He was probably the greatest basketball player you have never heard of. Such was the fate of my friend Derek Smith, who died five years ago last week at the age of 34, while on a cruise from New York to Bermuda.
Derek was an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) at the time of his death, after having enjoyed a successful career as a player in both college and the NBA.
I still remember the phone ringing early one morning in the days following the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. The call had trouble written all over it. It was a former assistant of mine, from my days working in the NBA, ringing to tell me that my friend was gone.
My initial reaction was one of disbelief, but when I called Derek’s house after hanging up, the worst was confirmed. In the prime of life, a giant of a man in every sense of the word had been taken from us.
Derek died of a rare heart defect. He had an abnormal heart rhythm that was caused by the thickening of the mitral valve.
It was the final night of a cruise organized by the Bullets, which included team officials, sponsors and season ticket-holders. Derek and his family were seated at a table with general manager Wes Unseld and head coach Jim Lynam, when suddenly Derek stopped breathing and couldn’t be revived.
The shock of Derek’s death was so great for me, that I’m still not sure I have gotten over it. He was the kind of person you meet once in a lifetime. You hear talk about people who walk into a room and light it up. Derek was one of these people. His story, though encompassing only 34 years, was an amazing one.
I always felt Derek was on the fast track in life. Now I somehow think it was God’s will all along. That he knew Derek wasn’t going to be here for long, so he wanted him to do as much as possible.
He grew up in poverty in the small town of Hogansville, Ga. His mother couldn’t afford a baby sitter so she sent him off to school at the age of three.
Derek graduated from high school at 16, then went on to the University of Louisville on a basketball scholarship. There he found fame as a starter on two Final Four teams for the Cardinals, including the 1980 squad led by Darrell Griffith that won the NCAA title.
By the age of 20, Derek had completed his four years at Louisville, gotten married and made it to the NBA.
He was a second-round draft choice of the Golden State Warriors in 1982, but saw little playing time on a team loaded with forwards and was released after his rookie season. During the off-season Smith was introduced to Lynam, who at that time was the coach of the San Diego Clippers.
Coach Lynam told Derek that if he wanted to play in the NBA, he thought he was going to have do it as a guard, despite being 6-6 (200-cm) and 205 pounds (93 kg).
Derek made Lynam’s team for the 1983-84 season and began the year on the bench, before working his way into the starting lineup as a shooting guard. In 61 games for the Clippers that season, he averaged 9.8 points. It was the start of something. Something big.
The next season the team moved to Los Angeles and Derek blossomed into one of the top shooting guards in the NBA. He led a team that included established stars like Bill Walton, Marques Johnson and Norm Nixon in scoring with 22.1 points per game.
It was during this season that Derek had a memorable encounter with Michael Jordan. Playing against the Chicago Bulls at a sold-out Los Angeles Sports Arena, Derek outscored Jordan 33 points to 20, and punctuated it with an incredible dunk.
In the second half of the game, Walton blocked a shot, redirected it to Nixon, who kicked it out on the fast break to Derek on the left side. Going to the hoop at full speed, Derek had only one man to beat — Jordan.
Derek took off, going left to right, as Jordan swooped in and smothered him with both arms fully spread. Derek held on to the ball in his huge hands, stayed airborne, then dunked it while flying by the basket. The roof nearly blew off the arena as the fans went wild.
Seasoned NBA observers who saw it said it was the best dunk they had ever seen in a game. It looked like Derek was on the way to becoming a bona fide superstar. The 1985-86 season was filled with great expectations for Derek, and after eight games he was third in the NBA in scoring at 27.1 points per game.
Late in the ninth game that season, however, Derek tore cartilage in his left knee, had to have surgery and was never the same. He went on to play five more seasons in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics before retiring.
I remember Derek telling me, “For about 100 games there I was the best basketball player in the world.” I don’t think many people who knew the game would have disagreed.
But Derek was always so much more than a basketball player. Even though he was actually a few weeks younger than me, I learned so many things from him over the years about life and people.
I can remember him traveling with me to Europe and Alaska to do basketball camps for free. That is the kind of guy he was. It wasn’t about the money, he did it to help me.
He once told me, “The coaches like me because I come to practice early, work hard and keep my mouth shut.” Pretty sound advice for any field of employment, I think.
I’m sorry to say that due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasn’t able to make it to Derek’s funeral. His former Louisville teammates served as the pallbearers and nearly 1,000 people turned out in the city where he knew his greatest glory to see him off.
Abe Pollin, the owner of the Bullets and a very generous man, had the team plane fly to Louisville so the players, coaches and staff could attend Derek’s funeral. He also established a scholarship fund for both of Derek’s children (Sydney and Nolan) to ensure they would be able to attend college.
Heartbroken that I couldn’t make the funeral, I decided to write out my feelings.
In a letter published by the Louisville Courier-Journal on Aug. 16, 1996, the day after Derek was buried here is some of what I wrote:
. . . On his journey up life’s economic and social ladder, Derek never forgot where he came from or those less advantaged than he. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. Derek went out of his way to help feed, clothe and encourage those who couldn’t help themselves.
Bringing at-risk children into his home each Thanksgiving and Christmas for a warm meal in every NBA city he played in, donating his time to numerous community and charitable causes, and greeting people with a warm smile and friendly handshake helped endear Derek to people across the country and around the world.
In Louisville, as in many other places, those of us who knew and loved Derek are searching for an answer and way to cope with the immense void his departure leaves not only in our lives, but in those of people who are so often forgotten.
It is my deepest wish that Derek’s contribution of passion, faith and money to those who needed it most not be left behind with his passing . . . his good name and deeds should be carried on forever.
While the final record will show that Derek was a great basketball player, his true legacy is that he never stopped giving to others. He was an All-Star in the game of life.
The letter was written from the heart. It is the only way I know how. I can still remember the tears rolling down my cheeks as I watched it going through the fax machine.
I talk to Derek’s widow, Monica, on the telephone every once in awhile. Time hasn’t dulled the pain for either of us. The conversation inevitably turns to Derek and that makes it difficult.
I still think about Derek every day. Something he said or some moment we shared. Five years on and I can still hear his voice. If he could hear mine, it would be saying: “I miss you, man.”