“I met Derek when I was bringing up groceries to my room,” Monica said. “He offered to take them for me. When we got to the door, he wanted to come in and talk, but he didn’t say anything. He just sat down and sat there. I got on the phone and talked to my mom for an hour, did errands and he just sat there and didn’t say a thing. Finally, we broke the ice.”
When Derek spoke, he wouldn’t finish all of his words which could sometimes confuse members of the Cardinals team. While it wasn’t Derek’s language, his speech reminded coach Olsen of Gullah, a creole language spoken in states like Georgia and South Carolina.
“It was hard for me, at first, to understand Derek,” Olsen said. “His voice and diction and ability to communicate wasn’t very good. But what he did say, when you listened to him, it was well thought-out. You could tell that he was interested in a lot more than just sports.”
It came as a bad surprise to Derek himself when he first heard himself speak.
“When he first came to Louisville we had a basketball camp going on and Derek was interviewed,” Olsen said. “He was up in the gym shooting around and some of the local television stations were in there filming the camp. They found out that Derek was there so they interviewed him.”
“That night he went down to the (dorm) lounge and a lot of campers were sitting around watching the television,” Olsen continued. “And that’s the first time Derek had seen himself on TV or heard himself speak and he watched the interview. He came to me and he was crying because some of the campers had laughed at him. He told me, ‘I knew it was me, I could see it was me but I couldn’t understand anything I was saying.’ ”
“That’s when I introduced Derek to the head of our Theater Arts department,” Olsen said. “I told him that one of the reasons that you’re in college is to get an education. If you’ll do it, I can introduce you to somebody that will put you in a major that will help you overcome that. He majored in Theater Arts and he became proficient as a public speaker. One of the best that we’ve ever had.”
Derek worked at public speaking just as hard as he worked on the basketball court. He was so diligent about going to his voice and diction classes that he showed up for one the morning after Louisville’s team had arrived back at campus in the middle of the night following their National Championship win against UCLA.
“Derek’s work ethic was in the elite category,” said Tony Branch, also a public speaker. “He arrived at Louisville from Hogansville with a small town dialect. By the time Derek graduated from the University of Louisville, he had a command of the English language. I later heard him speak to a group of campers. I was very impressed with his presentation and how he commanded the attention of the group and the adults that were there. He had an honest and respectful way of challenging you when he really believed the answer to be obvious. When I spoke with Derek, I came away a better person.”
“I was so taken with Derek and his progress that I asked him to do me a favor in the spring of his senior year,” wrote Lexington Herald-Leader’s Billy Reed after Derek’s death in 1996. “Would he deliver a commencement speech at an inner-city middle school where I had some friends? Smith not only accepted, he did a flawless job. And I thought then: Geez, have I ever known an athlete who has gotten more out of his college experience? The answer then was the same as it is today: No way.”
Smith, even though he had already played nine years in the NBA, returned to Louisville in September of 1991 to complete his communications degree, per Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“He was always willing to speak with kids and stress the importance of their education,” Burkman said. “I remember him graduating from the University of Louisville and wearing his University of Louisville uniform to commencement. That’s the type of person he was, always wanting to give back and be a good role model to all the kids.”
After averaging 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game his sophomore through to senior years, Derek Smith finished his college career at Louisville having scored the second most points in the school’s history (Smith now ranks seventh in 2016).
He also had the 1980 NCAA Championship to his name, which was won in large part thanks to two huge free throws Smith made in the last minute of the tight final game against Larry Brown‘s UCLA team of Kiki Vandeweghe, Rod Foster and Mike Sanders.
However, when the 1982 NBA draft rolled around, Derek Smith wasn’t among the most highly coveted names. When looking back at his status as a starter on an NCAA title team, Derek pointed to the rather small recognition he received.
“I was the second-leading scorer, but when the press came to do stories on us, they didn’t talk to me,” Smith said. “We had Darrell Griffith on the team, and he got the publicity, deservedly so. And we had Scooter and Rodney McCray, probably the best brother combination people had seen in a while. And Wiley Brown didn’t have a thumb. The press never saw a guy play without a thumb before. I was kind of just the fifth guy, the other starter.”
Following the 1980 title and Darrell Griffith’s transition to the NBA, Derek actually lead Denny Crum’s Louisville team in scoring both his junior and senior year. He also was the leading rebounder one of those years.
The Cardinals came close to the National Final in 1982, Derek’s senior year, but were halted in the 1982 National Semifinal by Georgetown, a team featuring freshman Patrick Ewing. They lost 46-50. The year before their tournament run was stopped by a miraculous game-winning shot from halfcourt by U.S. Reed from Arkansas.
“Even at Louisville he could have had bigger numbers,” Olsen said. “You would have five players in double figures most years at Louisville. You very seldom had one player that (stood out), other than Darrell Griffith who was the player on that ’80 team that was unstoppable.”
Griffith averaged 22.9 points per game in 1979-80 for a Louisville team which scored 76.9 per contest and was the first Cardinals’ 20-point scorer since Jim Price in 1971-72.
The Golden State Warriors ended up selecting Derek Smith with the 35th pick in the 1982 NBA draft’s second round. His stint with the Oakland team proved to be a short-lived one, though. Head coach Al Attles opted to play Smith in the power forward position, one which he at times had filled playing for the somewhat position-less and undersized Cardinals.
The size of NBA front-court players, however, proved to be overbearing for the 6-6 Derek Smith. Yet getting any burn on the perimeter wasn’t exactly an option either.
Warriors’ center Chris Engler, who was drafted one round after Derek, pointed out that between names like World B. Free, Sleepy Floyd and Micheal Ray Richardson there wasn’t much extra playing time to be found at the guard’s positions.
“Al kind of liked the veterans and certainly we weren’t that,” laughingly said Engler, who roomed with Derek on road trips that season.
Thus playing time came sparingly and Derek only clocked 154 minutes in the 27 games he got on the court. However, his legendary work ethic and persistent spirit remained sound.
“He had a great personality, always had a smile and he was a hard worker,” said Joe Hassett, a teammate of his at Golden State. “He would go after every rebound. He would play with a high motor, as they say today. Played with a lot of intensity but he was a nice person. Always had a smile, always polite. He was a first class kid.”
“He had a tremendous presence about him,” remembered Chris Engler. “He was kind of a born leader. Regardless of whether he was at that time the best player on the team, he had this magnetism to him because he was such a good person and just had personality.”
Derek was waived by the Warriors soon after his first year in the league. Suddenly the Louisville great was a miscast rookie bench warmer without a place in the NBA.
It would be a change of position that proved to revitalize a slumping start to his professional career.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
At an old gym at Loyola Marymount University, Lynam instructed Derek to run full-bore up the court, catch the ball on the right wing and take it to the rim, over and over. “The heat index in that gym had to be close to 115, 120 degrees,” Lynam says, “and he dunked, like, six straight. So I said, ‘Let’s go to the other wing.’ And with each dunk, he’s saying, ‘I can’t play in this league? — Boom! Yeah, watch!’ He played with such a passion, and finally I said to myself, ‘He’s gonna dunk until he drops.’
Jim Lynam, a first-year head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1983, took a chance at working out Derek during the summer as a favor, as told by ESPN’s Tom Friend. He wasn’t, however, expecting much. After all, Lynam had faced Smith’s Warriors six times the previous season as Jack Ramsay’s assistant coach at Portland. Derek played only twice against the Trail Blazers and scored a grand total of four points.
An intense showing of dunks, eerily similar to the time Bill Olsen saw a teenage Derek Smith dominate his high school coach’s drill, was impressive, but Jim Lynam still wanted to see him shooting the ball. That hadn’t been a particular strength of his.
“His shot was not polished when he came to the University of Louisville,” Wiley Brown said. “He worked on that tremendously.”
“He would go in the gym and put in the extra time to work on his shot,” coach Olsen confirmed. “He wasn’t a great outside shooter when he came (to the University of Louisville). But every day he would work on his outside shooting and got better and better every year.”
Tom Friend continued: “Lynam positioned Derek at the top of the key extended, then asked him simply to catch the ball and let it fly. Forty shots later, Derek had made about 20, and Lynam was thinking, “I told you so.” But he asked Derek to keep shooting, only this time he wanted him to take a dribble or two first. “I’m under the goal. Bam! Bam! Bambambambam! He makes 90-ish of his next 100 shots! I said to him, ‘Good Derek, I’ll see you tomorrow at 10.’ I’ve worked out probably thousands of players, and this one is on the top shelf by itself.”
“He exhibited a determination and drive the likes of which I had never seen before, and I will never see again,” Lynam told the team’s long-time announcer Ralph Lawler about the session. “I called my wife and I told her, ‘I think I just got hit in the head by lightning. I have found a great shooting guard.’”
With Derek Smith signed to a minimum contract, the San Diego Clippers started the 1983-84 season going through the likes of Michael Brooks, Ricky Pierce, Craig Hodges and Greg Kelser to play alongside Norm Nixon on the perimeter. Derek had found his NBA position and a more consistent role, yet at times was still relied upon for less than ten minutes of playing time.
A severe knee injury to Michael Brooks, who had gained the most trust from Jim Lynam out of the four and had started 30 games in a row, finally gave Derek an even bigger chance.
“His confidence just really began to soar,” said teammate Greg Kelser. “He realized that he did belong in the NBA. Not only did he belong, he could dominate in the NBA. (His improvement) started that year and then it just took off.”
Derek closed out the last 20 games of his season with 19 starts and the averages of 17.3 points per game (he averaged 9.8 for the whole year) on 57.9 percent shooting as the Clippers found its first consistent starting lineup of Bill Walton, James Donaldson, Terry Cummings, Derek Smith and Norm Nixon. Derek, meanwhile, could start to match up against the best shooting guards in the league.
“Derek was a hard-working, humble, determined, young player,” remembered James Donaldson. “He knew if he could just have the opportunity to show what he could do, he would be one of the better players in the league. He relished the competition, he relished the challenges of going against the very best players. It wasn’t long before Derek was one of the very best 2-guards in the league.”
The Clippers organization itself was far from a well-run franchise, though. The team finished with a 30-52 record despite a number of promising players on the roster. Most of them acknowledged that they had ended up on the Clippers since their previous team had given up on them.
“The Clippers at that time were known as, basically, a dumping ground,” Donaldson said. “I think most of players felt that if you got traded to the Clippers, (you were) close to being exiled out of the league. The Clippers never really had any winning seasons.”
The Clippers hadn’t made the playoffs since 1975-76 as the Buffalo Braves and wouldn’t do so again until 1991-92.
The front office earned a reputation for being chaotic, while Donald Sterling’s ownership connoted cheapness. However, Derek’s performance down the stretch of that season was good enough that even the Clippers management matched an offer sheet from the Denver Nuggets (believed to be worth $800,000 over two years) and thus kept Derek Smith for the next two years.
“I was out of position at Golden State,” said Derek himself. “They had me at power forward, and I couldn’t cover or rebound with the big people. I didn’t have a chance to play guard, and that’s where I am now and happy about it.”
“I honestly thought that if he got with an NBA team that would give him an opportunity, time, and work with him, that he would make an NBA roster,” Branch said. “He was going to have to adjust to playing the guard position after playing small forward in college. That is a huge adjustment that takes years. Derek’s work ethic and desire to succeed is why he was able to make the adjustment when so many others have failed to do so in the NBA.”
The jumpshot which now accompanied a versatile skillset of quickness, athleticism and tenacity might have been enough for Derek to succeed. But then there’s also the hands. The hands which coach Bill Olsen noticed in Kenny Robinson’s clippings and which helped him decide to go down to Georgia.
“He had such big hands that he could palm the ball, pick it up off the dribble, which was rare back in those days, very few players could do that,” Brown said. “Pick the ball off the dribble and go up and then dunk on you.”
“He was strong, he was powerful, he had real big hands,” Kelser said. “Norm Nixon used to call him Rock. Because he was rock solid, rock hard. As he grew in confidence, he became kind of unstoppable.”
Guarding Derek was a load for opposing shooting guards. He went at his match-ups ferociously, whether it meant driving at them, posting them up, attacking the glass for offensive rebounds or, now, also shooting over them. If one tried to beat him to the punch and front him, teammates could lob the ball over Smith’s defender for alley-oops which Derek could gather with his large mitts. Bill Walton, a very capable passer for a big man, in particular would search for Derek after he had backdoored his man.
The first seventeen games of the 1984-85 campaign yielded seven 20-point games by Smith. Then came his opportunity to face rookie sensation Michael Jordan.
MJ, who already had six 30-point games in the bag (the standout being a 45-point effort against San Antonio), had taken the league by storm with his incredible athletic abilities. But there are some things even Jordan, ten pounds lighter and 15 months younger, couldn’t handle.
Smith went at the younger shooting guard from the very jump. To start, Derek held MJ off for a two off a Walton lob. He then over-powered him for an and-1 in the post. Derek also made a baseline off-the-dribble jumper as Jordan leaped at him. Finally, he crashed the glass for two points off the rebound over MJ. After the first quarter he already had eighteen points, with Jordan on him the majority of the time.
Highlight plays like backdooring Jordan for another layup off a lob, slamming an alley-oop over Quintin Dailey and the famous fly-by poster over His Airness (completed thanks to those huge hands) only cemented an over-powering 33-point performance. Those 33 points were a career high, seven points more than his previous career high of 26.
Derek Smith had simply man-handled the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, who had a relatively meager 20 points to his name.
“His game was very powerful,” said guard Gerald Henderson Sr., who played with Derek later on at Philadelphia. “Here’s a guy that you would hate to guard. He was so physical that sometimes you would refuse to put your hands or your body on him because he would move one way or the other and you would be the one that would become injured or entangled with him.”
Thanks to such a physical style of play, Derek attempted 6.3 free throw attempts per game in 1984-85. According to Basketball Reference, only did Michael Jordan, Sidney Moncrief and fellow low-post bruiser Adrian Dantley have a higher free throw attempt rate (the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempts) than Derek Smith did among outside players with at least 15 FGAs per game.
The same group, plus Mark Aguirre and T.R. Dunn, were the sole perimeter players averaging more than two offensive rebounds per game. Derek was also top five among guards with 52 blocked shots. Playing against Derek had effectively become like facing a power forward in a shooting guard’s body.
As he became reliable for at least 20 points per night, his play also started to draw acclaim. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe even wrote: “Don’t look for Smith in Indianapolis (site of the All-Star game), but he’s played better than any guard except Magic.”
His Clippers, however, playing their first year at Los Angeles, were at a lowly record of 20-30 heading in the All-Star break. It wasn’t exactly a well known team for the average fan. Moreover, while a move from San Diego increased attendance, the numbers at the Memorial Sports Arena were still among the worst in the league. Needless to say, Derek wasn’t invited to Indianapolis that season.
But it didn’t hold Smith back one bit. He upped his level of play even more and had a stellar finish to the 1984-85 campaign. At one point, he averaged 28 points per game on an unbelievable 60.4 percent shooting over a span of 22 games.
Derek’s confidence had risen so high that at times he literally didn’t expect to miss a shot. Following a 35-point career-high performance at Seattle in late February in which he made 14 of 20 field goals, an unsatisfied Smith blamed himself.
“We lost by, what, six points today?” Smith asked. “Well, I had those three (shots) rim out in the fourth quarter. Some nights you’ve just got the feeling and you know they are going in. I think all my shots should’ve gone in today. It (the career high) means nothing. We lost.”
Described by head coach Don Chaney (who had replaced the fired Jim Lynam) as a “man on a mission”, Smith wouldn’t just quit on another lost Clippers season.
“I don’t care what our record is [at that point 26-48], I just want to win,” Smith said. “I’m feeling so good out there. My confidence is very high.”
The 2-guard’s heroics also gave interim coach Chaney plenty of hope late in yet another bad Clippers season. As Derek closed out the season with his second NBA Player of the Week award of the season after putting up 41 points on 23 field goal attempts against the Kansas City Kings, Don Chaney saw the unlimited future potential of his team’s leader.
“He’s just learning what Derek Smith is all about,” Chaney said. “Every day, he surprises himself and is learning his abilities. The guy is not even close to reaching his potential. I’ve said it before: He is going to be a superstar.”
It had been another season of gradual improvement. If 1983-84 had been about transitioning from a bench player to a starter who could score 20, the 1984-85 season was about going from 20-point games to 30-point games.
“I have tried to be consistent ever since I got this job,” Smith said. “I didn’t set a goal in terms of how many points. They just come. There was a time earlier in the season when I was stuck on a streak of scoring 19 points. Now, I keep moving up the ladder.”
“Derek Smith was an All-Star caliber player,” said Kelser when commenting on Derek’s rise to the top. “He was a really, really good basketball player. I watched him develop from a guy who barely made it into the league to a guy who’s right on the threshold of becoming an All-Star mid-way through his career.”
It truly had a been a season of All-Star level basketball by Derek Smith. Moreover, one only can understand coach Chaney’s passionate comments. Only 23 years old, known for an inimitable work ethic and drive, there was no reason why Derek Smith wouldn’t become even better.
Highlights of Derek Smith’s 1984-85 season:
The Clippers had a brisk start to the 1985-86 season as they reached an unusually good record of 5-0. Forward Marques Johnson was back in form and would later be selected for his fifth career All-Star game appearance. Former 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell had been acquired in a trade which landed the Boston Celtics Bill Walton. The trade also allowed the up-and-coming James Donaldson play the starting center position. Point guard Norm Nixon — an All-Star the previous season– was slated to return from an injury soon.
And, of course, Derek Smith was picking up right where he had left off at the end of last season with averages of 27.1 points per game on 55.9 percent shooting in the first nine contests of the year.
Coach Chaney’s prediction seemingly had come to fruition. Derek snatched the season’s first NBA Player of the Week honors and was trailing only Alex English, Orlando Woolridge and Adrian Dantley in scoring before it all came to a grinding halt.
A late-game drive through the lane on November 13 against the Seattle Supersonics ended in Derek Smith crashing to the floor, clutching his left knee and screaming in pain.
“When I went to jump, I bent my knee to take off,” Smith said. “When I bent it, I felt the leg pop. It sounded like a miniature firecracker going off. Pop.”
“I really didn’t even believe it occurred,” Chaney said after the game. “He’s so tough, he always gets up. I thought it was just another bump or bruise. I said, ‘Get up, Derek, Get up.'”
Derek had suffered an extensive cartilage tear and underwent arthroscopic surgery soon after in which the damaged portion was removed.
Not even Derek Smith could have gotten up from that.
To make matters worse, the guard’s relationship with the Clippers organization began to sour as the rehabilitation process went awry. A premature return to the court for two games in December impeded Smith’s recovery.
The rehab course was then affected even more when Derek started to feel unusually tired after workouts. A virus, which later in March was found out to be mononucleosis, was a point of so much friction that Derek had to defend himself from claims about faking the illness.
“Trying to describe how bitter a season this has been is tough,” Smith said. “Maybe because of the high expectations I had and also having people second-guess me all year makes it worse. It’s been a brutal, brutal year. Sometimes, during the year, I wished to hell I could take a plane back to Hogansville and stay there.”
“I’ve been through both the knee and the virus,” he continued. “It takes a hell of a lot to depress me, but this has. They said I was psychosomatic. I didn’t know what that was. They don’t teach that word at Louisville. I had to ask Ron (Grinker) what it meant. He said it was being a faker. I heard that word a lot. But I knew there was something wrong with me.”
The situation wasn’t resolved one bit during the summer as both sides had a dispute over unpaid bonus money. On top of that the Clippers somewhat low-balled Smith in free agency by reportedly offering a 5-million, 7-year contract which would have placed the go-to player of the franchise below Marques Johnson, Benoit Benjamin and Norm Nixon on the club’s salary scale.
The Clippers’ front office tactics had once again ruined a relationship with a player to the point that he wanted nothing to do with the franchise.
“I don’t want to play for the Clippers,” Smith said in late July. “I haven’t talked to anyone in the organization since I left last April. I’ve said it and I mean it. They can match any offer sheet, but I’ll sit out. They have no interest in signing me. They want me to go out and prove my worth. They want to save bucks. What I’ve asked is for the Clippers to open their eyes and tell the truth. They labeled me as “the player” on the team.”
Consequently, Derek signed a 5-year offer sheet worth $4.5 million with the Sacramento Kings on August 7. The Kings — who gave up Larry Drew and Mike Woodson to the Clippers as part of compensation after the LA team matched the offer — were fresh off their first playoff appearance since moving from Kansas City and were looking to go all-in and make the next step. Unfortunately, things would only continue to go downhill for Smith.
Derek played in only 87 games the next two seasons. His scoring average plummeted to 16.6 the first year and 12.7 in 1987-88. His mind-boggling efficiency from the field was down to a pedestrian 45.7 percent.
A chronically sore left knee that had also developed tendinitis had robbed him of his dangerous first step. No longer the explosive athlete he previously was, Derek couldn’t get the lift he once had on drives and often ended up hobbling after his attacks to the basket.
“Obviously, my inside game has suffered from not being able to push off (because of the knee injury),” Smith said. “I still lack the explosive leap inside the paint (key), but I think my jump shot feels good.”
His jump shot, sadly enough, couldn’t make up for the aspects of the game in which he thrived thanks to his explosiveness. Statistical columns like offensive rebounds and free throws attempted, which previously highlighted an advantage of athleticism against opposing guards, saw significant drops.
Teammates and friends don’t remember times of Derek complaining about his present situation, though. At times, the feisty Smith effectively played on one leg and continued to work hard, even if he reportedly couldn’t practice for two straight days.
“Derek remembered back at his high school, back at Louisville, that if he didn’t keep on pushing himself and keep applying himself to the maximum that he would probably end up losing his position to somebody else,” Donaldson said about Derek’s time in Sacramento during which the two remained good friends. “So he never was one to take a day off, never was one to let up. Even when his knees were killing him, his back was killing him, his feet, everything was hurting him all the time. You have to admire that kind of a work ethic.”
“He never missed a practice,” coach Olsen reiterated the notion. “If he was hurt, we didn’t know it. A lot of times players spend as much time in the training room getting over minor things (as they do on the court). Derek never did.”
Derek’s unenviable situation eventually became a topic of discontent at Sacramento. The team had given up key pieces for Smith — even after being informed by their doctors that Derek only “can be 70, 80 percent of what he was” — and were disappointed when Smith sat out games as the Kings stumbled to a total of 53 wins in two seasons.
As a part of that time’s NBA rules, the Clippers could match Sacramento’s offer for Derek Smith and receive compensation in return. The Kings had to trade Larry Drew, Mike Woodson, a 1st round draft pick and a 2nd rounder in a deal for Derek Smith, Junior Bridgeman and Franklin Edwards.
Frustration by both sides created riffs between Derek and coaches Jerry Reynolds and Bill Russell. The chemistry of the locker room also worsened as the players couldn’t find a common ground.
“Once he signed the big deal, there were a lot of people who were maybe a little upset with the points and his production,” said Jerry Eaves, who joined the Kings for the length of a 10-day contract in 1987. “But you can only do what your body allows you to do.”
Coach Reynolds confirmed as much in his book “Reynolds Remembers”. According to Reynolds, the players who had been with the Kings previously became embittered about Derek’s declining abilities and place on the team. Smith’s inability to fulfill expectations generated annoyance and made the team miss Woodson and Drew.
“Those were frustrating times,” Donaldson said. “He was brought to Sacramento to kind of be a savior, to really add a great amount of talent to the team and to get them to be competitive. It wasn’t the best mix of chemistry amongst all of the players who were there at the time. The chemistry was never quite right. And Derek was always frustrated by that.”
Ultimately, an argument with head coach Jerry Reynolds (who had been an interim both previous years after Phil Johnson and Bill Russell were fired) in Derek’s third year (1988-89) at Sacramento lead to a suspension and his contract being bought out.
Philadelphia quickly picked him up and closed the chapter on Derek’s “worst 2 1/2 years of his life“. The 76ers were lead by Jim Lynam who wasn’t bothered by Derek’s alleged attitude problem at Sacramento.
“I felt I knew the guy from having him with the Clippers,” said Lynam, a former coach of the Los Angeles club. “He’s a character individual.”
Smith’s health had deteriorated during his time in Sacramento, though. Maladies like a fractured left eye rim filled out the medical history of the guard. With seven operations in five years on his resume (three on his left knee, two on his left eye, one on his right hip, another on his right elbow), Smith was now spending the majority of his time doing an ungodly amount of treatment just to hang on as a veteran bench player for the Sixers.
Already distancing himself from his previous great form and speaking of his Clippers days as “that Derek Smith”, he averaged 8.9 points on 50.8 percent shooting from the field (his best percentage since Los Angeles) in 18.7 minutes per game in 1989-90.
“I want to be the best interchangeable role player in the league,” said Smith, locked in on his role and a grueling schedule of maintaining his body day in and day out. “It’s a position Michael Cooper has held for so many years. Is that enough to get you into the Hall of Fame? I doubt it, but it’s nice to be looked upon as one of the best role players.”
The Philadelphia 76ers finished the 1989-90 season with a 53-29 record and their first division title since 1983. However, when it was time for the biggest post-season run of Derek’s career, his body failed him.
Despite all of the work he had put in, Smith was capable of playing in only one of Philadelphia’s playoff contests as the team suffered a 1-4 loss in the Eastern Semifinals against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Smith had successfully started three games in March in the place of the injured Rick Mahorn. Yet such a step only worsened Smith’s condition in the long run. Tendinitis in the left knee pretty much kept him from playing in the post-season.
“It’s a whole lot worse being hurt than it is not getting into games when you’re healthy,” the helpless Smith said. “This is your worst nightmare, having the ability and having earned the chance and not being able to get out there. It’s frustrating. It makes me be confined to a small quarter, but I’ve been through it before.”
“Derek is one of the few people I really admire,” said Charles Barkley, showing the amount of respect the 76ers had for Smith. ”He’s been through more adversity than any human being. He’s got three or four times the extra body parts than most of us have. Extra knee parts. Extra hip parts. That’s why I call him Robo.”
Tim Defrisco/Getty Images
Saying that Derek Smith’s NBA career ended with his body quitting on him at Sacramento and Philadelphia wouldn’t be doing his basketball story any justice.
On December 22, 1990 he signed with the Boston Celtics for the remainder of the season. He had withstood four knee surgeries in the last five years and was still undergoing rehabilitation after a left knee operation in September, yet the Celtics wanted his veteran presence.
Despite playing his first game in a Celtics uniform only four months later, Derek was included on Boston’s playoff roster. He even saw playing time in every game of the first round series against the Indiana Pacers. With 20 minutes total to his name in the first four games, head coach Chris Ford entrusted Derek for his last hurrah.
Ford unleashed Smith on the young and braggadocios Chuck Person, who had scored 39 in Game 2 and set an NBA playoffs record of 7 threes made. Person was already at nine points early in the fifth and deciding game of the series.
Equipped with a huge pad on his left knee and playing on a knee injection, Derek exerted whatever mobility his body still had and face-guarded Person on almost every possession. More often than not, it was done by holding, grabbing and shoving the younger Pacer as the two exchanged trash talk from before the pre-game anthem until the final buzzer sounded. Indiana’s dangerous marksman wasn’t to move from one spot to another unmolested.
The veteran guard gave up only one field goal to Person, a ridiculous fall-away three after Derek had tested the limits of the hand-checking rule. He also shut him down on the most important possession of the game. A good eight seconds of battling for post position concluded with Chuck Person missing a wild three-pointer which would have given Indiana a one-point lead.
In the end, Derek’s spirited performance, which earned a well-deserved standing ovation from the Boston Garden’s crowd, probably ranked second in importance to Larry Bird’s 32 points. Bird had famously returned to the court following a nasty spill on which he banged his head against the parquet floor.
“Bird wouldn’t stop talking about Smith, wouldn’t stop high-fiving him or hugging him,” wrote The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon about that game. “Smith had scored 12 points, dragging his bad leg, but more importantly he’d stopped Chuck Person from scoring. And afterward, Smith summed up his basketball odyssey about as eloquently as possible. Asked about his role in the twilight of his career, Smith said: “To stay out was offensively … There was a time when I couldn’t guard a soul and I got paid to score 22 points a game. Now, I can only find the basket when I’m left totally alone. Larry found me creeping around there a couple of times … It’s another chapter.”
It was a basketball victory for Derek who had finally found himself again. After struggling for so long in Los Angeles and Sacramento as he tried to return to his 20-point form, he had been a vital role player for Boston. It was something tendinitis had prevented him from being on Philadelphia’s playoff run.
Boston lost in six games to Detroit in the second round and Derek called it quits despite an extension offer from the Celtics. With one good knee left, he wanted to make sure that he could play with his son Nolan as he grew up.
Three years later, though, old pal Jim Lynam persuaded Smith to return to the league as his assistant coach for the Washington Bullets. Derek, being very attached to his children, agreed to do so on the condition that he could bring Nolan with him everywhere. Lynam complied and Nolan, in effect, became a part of the Bullets, going on trips, showing up for practices and doing drills with Washington’s players.
As Derek was coaching the team, he also taught Nolan the character and work ethic that had once made himself successful.
(Nolan Smith won the 2010 NCAA Championship with Duke and played two seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA before suffering a torn patella tendon. He currently works as a special assistant on Duke’s men’s basketball team’s staff.)
Meanwhile, Derek exhibited a similar influence on the rather young Bullets squad.
“He was phenomenal, he was my older brother in the NBA,” McIlvaine said. “We had the same agent, Ron Grinker. And when I got drafted by Washington, the first thing Mr. Grinker said was, ‘You’re going to be in good hands because Derek Smith is there, he’s going to take care of you. He’s going to look out for you.’ And he did.”
Smith earned the role of the coach who could reach Washington’s young and flamboyant stars, from Fab Five’s Chris Webber and Juwan Howard to the heady Rasheed Wallace. The team improved its 21-win mark in 1994-95, Derek’s first year, to 39 wins in 1995-96. Every player on the team began to vouch for Derek and his impact on their success and improvement.
“Never forgot where he came from and never took anything for granted in life, not his wife, not his kids, not the opportunities that he had in basketball,” McIlvaine explained Smith’s influence on the team. “He set a great example for me and all the other guys that he coached when he was in Washington.”
“He was my personal coach,” said Juwan Howard who was an All-Star in 1995-96. “Like a big brother.”
“For the two years I was there Derek worked with me before every practice, he worked with me after every practice,” McIlvaine said. “He worked with me during every shootaround. Gave me all the confidence in the world in myself.”
“Whether you’re in pro basketball or anywhere else in life,” McIlvaine concluded, “the people who you meet on the way really have an impact on your life and that was certainly the case with Derek.”
Courtesy of Bill Olsen
“Usually when you go to a funeral people say great things about a person who really wasn’t a good person,” Barkley told Rick Bozich. “With Derek it’s the opposite. You can’t say enough good things about him. The world is a poorer place than it was a week ago.”
Life played out a cruel joke on Derek Smith when he met his fate on August 9, 1996. Derek and has family had gone on a cruise for the Bullets and Capitals organizations and its season ticket holders.
On its last day, as the cruise ship returned from Bermuda, Derek’s head suddenly dropped mid-sentence while talking to fellow travelers. Colleagues and medical personnel, stunned by what had just happened, rushed to help and resuscitate him. After about a half hour they gave up on their efforts.
The man with unquestionable heart had suffered from a heart defect, a condition caused by an abnormality in the mitral valve which had never been previously discovered.
“I look back at all the physicals he had over the years because of his knee surgeries,” said Monica, Derek’s wife. “And it was never detected.”
Derek’s character had left such an imprint on people around him that there were two funerals, one in Hogansville and one in Louisville. The latter was attended by 3,000 people, many of whom couldn’t make it inside the church.
For the people who had crossed paths with Derek during their life, he was much more than a basketball player. They were grieving over the loss of one of the most briliant persons they had ever met. As numerous journalists wrote their eulogies, there was no end to the stories Derek’s acquaintances could tell about his positive effect on others.
Louisville’s assistant coach Scott Davenport shared his memories with Russ Brown of how enthusiastic Bill Olsen was about Smith’s qualities as a person when he first attended the university.
“Coach Olsen told me something that I’ve always remembered and a lesson I have used every day I’ve been a coach,” Davenport said. “He said, ‘I know Derek’s heart and where that will take him. Don’t ever overlook the heart, drive and desire of a person.’ And that’s what made Derek what he was, on and off the court.”
Others, who had only briefly interacted with Derek, wondered how it is so that he still managed to leave such an impact on them. The Boston Globe’s Peter May asked himself this question when articulating the effect of Derek on the Boston Celtics, a team for which he played 12 games total.
“How could someone who played here so briefly have left such an impression?” May pondered. “Maybe it was because Derek Smith embodied qualities in short supply among athletes in professional sports today. He was enthusiastic, passionate, unselfish, team-oriented. He was outgoing, candid almost to a fault. If you covered an NBA team, you wanted to clone him.”
From best friends to one-time teammates, everyone was and still is devastated by the loss of Derek. His left knee might have prevented him from what could have been the career of a perennial All-Star. But his death robbed society from a definite first class human being off the court.
“He was a person who made a difference in the life of everyone he came in contact with, and in this community alone there were thousands,” Olsen told Russ Brown. “I wish everyone was like Derek Smith, as a student, as an athlete and as an employee. He was self-motivated to be the best at everything and that attitude was a positive influence on everybody.”
“I was always proud of what Derek achieved, but never surprised,” Olsen said. “I find it difficult to adequately describe what his loss means to society.”
“Even after I had signed with Seattle, he was the first person I called,” spoke McIlvaine of the $33 million contract his improvement had earned him. “We talked and I said, ‘I’m going to keep in touch with you. I wish you could come to Seattle with me.’ ”
“I miss him to this day,” McIlvaine said. “I think about him all the time.”
Derek’s impact also manifested itself in countless contributions to communities. Between organizing camps for children, speaking at schools, hosting fundraisers to raise money for health facilities in need, he spent an enormous amount of time to help the youth.
A story which illustrates said willingness quite aptly is a memory of his agent Ron Grinker, told by J.A. Adande:
“Grinker said he could recall one time when he was mad at Smith,” Adande wrote. “His clients used to gather in Grinker’s home town of Cincinnati to work out before each season. One time, Grinker waited at Xavier University for two hours and no one was there. He heard that Smith had taken them somewhere.
It turned out Smith had read about a youth who had been arrested for selling drugs. Smith had taken all of Grinker’s clients, who included Danny Manning and Craig Ehlo, to talk to the youth to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“It didn’t take me very long not to be mad anymore,” Grinker said. “That was just typical of the way he was.””