team. Billy did it despite not playing high school football.
He made the team as a 225-pound reserve defensive end, started on most of the special teams, and played a little defense behind K-State defensive ends Reggie Blackwell and Elijah Alexander. He later had a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.
After his college career, Billy worked as a recreation adviser at the Manhattan Flint Job Corp. for a couple of years before returning to Garland as a production supervisor at Pepsi Cola. For the next 20 years, he was a self-described workaholic.
But he arranged his work schedule around Zhaire and Aayinde.
“When Z was running track, I started working on Sunday through Thursday so I could coach track,” Billy Smith said, noting the track meets were on Saturdays. “I took all kind of shifts just around their schedule so I could be there.
“I would work the third shift so I could take him to practice and do all that.”
On April 3, 2013, Billy Smith had surgery at Dallas’ UT Southwest Hospital to repair a herniated disk that was causing numbness in his lower back. The surgery was supposed to take 3 1/2 hours but lasted eight. That surgery was supposed to relieve the pressure in his back. Instead, it left him paralyzed.
“I remember getting out of surgery that same day and they had me sitting up, [tapping my knee] and saying, ‘Can you feel that?’ " he said. “ ‘Oh, no. I can’t feel it.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, because I was just getting out of surgery and I didn’t feel it.
“I was thinking maybe I was supposed to feel it tomorrow when I wake up. I didn’t know.”
Every morning, a nurse came into his hospital room and tapped his leg. But he still couldn’t feel it.
At one point, the nurses stood him up in a lift.
“They said, ‘Can you feel that?’ ” he said. “I said no. They said, ‘You are standing up.’ I said, ‘I ain’t standing up.’ So they had to get mirror just to show I was standing up.”
At that point, Billy started receiving information about paralysis and being a paraplegic. That’s when he realized things weren’t going well. He spent 2 1/2 months in the hospital.
He was able to move his toes a little bit two-plus months after the surgery. A couple of months after that, he was able to move his left foot. At the time, he was determined to walk again in nine to 12 months.
However, his legs were too weak. So he continued to get around in a wheelchair.
He and Zhaire developed a routine.
He would park his modified van. Zhaire would get out, walk around the van, and pull out the wheelchair, help his father into it, and roll him into a venue. Whether they were arriving at his basketball games or running errands, that was Zhaire’s routine while at Lakeview Centennial High School.
“I got to know Z after Billy was in the wheelchair and while he was going through a much harder time,” Lakeview Centennial basketball coach J.T. Locklear said. “But there was always this admiration that went above just being his father. He respected him for the way he loved him, because you could always see how much Billy loved his son, being at everything and just the way he talked about it.”
Locklear isn’t alone with his observations.
“The time that I’ve been around, you could always tell that Z respected his dad and listened to him,” said Horace Pope, who coached Zhaire for the Deron Williams Elite and Mo Williams Elite Academy AAU teams.
Zhaire listened to Billy’s instructions on the court and took care of his father’s needs off it.
“I told him one time, it was probably right around the time he was going off to [Texas Tech], I told him, ‘You know I got your dad, so you don’t have to worry about that,' ” Pope said.
Billy is determined to be Zhaire’s motivation. That’s why he’s sweating in the gym and spending time in the pool. He hasn’t touched his wheelchair.
He saw firsthand his son’s reaction to consuming food with sesame oil or sesame seeds last September at the Sixers practice facility. Zhaire has a peanut allergy, and his reaction was more extensive than originally thought. He spent a month at Jefferson Hospital.
“Seeing Z, that was my turning point,” Billy said of no longer using a wheelchair.
By walking, the father wanted to show his son that he, too, could overcome his obstacle.
But his motivating actions weren’t so that his son could get back to doing something they both excelled at.
“It wasn’t about basketball no more, man,” Billy said. “We didn’t care about money. ‘Dude, we just need you to breathe. I’m talking breathe!’
“He was sitting there [in the hospital] coughing up. I’m talking to him, and his mom was trying to tell me what he’s saying. They had codes/sign language that I didn’t pick up on.”
Zhaire was a shell of himself physically and had a tough time getting around and walking, according to Billy.
That’s why the end game for his son had nothing to do with resuming a budding basketball career. Billy wanted Zhaire healthy.
“Everybody was asking me, ‘How’s Z doing? When is he going to play?' ” Billy said. “They were saying, ‘He ought to be going to the gym.’
“I was like, ‘Dude, he can’t even walk.’ ”
These days, Zhaire is back in full-blown basketball mode.
At 6-foot-3 and around 200 pounds, he has been working out at the team facility for most of the summer. On Monday, he participated in the Brett Brown Coaches Clinic. And in July, he was a standout on the Sixers’ NBA Summer League team, averaging a team second-best 12.8 points and shooting 48% from the field. The 20-year-old also averaged 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.4 steals in 26 minutes played in five games.
The hope is that he’ll develop into a solid rotation player this season after playing in only six regular-season games last season because of a foot fracture and the allergic reaction.
But there’s no denying that he’s come a long way.
“I just got stronger and stronger,” Smith said in July. “I had an edge to me, like, ‘I just want to dominate.’ When I was in that hospital bed, I was wishing, like, I wished to be tired again [from playing]. But just grinding, that just helped me.”
He’s not the only one grinding these days. Billy is still determined to walk without the walker. Not just for himself, but also for Zhaire.
“Like I said, I got to show him how to fight!” Billy said.