A year later, loss still hurts Derek Smith: The Bullets assistant coach died a year ago today while on a cruise with his family. Those who knew him are still coping with the loss of a husband, father and friend.

August 09, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

A year ago this afternoon, Monica Smith snuggled into a lounge chair on the M/S Dreamward's upper deck, shut her eyes and daydreamed about the week that had just passed: a wonderful cruise to Bermuda with her husband, Washington Bullets assistant coach Derek Smith, and their two children. As she woke, she spotted Derek nearby, conducting a basketball clinic.

4 Her thought of that moment still brings a smile.

"As I looked at him," Monica said, "I said, 'My, I love him so much.' "

But within hours, her family would be shattered. Derek's heart -- a heart that had given so much to so many -- would stop.

And sometime near 9 p.m. a year ago today, Monica would drop to her knees, clutch her 34-year-old husband and -- with her daughter and son at her side -- cry what seemed an ocean's worth of tears.

*

Derek Smith was never an NBA superstar. But some say that if it weren't for knee injuries, he might have been.

"Talent-wise," said Jerry Eaves, a former teammate at Louisville and the NBA, "he was tit-for-tat with Michael [Jordan]."

Growing up with 14 siblings in Corinth, Ga. (population 135), on what's called "the line" -- a stretch of houses without running water that once were home to sharecroppers -- Smith wasn't even all-state in high school. He didn't attend the top camps, and he wasn't heavily recruited.

But Louisville wanted him, and, although raw, Smith, 6 feet 7, earned a scholarship with an above-the-rim style that fit right in with the school's All-America players. Just 16, Smith arrived on campus with all of his belongings in one sack.

He was timid, but not intimidated. In his first pickup game -- which featured past and current professional players -- Smith scuffled with Dallas Thornton of the Harlem Globetrotters.

"After Derek walked out in a huff, Dallas said, 'You have a special one there,' " said Bill Olsen, then an assistant coach and now Louisville's athletic director.

Around that time, Smith also did his first television interview. Watching it later, he was appalled at his unintelligible responses.

"He came to me crying," Olsen said. "He was ashamed and wanted help to make sure he would never embarrass himself again.

"And he didn't. He was intelligent, he was quick, and that we didn't teach."

A gentleman

Smith's shy nature didn't stop him from hanging outside his dorm on Sunday evenings to catch Monica Miller -- a Louisville native who also was a dorm resident -- when she returned to

campus.

"He'd be outside when my parents brought me back so he could carry my laundry or whatever I was bringing back," she said. "He got up enough nerve to ask me out. He was the most gentlemanly person you could ever meet. Down-to-earth. Trusting. And unbelievably honest."

Off the court, the once-stuttering Smith became one of the school's best -- and most sought-after -- spokesmen. Through the years in Louisville he spoke often at public schools, served on the board of the Louisville Ballet, helping introduce the arts to city kids, and raised money for the Family Health Centers, Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Clubs.

"Here was a guy that, by today's testing standards, might not be able to get a scholarship," Louisville coach Denny Crum said. "But Derek overcame a lot and became a fine representative of the school. He would never say no to speaking engagements, especially when it came to kids."

Rough NBA start

Smith's college career included an NCAA title -- his free throws clinched the Cardinals' championship in 1980, when he was a sophomore -- two Final Four trips, the Metro Conference MVP award. The Golden State Warriors picked him in the second round (36th) of the 1982 draft.

On Sept. 18, 1982, Smith married Monica -- four years and a day after their first date. He would need her support. He played just 27 games with the Warriors; the team's attempt to use him at power forward failed miserably.

Smith was also a target for his teammates, who ridiculed everything from the way he talked to his clothes. At first, Smith took the needling quietly. But he erupted one day at practice, leaving leading scorer Joe Barry Carroll, second-leading scorer Purvis Short and first-round pick Lester Conner -- who had all taunted him -- sprawled on the court. Coach Al Attles halted the assault.

"I had told him as a rookie to be assertive, but this went beyond assertive," Attles said. "Some people take a long time for a fire to be lit, and when you get it lit, you can't put it out. I had to stop practice. That boy could have hurt a lot of people, including me."

At season's end, Smith was waived. In his search for a new team, he worked out for San Diego Clippers coach Jim Lynam.

"He exhibited a determination and drive the likes of which I had never seen before, and I will never see again," Lynam said of the session. "I called my wife. I said, 'You won't understand this; I'll explain tonight. But I think I just got hit in the head by lightning.' "

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