Ralph Remembers: Derek Smith
Ralph Lawler | 8/18/2011

Who is the all-time Greatest Clipper with the last name of Smith? Here it is as a multiple choice quiz.

Take your pick:

A. Charles Smith B. Randy Smith C. Derek Smith D. Michael Smith

You have to be a long-time Clipper fan to remember any of those players. If you chose “A.” or “B.” there is plenty of evidence to make your case. If you chose “D” I suspect you are a member of Mike’s immediate family, but if you chose “C.” you move to the head of the class.

The mere mention of Derek Smith’s name brings to mind a sad and ultimately tragic story of what might have been.

During the 1982-83 season, Smith was a struggling, under-sized and under-utilized rookie power forward with the Golden State Warriors. He was 6-foot-6 and maybe weighed 235 pounds with the Warriors and he trimmed down to between 215-220 pounds when Coach Jim Lynam brought him to the Clippers before the 1983-84 season.

Lynam saw Derek as a big shooting guard, and the coach had worked Derek out in Los Angeles in the summer of 1983 after he had been waived by Golden State. He conducted the work-out as a favor to a friend and it wound up being quite a revelation.

"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 and I told her, ‘I think I just got hit in the head by lightning. I have found a great shooting guard.’”

The Clippers signed the unheralded player to a minimum contract and he was almost unnoticed as training camp opened in the fall of 1983 on the campus of the University of San Diego. I recall it as if it were yesterday. Derek Smith was a special physical specimen at shooting guard – something he had not been as a power forward.

The player I barely recalled from his brief run with the Warriors took the ball on the wing during a 5-on-5 scrimmage in the cozy college gym – and blew by everyone while rising way above the rim to throw down a thundering slam dunk.

Jaws dropped. Eyes popped and Lynam had that “I told you so” look on his face.

From that memorable dunk in the USD gymnasium, Smith began to grow as he became comfortable as an NBA shooting guard. He averaged close to 10 points a game that first year under Lynam in what turned out to be the team’s final year in San Diego. He started the final 19 games of the season and was a free agent in the summer of 1984. Denver signed him to an offer sheet believed to be worth $800,000 over two years. It took the Clippers less than two days to match the offer and keep him.

"I don't think we had a choice," Lynam said.

Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer put together an impressive roster in year two in Los Angeles. He knew Derek Smith was the star of the future. Derek and Norm Nixon made up one of the games’ best back-court combinations under new head coach Don Chaney.

The Clippers were quick out of the box with a flying 5-0 start to the season. Nixon and Smith at guards, James Donaldson was a towering 7-foot-3 inch presence at center, all-star Marques Johnson and former Celtic Cedric Maxwell filled out the forward positions. It was a formidable group with a deep bench anchored by Jamaal Wilkes, promising rookie Benoit Benjamin, explosive veteran Junior Bridgeman and powerful, young Michael Cage. That unit might have had as much top to bottom talent as any Clipper team, ever.

A match-up between The Clippers and the Bulls on October 31, 1985 was of extra interest for hard-core NBA Fans. They knew there was something special about the match-up of the two young shooting stars, Michael Jordan and Derek Smith, and there was.

I’ll let the YouTube video do the talking: CLICK HERE

The rivalry was born that night and to this day, there are those of us who are convinced it could have been, should have been, a one-on-one rivalry that would have matched Bird-Magic well into the 1990’s.

"In that season, Derek was on a tremendous roll and was probably the top shooting guard in the league," said former teammate and close friend James Donaldson. "That was when Michael Jordan was just starting out, and they had some memorable battles. But Michael couldn't do anything about Derek, because Derek had the size, the strength and he could shoot inside or out."

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

I talked to Derek about that many years later when he was an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets. Without a hint of bitterness he professed that he and M.J. could have had a great career- long rivalry. If Jordan was Hanes – Smith could have been Jockey. Derek could have been to a rival shoe company what Michael was to Nike. It would have been a rivalry contested not just on the court but in boardrooms and the marketplace as well.

That was the summer that the Clippers made the move from San Diego to Los Angeles, and Smith was primed and ready for the Big City Stage.

Derek averaged 22.1 points per game as a full-time starter for the new Los Angeles Clippers. This was Michael Jordan’s wondrous Rookie of the Year season in Chicago. He would go on to average 28.2 points a game that year. It was also Derek Smith’s first year as a full-time starting NBA shooting guard. The parallels would grow more clear the following season.

So why didn’t it happen? Nine games into the 1985-86 season, Smith went down with a seemingly minor knee injury. He was averaging 27 points a game at the time of the injury. It was believed he would be back within the customary four-to-six weeks. He tried. Oh, how he tried. He felt some real or perhaps perceived pressure to come back quickly. He tried to play on December 18. He was ineffective and uncomfortable in brief minutes. He was to play again in a Christmas Day game in Portland a week later. I sat with him at a team dinner the night before and he expressed concern that his knee was not right, but he wanted to give it a try. It was another unsuccessful attempt and it would be his final game in a Clipper uniform. Derek Smith was ruled out for the season.

Who knew that he would never be the same?

Certainly not the Sacramento Kings, who were aggressive in making a deal for him in the summer of 1986. Sacramento sent the Clippers starting guards Larry Drew and Mike Woodson along with the number six pick in the 1988 NBA Draft and a second round selection in the 1989 Draft.

In exchange, they got the hallow promise of what might have been in Derek Smith. They gave him a whopping new contract and exclaimed he was the future of the franchise. It was not to be, as he continued to try to play on one leg. He went from budding superstar in Los Angeles to 12th man in Sacramento. The fans would boo him. Teammates turned on him. The media castigated him. It was a freakish nightmare. It lasted three long seasons before he was reunited with Jimmy Lynam in Philadelphia in 1989.

He still played as hard as ever for the 76ers, but he just couldn’t get it done. Two frustrating seasons in Philly and then a short run with the Celtics in Boston in 1990-91 and Derek Smith was finished as an NBA player at the age of 29. He was married with two children. A long life seemed to be ahead of him.

He would re-unite yet again with Jim Lynam in 1994 when the loyal head coach brought him in as an assistant coach in Washington. It looked like a perfect fit. And it was for two seasons. Derek brought the same passion and work ethic to coaching that he did to playing.

In the summer of 1996, the Bullets sponsored a cruise to Bermuda, where members of the team and the coaching staff were invited to schmooze with sponsors and fans.

Derek and one of the Bullet players and current NBA TV Analyst Tim Legler had volunteered to hold basketball clinics during the cruise. Below is a description of the events that followed as reported by Mitch Lawrence in the New York Daily News:

“The night of Aug. 9, during a cocktail party aboard the Dreamward, Smith was his normal self. Smiling. Laughing. Animated in conversation as he autographed basketballs for about 100 vacationers. As always, he was eager to join his wife, Monica, their 9-year-old daughter, Sydney, and 5-year-old son, Nolan. At 8:30, Monica Smith left the observatory lounge with her children and went downstairs to take their seats for the farewell dinner. Five minutes later, Smith was seated upstairs in the lounge, chatting with several people. Suddenly, his eyes narrowed, opened and then closed. His head moved back. ‘C'mon Derek, quit messin' around’, someone said. Smith's body slumped to the right. Another passenger ran over, found a very faint pulse and started administering CPR. Ship medical personnel rushed in and spent the better part of a half hour trying to resuscitate him. ‘That's it’, said one of the medics. It was 9:10.”

Just that quickly Derek Smith was gone. Tim Legler was seated across from him and watched in stark terror. The 34-year old coach and former budding superstar simply slumped over and died.

Legler gets emotional to this day talking about the sudden and shocking heart-related death of the superbly conditioned young coach who had become his close friend and mentor. Smith was buried a few days later at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. His funeral was attended by the entire Bullets team and several former teammates. Over one thousand mourners were in attendance. "Usually, when you go to a funeral, people will say good things about a person who really wasn't a good person," former teammate Charles Barkley said. "With Derek it's the opposite. You can't say enough good things about him. The world is a poorer place now."

And so it is. But my memories of all my years with the Clipper are enriched by the memories of this extraordinary man whose career was sadly limited by a fate that was beyond his control.

I truly believe that Derek Smith would be known as the Greatest Clipper of all-time were it not for that career changing knee injury. HBO would likely have followed its epic “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” documentary with one on Michael & Derek. He was that good. Just ask those who played with and against him.


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