Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 10:55 AM
Nolan Smith remembers very little of this, of course. He was only 8 years old when his father, former Sacramento Kings guard Derek Smith, went into cardiac arrest and died aboard a cruise ship in the Atlantic.
Yet, as he travels between cities during his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers, he hears the anecdotes, he meets the people, he asks the questions. What was my dad like? Was he fun to be around? And how good was he really?
"Bill Walton was at one our games the other day," said Smith, a first-round draft pick from Duke. "He had nothing but good things to say. The one thing he kept mentioning was how hard-nosed my dad was."
There is a hint of legend in the Derek Smith story after all these years, this tale of a man who grew up in a rural Georgia home that lacked running water and electricity. Who earned his college degree and an NCAA championship at Louisville. Who was waived by his first NBA team (Golden State Warriors) and emerged as a star with another (Los Angeles Clippers). Whose career came crashing down in seconds by a fluky collision in the old Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1985, months before he was traded to the Kings in a deal involving popular guards Mike Woodson and Larry Drew.
In a dramatic personnel move, the late Joe Axelson convinced Gregg Lukenbill that Smith could become the Kings' first legitimate star. And, in fact, the arc of Smith's triumph was almost as sudden as the descent.
There was that one improbable, spectacular 1984-85 season -- coincidentally, the Clippers' inaugural season in Los Angeles. In his second year, Smith averaged 22.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists and was acknowledged as the team's best player. A powerful, bruising 6-foot-6 athlete, he would cup the ball in his massive hands and explode to the basket, often sneering as he threw down an assortment of nasty dunks.
Until he collapsed at the feet of Clippers owner Donald Sterling only months later, clutching his left knee and crying in agony, the native of tiny Hogansville, Ga., played with an edgy, at times joyous, ferocity. The injury stripped him of that joy, and turned a game into a job. He often became visibly irritated, frustrated by the need to reinvent his game and crushed by the reality that the best part of his career was not going to happen.
"We all knew if he hadn't gotten hurt, he was going to be a superstar," said Jimmy Lynam, the former Clippers coach who later hired Smith as an assistant with the Washington Bullets.
Instead, Smith never made the All-Star team, never made his millions and never made Kings fans forget Woodson and Drew.
"There was a lot of pressure on Derek," said longtime Kings official Jerry Reynolds. "But he was always stiff, could never move fluid. It was just one of those things, honestly, that short of him being the Derek before the injury, just wasn't going to work."
Though he spent a significant portion of his three seasons with the Kings on the injured list, Derek's wife, Monica (Smith) Malone, recalls plenty of good times.
Now 23, with a degree from Duke, the Blazers' young backup point guard is averaging six minutes and itching for more, much as his father did during his rookie season with the Warriors. Yet apart from a striking facial resemblance, there is little physical similarity. At 6-2 and 185 pounds, Nolan lacks his father's size, length and explosiveness. With a chuckle, his mother also suggests her son is not nearly as combative.
The love of the game, though? The willingness to defend aggressively? The desire to stand in, in a sense, for his father? That's all there.
"I'm the son of the father who put the ball in my hands, who basically made his dream become my dream," Nolan said. "I can remember him teaching me, working with me. Now it's my reality."
He cherishes the chance meetings with his father's former teammates and coaches, loves hearing the old stories. He speaks frequently with Lynam, the coach and mentor who was only feet away when Derek Smith died during the meet-and-mingle cruise for Bullets season-ticket holders. Though initial reports indicated Smith died from a reaction to anti-seasickness medication, an autopsy later revealed a previously undetected heart disease. He was 34.
"It's no secret that I think of Derek all the time," said Monica Malone, who has since remarried. "Sometimes I wonder what he would think of all this, his son in the NBA. He might be surprised, but he would be really proud."
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