LAS VEGAS -- The son sent a few jolts through the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center Sunday afternoon, flashed the skills that earned him his lottery status and generally grabbed the game against Phoenix by the throat.
The father moved throughout the building causing nary a ripple. Craving none, either. No reality-TV entourage in tow, no pregame, mid-game or postgame interviews (OK, so one postgame), no whipping up of the spectators from his VIP seat like Maximus working the Colosseum crowd.
And it was good.
Look, there are as many ways to hype an NBA rookie point guard as there are ways to skin a cat, but Dennis Smith Sr. is about as far removed from LaVar Ball’s style and tactics as a fellow doting father-with-a-budding-star-in-the-family can get.
Ball -- in case you’ve been seeking your higher consciousness in the Himalayas for the past nine months -- is the unabashed, me-us-me father of Lonzo, the Los Angeles Lakers’ choice as floor leader and franchise savior. He has been, is and presumably will remain front and center as his offspring goes about the challenging work of learning the league’s toughest position while getting at least close to all the outsized expectations.
He’s the dad who tried to extract a $1 billion endorsement deal from one of the sneaker companies, then pivoted to put out a $495 pair of shoes. He’s the dad who stripped off his shirt for the cameras on WWE Raw. He’s the dad, too, who said Saturday night Lonzo will become the greatest guard in NBA history -- better than his kid’s first boss, Magic Johnson, in the job he’s held for two weeks.
So Dennis Smith Jr. chuckled when someone suggested he and his dad might be doing this all wrong.
"We’re country folks!" said Smith, the No. 9 pick in last month’s draft out of North Carolina State. "We don’t need all of the limelight. We do what we’re supposed to do and mind our business."
Smith Jr. had just led the Dallas Mavericks to an 88-77 victory over Phoenix, their second victory in as many days in the Las Vegas Summer League. He scored 25 points in 27 minutes on 8-of-14 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, dished four assists, had four steals and five turnovers. He got to the line nine times, too, routinely attacking the Suns’ bigger players, such as fellow lottery pick Josh Jackson and center Marquese Chriss.
While Smith Jr. talked afterward with a group of media folks about his learning curve of defensive rotations, a dunk that got away and the eight points he scored down the stretch, one reporter peeled off to speak with Smith Sr. He stood against a wall in the north tunnel and, though at a far lower volume than certain other dads here, spoke as proudly about his son.
"I think this was a real good reflection of what he can do," Smith Sr. said. "When we get the other [veteran Dallas] players on the court, we’re gonna see how much better he can be.
"He’s always just gonna get out there and play his game. It doesn’t matter about the guys [Ball or Jackson] picked before him. Dallas is the perfect fit for him. Everybody I talked to had great things to say about the Mavericks. They said they were probably the best organization to play for."
Smith Jr. is the highest pick Dallas has had since it got Dirk Nowitzki in a draft-night maneuver with Milwaukee in 1998. Coach Rick Carlisle raved about his end-to-end speed and assertiveness after the Mavs’ first game Saturday. Summer coach Jamahl Mosley made sure the 19-year-old used that, repeatedly encouraging him to attack to create opportunities, rather than surveying the floor and picking his spots.
Smith Jr. also was active talking with teammates, during plays for positioning and after whistles for tips and closure. There were some who questioned his leadership in the Wolfpack’s 15-17 season, 4-14 in the ACC.
Smith Sr. swatted that one down. "He’s been doing it all his life," the father said. "He’s been playing point guard for me basically since he was six years old. That’s typical for him."
As for the overarching key to young Smith’s basketball success, the father said: "He listened."
Good thing. Dennis Smith Sr. was all the lifeline "Junior" (as the family calls him) and his sister De’Aira had after their mother, Helena, left when the boy was 13 months old. It’s a topic the father and son avoid discussing publicly, as The Dallas Morning News discovered in reporting a lengthy profile of the Mavericks’ new player.
Helena had sketchy contact with them for a spell, then none at all, until some phone calls sparked a long-distance, semi-relationship more recently. The heavy lifting of single fatherhood, though, was left to Dennis Sr., a military veteran who worked a variety of jobs, including medical equipment technician.
It was Dennis Sr. who helped teach his son the skills he would need to excel, including dribbling with gloves on to improve his handle. It was Dennis Sr. who had Dennis Jr.’s teammates sleep over, keeping him close in their modest apartment. And it was Dennis Sr. who helped motivate Junior through his lonely, sometimes grueling rehab after he tore the ACL in his left knee.
The injury cost him his senior season at Trinity Christian high school in Fayetteville, N.C. The rehab work paid off in renewed explosiveness, the acclaim he earned as the ACC’s top freshman and the position in which the two find themselves today.
"He’s the reason I started playing basketball, the reason I’m athletic," Smith Jr. said. "I learned everything from him. Manners, you name it. He taught me everything that I know. He was the main piece making me into the man I am today."
Just less noisy than some.
"We’re just doing things basically our way, the way we’ve gone it the whole while," Smith Sr. said. "Staying humble. Giving God the glory of all of it."
The father laughed. "I’d rather not be doing an interview right now."
The young point guard already is wearing "Smith Jr." on his summer jersey, a style he’ll stick with to honor the man who made it possible. Smith Sr. and a friend did come up with a brand for the family, a logo with the "j" and the "r" in lower-case letters. They’re not exactly hawking merchandise, though Smith Sr. was wearing one of their T-shirts Sunday.
"It’s about him. It ain’t about me, ya know what I’m saying?" the father said. "I’m just the dad. He’s the player. This suits my family very well. Staying in the background, letting him do his thing."
What a concept.
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