Derek Smith, the Washington Bullets assistant coach who died of
a heart attack on Aug. 9, was 16 when he arrived at the
University of Louisville in the fall of 1978. One of six
children of Mae Bell Smith Morgan of Hogansville, Ga., he was as
raw a freshman as you'll ever see. "When I came to college, I
wasn't worried so much about basketball," Smith would later say.
"What worried me was whether I was smart enough to compete with
the city kids and get a degree. What worried me was how I
dressed and how I talked."
After first seeing himself interviewed on TV--"You couldn't
understand what I was saying," Smith would recall--he went to
Tony Branch, an older teammate, and asked for advice. Branch
told Smith to talk more slowly, to think about what he was
saying, to stop uttering "you know" in the middle of every
sentence. At the risk of exposing himself to further
humiliation, Smith became a communications major. By his senior
year he had made such strides that he gave the commencement
speech at a middle school.
He never had trouble expressing himself on the floor. A 6'6"
swingman, Smith was an essential member of the 1979-80 team that
won Louisville's first NCAA title. Although Smith finished as
the second-leading scorer in Cardinals history, he was
considered an iffy NBA prospect, an evaluation that seemed
accurate when Golden State cut him after his rookie season. But
then San Diego Clippers coach Jimmy Lynam gave him a tryout.
Smith made the cut; in his third season he averaged 22.1 points
per game. In August '86 he became the first NBA guard to sign a
$1 million contract.
After knee injuries forced Smith to retire in '90, he returned
to Louisville for his degree and wore his uniform under his gown
when he graduated in '92. It was no surprise that after Lynam,
then with the Bullets, hired Smith in July '94, he became a
August 25, 1996
Smith, 34, embraced life with joy and optimism, a spirit that
was snuffed out when he collapsed while on a cruise with his
family; his heart attack was triggered by antiseasickness
medication. Among those in attendance at his Aug. 15 funeral
were Charles Barkley, Rex Chapman, John Starks, most of the
Bullets and his Louisville teammates.
"Our hearts are laden with sadness," said his 10-year-old
daughter, Sydney. "But only for a time. We know where to find
you, and we'll meet you there." Then the little girl in the
crisp white dress left the pulpit, having shown the amazing
grace and the eloquence that would have made her father's heart
swell with pride.
--William F. Reed