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Gainesville High graduate Cluster Smith leaves a sterling legacy in basketball, mentoring young men
Former Red Elephants' standout died at 58 on Oct. 25
Cluster Smith
Cluster Smith, center, is shown with his nephews Nigel Smith, left, and Brent Kelly, right during a game in 2018. Photo courtesy Mario Mays

Cluster Smith’s influence will continue to radiate through Gainesville. 

A fixture in the basketball community and member of the Red Elephants basketball program who graduated in 1982, Smith spent decades menorting future generations — in life and basketball. 

That impact will continue to spread its roots, even after he died suddenly on Oct. 25 at 58. 

Weeks after Smith passed away, his younger brother, Greg, is still coming to grips with the tragedy. 

In 1985, Cluster, then 22, became the legal guardian of his siblings when their mother died from cancer. 

That willingness to put others first, by Cluster, never dwindled, Greg said. 

“I thought he was Superman,” said Greg Smith, who had a habit of speaking to his big brother every night. “It has been tough. A couple of nights ago, I was waiting for his call. The first thing that went through my mind was that it (his death) was not true. My brother was like a super hero. We talked every day and every night.”

Even with four younger siblings to care for, Cluster’s impact reached far beyond his biological family. 

He was a mentor to those who he saw who were learning the game and made sure they had a proper support system. 

“He was one of the first people who taught me you can treat a non-blood family member like family,” said Mario Mays, who was a star at Gainesville High and now is head basketball coach at Holy Innocents’ near Atlanta. “He took me into his home. He fed me, and talked about life.”

Cluster Smith is survived by his wife, Holly, and four children. 

According to his obituary, Smith was employed by Johnson & Johnson, Wrigley’s and numerous sports organizations in Hall County and Northeast Georgia. 

Cluster Smith was a staple for decades with the Boys Club, now the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier. 

He was always working with someone on their basketball game, spreading positive energy throughout the gym. 

To honor Smith’s impact, there’s a Cluster Smith Scholarship Fund now offered through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier. 

“(Cluster) affected so many generations,” Mays said. “You understood early from the stuff he was teaching us (about life).”

Cluster Smith had a positive influence on many players who starred in high school and went on to become successful in college. 

Greg was one of those who Cluster helped shape his future in a positive way. 

After Greg’s own playing career at Coastal Carolina ended in the 1990s, he came home to Hall County and began showing his presence around the basketball courts, too. 

“He touched a lot of people,” Greg said. “It brings back too many memories. People are saying how he affects them. No matter the nationality, if you ran into Cluster Smith, he was going to have some type of impact on you. That’s why it has been so hard.”

The elder Smith’s influence stretched into other athletic endeavors, too. 

“I met Cluster through Greg since we were on the same little league baseball team,” Damond Castleberry, 47, said. “When I met Cluster, I thought it was (Greg’s) dad. Then, I realized it was his brother. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s his brother. He is stepping up taking care of his little brother.’"

One of the goals for the younger players on the court was to say they beat Cluster. 

It rarely, if ever, happened. 

“He was always laughing, saying ‘you can’t beat the teacher,’” Mays said. “He was Superman to us.”

Now all adults with their own families, the players who were shaped by Cluster Smith continue to share his legacy by showing the same love and respect for the game. 

“He was concerned about my family and my kids,” Mays said. “He did not have a hateful bone in his body. He wanted to make sure what we started as young men we finished as adults. Some of the lessons he was teaching us were about competing. It started on the floor, but it spilled over into life lessons for us. We finally figured it out. He taught it through sports.

“He was the biggest competitor in life.”


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