NBA players come and go. Very often ball players find themselves in a system that doesn’t fit, or so far down on the depth chart that they never really get to make a name for themselves. There are a variety of things that keep NBA players from showing what they can do, but best believe they can all play. In today’s age of social media, league pass, advanced metrics, and YouTube channels dedicated to covering the game, rarely do you find a guy nowadays who does work but flies under the radar.
Derek Smith won a college championship at Lousiville, put up All-Star numbers for a few seasons and dominated a young Michael Jordan, yet he was quickly forgotten about. Smith played from 1982 until 1990, but as luck would have it Smith’s best years came with the lowly LA Clippers from 84-86. “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,”said Wiley Brown, Derek Smith’s teammate at the University of Louisville. “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,” Clippers teammate Greg 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.” This was prime Donald Sterling. If you can think back to how racist his views were in his less than prime years, imagine what his mindset was during his heyday. Unfortunately, the Clippers were basketball hell, that last stop for players on the way to league-wide banishment. Smith is from Hogansville, rural Georgia, a one-stoplight town with a population of about 3000 and was known for his tireless work ethic and natural athletic ability. By sheer will, he went from a seldom used 6’6 SG that played out of position with the Golden State Warriors stuck behind World B. Free, Sleepy Floyd and Micheal Ray Richardson to the misfit Clipps leading scorer when he was rightly slotted at the 2. Known for playing with a high motor and being a good locker room guy Derrick Smith had the recipe for how to keep a job in the L.
Jordan didn’t want any trouble with Dereck.
The first seventeen games of the 1984-85 Derek was on fire averaging 20 points a game. Of course, 84-85 was also the debut of the legendary rookie sensation Michael Jeffrey Jordan who was punishing all comers straight out the gate. MJ had already hit 6 teams with 30 or more points including his retiring of the Spurs with a prophetic 45. 10 lbs lighter and 15 months younger than Derek, Flight 23 was about to go to flight school. Smith got up with the young fella from the tip off. Mike got muscled for lobs, overpowered for and 1’s in the paint and mouth shotted off the dribble. After the first quarter, he already had eighteen points, with Jordan on guard for the bulk of the time. Bottom line Jordan didn’t want any trouble with Derek who would end up with a career high of 33 to Mike’s Jimmy Butlerish 20. “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.”
D Smith could be counted on for a dub a night, and his game started drawing attention. 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.”
Despite his body of work Sterling’s boys sucked. Who knew about the Clippers when the Lakers were show timing, the C’s were primed and young guys like Jordan, Barkley, Ewing and Miller were on the scene. Derek unfazed and motivated, after the All-Star break, averaged 28 points per game on an unbelievable 60.4 percent shooting over a span of 22 games.
This would be as good as it gets for the most part. Derek in a contract stall with the Clippers was signed by the Sacramento Kings pledging to not play for the LAC after being low-balled despite being the team’s best player. 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.
A chronically sore left knee that had also developed tendinitis grounded the lift he once had. Lacking the ability to be aggressive and rise over guys, Derek was just another player. “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.”
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. Smith went on to play for Philly (1989-90) where he had a bit of a bounce back year , even helping them skate into the Playoffs where Derek would have rendezvoused with Jordan had he been healthy enough to play. The Sixer’s eventually went down 1-4 with barely Smith barely seeing the floor. “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.”
His swan song would come with the Boston Celtics, who signed him in 1990, mainly as a solid veteran locker room presence. Uncommonly, having only seen court time four months before the Playoffs were set to start, Smith was given a roster spot. His assignment would be to jam up a young, swaggering, Chuck Person who was coming off 39 points in game 2. Despite having his knees heavily bandaged, the aging vet would deliver an inspired offensive performance from the bench holding Chuck to one field goal via a mix of vet tricks, will power and grown man strength.
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.”
“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.”
Smith would go on to join the Washington Bullets as an assistant coach. “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.”
His greatest post-basketball accomplishment was probably his devotion to family. His son 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.
Derek Smith’s final number was called on August 9, 1996. While on a team trip, with the Bullets organization in Bermuda, Derek in a blink suffered an unexpected heart attack, later attributed to 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.”
When it’s all said and done Derek Smith made a name for himself. To what extent he will be remembered and reminisced on is immaterial. The fact of the matter is he did the work no matter who was watching. Hooper props to a life well lived and a game well played. One thing is for sure Jordan will remember your name and your game.