Nolan Smith keeps the memory of his father close
PHILADELPHIA -- As Nolan Smith sat in the corner of the visiting locker room of the Wachovia Center on Jan. 9 following Duke's win against Temple, 11 years of emotion welled in his eyes.
He was calm and composed at first, even smiled as he talked about how much it meant to him to play in the same city where his late father, Derek Smith, spent two NBA seasons (he proudly displays a life-sized poster of his dad in a Sixers uniform at home in Upper Marlboro, Md.).
But when Smith began to talk about the Friday his father died in 1996, he reached for a towel and dabbed at his eyes. The 19-year-old apologized for crying as he remembered seeing his father on a stretcher just moments after he died.
Eleven years later, it's when he's alone in his hotel room on road trips that the loss of his father hits the Duke freshman the hardest. And the city of Philadelphia holds one particular connection to his father that still resonates with him every day. It was here, in the older arena next door, that Derek Smith became close friends and teammates with Duke associate head coach Johnny Dawkins.
It was here that Dawkins and Smith helped the 76ers win the 1989-90 Atlantic Division title -- a banner which hung over the Wachovia Center court as Dawkins coached the younger Smith, a McDonald's All-American who is now a reserve guard for the Blue Devils, in the team's 74-64 win over Temple.
"I was on the bench sitting with his dad," Dawkins remembered, a smile emerging. "Now I'm on the bench sitting with his son."
It's a unique relationship Dawkins tries to keep in perspective when coaching Duke, but their history alone makes their bond more like father-son than player-coach. When Smith chose Duke instead of Louisville -- his father helped the Cardinals defeat UCLA for the 1980 national championship -- in a way, he also chose Dawkins to remind him of his dad. It was a decision that, in retrospect, couldn't have worked out better for Smith, who got Dawkins and a chance to play at one of the country's premier programs, and for Duke, who got an upstanding player with NBA potential similar to what Derek Smith had.
"His role is definitely like a father figure here, and at the same time a coach and somebody who's pushing me," said Smith, who is averaging 16.1 minutes and 6.1 points. "He's known my dad, my family for a long time. Me choosing Duke, I felt coming here I'd have that father figure I didn't have growing up as a basketball player -- you know, going to the gym with your dad, shooting around with your pops -- that's the experience I always wanted. Now I'm here with Coach Dawkins, I feel that love from him. I'm in a great place."
There is an old picture of Dawkins and Nolan Smith together, so dated that Dawkins is wearing braces. He has his arm around Nolan, who was just a happy, chubby-cheeked toddler. Dawkins, now 44 and with four teenagers of his own, is still as much a part of Smith's life now as he was then -- if not more.
And when he watches Nolan play, Dawkins can't help but be reminded of his old friend -- sometimes with a surge of emotion.
"The way he moves on the floor, the way he handles the basketball, the way he shoots the basketball it's uncanny," Dawkins said. "They have the same form, the same movement. It's eerie."
Becoming the "man of the house"
Derek Smith wasn't even supposed to be on the cruise, an annual trip sponsored by the Washington Bullets, where he was entering his third season as an assistant coach. But one of the players backed out at the last minute, and it opened a spot for Derek, his wife, Monica, and their two children -- Nolan and his older sister, Sydney.
The cruise was their last trip together.
On the last day, Nolan and his sister were in the children's play area when they heard, "Monica Smith will you please come to the upper deck" on the public address system. Nolan said he looked at his sister, and they started running. Paramedics had tried two different defibrillators to resuscitate Derek.
When Nolan and Sydney finally got to where Derek was lying, they broke into tears. Smith knew he had arrived too late but still asked, "What's up Dad? What you doin'?"
It was 8:50 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1996. Derek Smith was 34 years old when he died from a previously undetected heart defect.
"The kids were very, very strong," said Monica Malone, who has since remarried.
"I remember Nolan coming down and sitting next to me," Monica said. "He saw me and put his arm around me. He was 9 years old. He said, 'Mom, I'm the man of the house now.'"
Years later, when Nolan was 16, he asked Monica if he could get a tattoo. She first refused, then changed her mind when he said he wanted one of his father.
"I said, 'You can get that, but you have to wear it with honor and integrity,' " Monica said. "That's the only tattoo he'll ever have."
The green ink on Nolan Smith's right biceps reads "Forever watching". Below that is 4RIP3, and a sketch of his father's face, followed with "Derek Smith 1961-1996".
"I have this tattoo on my arm," Nolan said, "and I remember him at all times."
After Derek Smith's death, just when Nolan Smith needed a friend most -- and current Kansas State standout Michael Beasley was going through some of his own problems at home -- the two young hoopsters from Maryland met on a basketball court. At the age of 13, they both joined the D.C. Assault AAU team, which was founded by Nolan's stepfather, Curtis Malone.
Beasley, who has four siblings, found himself coming over to the Smith's so often he began calling Monica "Mom." One night turned into two. A week turned into a month. Months turned into years. By the eighth grade, Beasley had moved in. He still has his own room there and stays with Nolan for the holidays.
"Mike Beasley is his dearest friend away from Duke," Monica said. "It was like the brother he never had."
Yet Beasley, from Washington, D.C., said he never would have known what happened to Derek Smith if he had not asked Nolan one day where his dad was.
"Nolan is the type of guy, whatever is going on inside, he'll try to hide it," said Beasley, who went to Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) and Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) with Smith.
Beasley, of course, wanted Smith to join him at K-State.
Just about everyone, though -- including Smith -- thought he was headed to Louisville. Derek Smith's jersey was retired there after he left school ranked second on the all-time scoring list. Monica Malone also graduated from Louisville. Sydney Smith will do the same in May. Nolan Smith was born there. And his grandparents still live there. The path to Louisville was so obvious -- even though Monica said her son never actually gave a solid verbal commitment -- that Dawkins, despite the strong connection with the family, didn't press the recruiting for Duke.
But Smith saw his sister struggle with their father's memory at Louisville ("Probably not the best decision on my part," she said). There was a gym memorial dedicated to Derek Smith a year or two ago, and Sydney called Nolan in tears. It wasn't the first time.
As a junior at Oak Hill, Smith decided to explore the recruiting process -- a move that Dawkins wasn't aware of until he called Nolan's mom just to catch up one day.
"He asked about Nolan," Monica said. "I said, 'He opened up his recruiting. 'He said, 'Wait a minute, what did you just say?'"
Dawkins ended their conversation, immediately called Mike Krzyzewski and arranged a visit.
Smith never visited Louisville, but his mother and Curtis Malone talked to coach Rick Pitino about the school.
Of course, Nolan had Duke in the back of his mind.
Because the Smiths and the Dawkinses were so close (Monica and Johnny Dawkins' wife, Tracy, remain best friends), it was practically inevitable that Nolan wound up at Duke's basketball camp as a middle schooler. Tracy Dawkins would make sure he had his alarm clock and blankets for camp and would drive him there.
Krzyzewski knew little more about Smith other than his relationship with Dawkins; the coach knew Smith was "a kid who was really good with big feet." Now he knows he's got an unselfish guard who can either run the offense or slide to shooting guard, and he can defend all three perimeter positions.
"I think the more he gets comfortable with the system, the quicker he will play," Krzyzewski said. "He's so conscientious that at times he will think too much. He's not afraid ever, but he's trying to make sure he's doing the right things. When his instincts take over, he plays quicker."
Nolan Smith is also not the same player his father was. Derek Smith was bigger, stronger and more of a wing player. The son has learned about his dad's game from Dawkins. The freshman is always in the top assistant's office, watching film, talking about his father and what he would have done. It's something he doesn't necessarily want to hear from outsiders.
"But coming from somebody who loved my father, I understand," Smith said. "I didn't get to see how my dad was, so hearing it, it helps me on the court."
Since their father died in 1996, Nolan and Sydney Smith have been tested every year to make sure there are no heart problems. (Monica said doctors thought after an autopsy that Derek's heart problem might have been compounded by scarlet fever as an adolescent that went undetected.)
"We're 120 percent sure there's nothing genetic going on," Monica said.
Duke wanted to be sure, too.
For three hours one day this summer, Nolan went through extensive tests to make sure he didn't have the same heart problem his father did. He did a treadmill workout and then laid on a table where he was hooked up to an IV machine that used adrenaline to raise and lower his heart rate.
"At times it worried me as the process was going on," Smith said. "I was sitting there wondering if it was something my father passed down to me. I was glad to hear it wasn't."
It took two weeks before Smith was actually cleared to play -- two days before classes started."We have great medical facilities here," Krzyzewski said. "We would err on the side of being conservative. He was all checked out, and he feels great."
Fathers and sons
Gerald Henderson Sr. -- yet another teammate of Derek Smith's in Philadelphia -- sat behind Duke's bench with the other parents for the Temple game, unassumingly licking the cotton candy off his fingers as his son, Gerald Jr., zipped up and down the court.
Those are the things Nolan Smith notices on road trips -- fathers and sons -- not banners and buildings.
There will be other arenas, other cities Nolan Smith will visit that will spark reminders of his father, but he doesn't need them. He has his own, and he has Dawkins.
"I know how Derek would've wanted him to be raised," Dawkins said. "I try to follow suit with that, knowing how his dad was."
It's only when Smith started talking about Dawkins that the 19-year-old was able to smile again in that Philadelphia locker room.
Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at email@example.com.