Atlanta Teen Living With Sickle Cell Disease Builds Special Bond With Celtics Star Marcus Smart
The two hoopers are inspiring each other.
December 22, 2022 at 12:49 am
Justice, a 19-year-old teenager from Atlanta, is all smiles as he sits courtside while the Atlanta Hawks prepare to host the Boston Celtics at State Farm Arena. While he is evidently ecstatic for the rare chance to see his hometown team up close, Justice is actually seen in a Celtics jersey on this night.
More specifically, that jersey represents Marcus Smart, the Celtics star who invited Justice to the game. The 6-foot-3 guard takes a break from his routine warmup on this night in Atlanta and escorts Justice past security, allowing the teen to join him on the court.
While the crowd is still filing in and players are making their way to the court before tipoff, Justice and Smart take time to sit down courtside, talk about basketball, share laughs and high-fives.
“I just felt a lot of love from Marcus, he really embraces me,” Justice told Blavity as he looks back on that special night. “So yeah, that’s my brother.”
Smart met Justice earlier this year after teaming up with Be The Match, a donor registry platform where people can donate blood and possibly save the life of a person battling life-threatening blood cancers or blood diseases such as sickle cell.
“If you’re between the ages of 18-40 and willing to donate blood stem cells, all it takes is a simple cheek swab to join the registry,” Be The Match states on its website.
With the help of Be The Match, Smart heard about Justice’s battle with sickle cell anemia in September. The Celtics star then invited the young man to his Massachusetts home. The two hoopers instantly built a special connection as they came together to talk about basketball and other things they have in common.
“I met Marcus through Be The Match. And we flew out to Boston, me and my mom. And we met him at his house,” Justice said. “We did a big media day. there was Boston news there and different news outlets and we did different interviews together. Before we did any interviews, Marcus came down to meet me. And when we first met, he came to me, he shook my hand, and we started talking about basketball. Immediately it was like a genuine connection. We [were] talking like we had already known each other.”
In the short time they spent together, Justice left a huge impression on the NBA All-Star.
“Just talking to him, you realize, like, the things that he’s doing,” Smart told us. “He has been doing a lot of great, great things to help get the word out about sickle cell and other blood diseases that are, you know, in this nation and trying to get matches…how difficult it is. And it really, you know, it really opened my mind to a whole different way of thinking. And so that’s kind of how we matched up.”
As he aims to find a matching donor and possibly get a blood stem cell transplant to cure his sickle cell, Justice understands that he is facing great odds. According to Be The Match, a Black patient only has a 29% chance of finding a matching donor while a white individual has a 79% chance.
Justice, however, continues to believe despite the odds. Having seen Justice’s strong will and determination in a short time, Smart says the young man is “the epitome of keep fighting.”
“He never allows his situation or what he’s going through to affect how he comes out to the world,” Smart said. “He’s always gonna be him. He’s a loving person. He’s smiling all the time and he really cares. He has every right to be down. But yet, he chooses to be up.”
Justice was 11 months old when his family learned that he has sickle cell. Raychelle Brooks, Justice’s mother, said many challenging days have gone and come since then. But the family has been constantly learning about the disease and battling together.
“For a parent, you do a lot of research. Because I don’t know if people can imagine your child in pain and you can’t even touch them,” Brooks told Blavity. “There were times where I had to sit next to my child and he moaned and he’s looking at me like help me and my touch would actually hurt him.”
As she aims to do whatever is necessary for her son, Brooks is constantly making adjustments to her life.
“I’ve moved, I’ve quit jobs, I’ve lost a job because he was sick. But you just try to figure out things that you can give him like warm baths and stuff,” Brooks said. “And Justice, as he got older, he did a lot of research too himself. But you’re constantly trying to find a way to help them maintain just a better quality of life.”
For Justice, everyday is about learning to manage chronic pain. Somedays, when medicine is not enough, the teenager tries to numb the pain in his joints with heat pads or a hot bath.
Most people, Justice said, don’t actually understand what he faces on a daily basis.
“I think most people aren’t aware that it’s like a blood disorder, and that my cells are shaped different,” he said. “And sometimes they can get caught in my bloodstream and cause major pain and discomfort for me, and that alone can be a hard thing to deal with.”
The pain, Justice says, comes randomly.
“I can never predict when I’m gonna get sick. I have to avoid going outside when the weather changes and in the rain and the cold,” he said. “It can be difficult for those around me. My mom has had to move her schedule around so many times throughout my life to, you know, accommodate the sickle cell.”
While the family remains hopeful about Justice’s future, they’re also aware of how the disease still has the potential to become even worse.
“We just discovered a new issue on Sunday. He’s losing some of his bone tissues,” Brooks said. “People don’t realize that it affects other organs. It can affect the liver, the kidney. Justice does not have a spleen. He had to have his spleen removed when he was two because he kept doubling in size. A lot of kids have to have their gallbladder removed even before they’re five. Sickle cell, it causes other serious illnesses. So it’s not just the sickle cell you have to be concerned with, it’s the other causes that it affects.”
With Smart now by his side, Justice feels even more determined to keep fighting and believing despite the odds.
“He’s, like, a very happy person. And he’s very strong himself,” Justice said about Smart. “So I do look up to him for that. And he gave me some advice. You know, he told me to keep telling my story and to always keep going. So I always remember the advice he gave me.”
Having followed Smart’s journey throughout his career, Justice and his mother have become accustomed to enjoying the star’s tenacious, hard-nosed, no-nonsense type of approach on the court. Now, as the mother and child get to know Smart more closely, they have also become impressed with his gentle, loving personality.
“He’s a beast on the court, but let’s be honest, Marcus is a total Carebear off the court,” Brooks said. “He has a pure heart. He’s a very nice, respectable young man. And, you know, to me, he’s an emotional person. He has that balance. He can be passionate, and he can be strong. I was very impressed by him, by being an athlete of his stature, how just humble he was and genuine. And when you’re around him, he’s just like an everyday person.”
Smart has been learning along with the family as they continue to uncover more information about sickle cell.
“The way that I can help him and others is to continue to educate myself more about it, and then also encourage and help educate others about this,” the NBA veteran said. “It’s kind of hard for people to understand or know what’s going on if they don’t know what’s going on…how can you expect them to help or get involved if they don’t know? So, my job is to help them and others, just to continue to educate myself and educate others.”
The other vital step, Smart says, is to register with Be The Match.
“Once you educate yourself, take the next step, you know, go register. Go to Be The Match and register. Help save, not just one, but who knows, two, three and any number of people you can, and go donate some blood that we all need.”
For Justice, it’s imperative to find a perfect matching donor. If the match is not perfect, the young man faces the risk of sustaining even greater damage to his health.
“If I don’t have a perfect match, it’s high risk,” Justice said. “Going through the bone marrow transplant process might give me more complications than just sickle cell. I may, you know, lose sickle cell disease, but gain another disease.”
The family is specifically looking for a matching donor from young minority males who are between the age of 18 and 35.
“It’s a simple swab in their mouth,” Brooks said. “The test is so different now. They can swab their mouth and they can mail the test back. And even the procedure, I don’t think people realize it’s not a surgery. You’re going in and you’re leaving home on Mortin…you’re just gonna have a little discomfort for three days to three weeks. But you would add so much quality to another person’s life.”
As he waits for the perfect match, Justice is keeping himself busy. When he’s not watching the NBA, the young man might be streaming on Twitch. That’s where Justice broadcasts his video games, takes part in the latest internet trend or talks about various topics.
“We talk about all sorts of things and do all sorts of things. Like, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the One Chip Challenge. It’s like this very hot chip. I did that on my stream,” Justice said. “Sometimes I react to YouTube videos and I react to sports highlights. Just last night on my stream I reacted to Marcus and the Celtics last game.”
Justice, who uses the username @justicexjusto on his various social media pages, also stays busy with his podcast.
“I started my podcast about a year ago when I was going through the bone marrow transplant process the first time,” he said. “I realized that I was going to be away from my friends, and I was going to have to quarantine. And I wasn’t going to be talking to people as much. So I came up with the idea to start a podcast and have my friends on as guests. And you know, that way we can stay connected. And I can tell people what’s going on with me and the bone marrow transplant process.”
Through the podcast, Justice tries to help people understand the challenge he’s living with.
“I was showing them the process, and different things that I go through with sickle cell that I had never shown or talked about before. And it was a really great process,” he said. “For me, it was like I was opening up.”