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."
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
"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.' "
Smith was converted to a shooting guard and excelled, averaging 22.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, shooting 53.7 percent and blocking 52 shots in his second season with the Clippers -- among the top five in each category among NBA guards.
But 11 games into his next season, Smith damaged his left knee, an injury that stole his explosiveness forever. And even though the next season he became the first guard in the NBA to sign a million-dollar contract, when he went to the Sacramento Kings, Smith would never again start more than 42 games in a season.
"If he hadn't hurt his leg, there's no telling how long he would have been an All-Star," Attles said. "I don't know who the toughest guard was. But I don't know anyone tougher than Derek."
The injury forced Smith to adapt, to evolve into a defensive stopper. He also became a mentor to younger players. After playing for the Boston Celtics in 1990-91, his ninth season in the league, Smith retired.
"The Celtics had doctors, his agent knew of doctors who said he had three or four more years left," Monica said. "But after his last surgery, he said he wanted to be able to run around and play with his kids. He didn't want any more surgery to hamper that."
Life after basketball gave Smith a chance to spend more time with his family and return to Louisville -- which he left 13 credits shy of a degree. He graduated in 1992.
Two years later, Smith was reunited with Lynam, accepting a job as assistant coach with the Bullets. Reluctant at first, Smith came to love the job.
"He had a way with young players that made them respect him," Washington general manager Wes Unseld said. "Today that's a rare commodity."
For years, Monica wanted to take a cruise. Smith had always refused.
An invitation to last year's team cruise came a week before the Aug. 2 departure. On July 31, the Smiths decided to go.
"The kids were so excited," Monica said. "And I knew Derek's adrenalin was flowing from that."
The cruise allowed others to see a side of Smith away from basketball. Judy Holland, a team vice president, sat with a friend talking with Smith as night fell on Friday, the final day of the cruise.
"We discussed our relationship with the Lord, and Derek was telling us how peaceful he was with himself," Holland recalled. "He also talked about his family, his love for his mother and how material things didn't mean anything to him.
"To hear this guy say, 'I love my wife and nothing else means anything' was so refreshing. He was giving this incredible testimony about how life could be so wonderful."
That testimony ended in mid-sentence, when Smith's head suddenly drooped to his shoulder.
"I thought he was joking," said Holland, wiping a tear from her eye. 'I said, 'Derek?' He never answered."
Washington guard Tim Legler and Unseld rushed to Smith's aid, followed by medical workers. Monica arrived to find Smith flat on his back.
"His death, it was one of the most peaceful things you'd ever want to see," Holland said. "There's a Scripture that says, 'in a twinkling of an eye.' That's exactly what it was."
Smith died of a heart condition caused by an abnormality in the mitral valve, the medical examiner said a month later. Earlier reports had indicated that Smith had suffered respiratory arrest brought on by a combination of motion-sickness medication, but toxicology tests showed no sign of medication in his blood.
"I look back at all the physicals he had over the years because of his knee surgeries," Monica said. "And it was never detected."
For Monica, the remaining time on the ship was a blur. She huddled her family into her cabin and shut the door. The children cried themselves to sleep. She sat still, in shock.
The next morning, Monica left the M/S Dreamward a widow.
Ask Monica what days have been most difficult over the past year, and she answers, "All of them." A month after Smith died, they were to have celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary with trip to the Grand Cayman Islands -- their first trip alone since their honeymoon.
"It was so difficult, canceling that trip," she said. "Holidays, birthdays have been pretty hard. And I have problems with Friday nights. I always look at the clock around 8 or 9 o'clock on Friday nights."
At the Bullets' first home preseason game last year, Monica sat courtside. Her daughter, Sydney, 11, and son, Nolan, 9, watched the action. Monica -- dressed in black -- stared into space.
"To look at the bench and not see Derek there," Monica said, "that was hard."
She credits her children with helping her the past year.
"The kids have been remarkable -- Sydney spoke at the service, and she's been my strength," Monica said. "And Nolan is not totally understanding what it's all about. He doesn't know how to express his emotions or grief."
A year after Smith's death, Monica, who has remained in the area, isn't the only person still coming to grips.
"I don't know how to explain this, but I still expect to see him," said Eaves, his former teammate. "You can't put Derek Smith into a story. He was the most different person I have ever met. He came from nothing and was as proud of that nothing as you will ever believe."
"He was always doing for others," Monica said. "It's just amazing, for a person his age to do all the things he did for everybody else. I just keep asking myself -- 'Did he know?' "
The Washington Wizards have established an education fund for the two children of Derek Smith. Contributions can be made to the Derek Smith Education Fund, c/o Chevy Chase Bank; 8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815.
Pub Date: 8/09/97