By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; D01
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before every basketball game, Nolan Smith will glance at the face of his father tattooed on his right arm and ask the same question, "How would he carry himself?"
Whether it's the words "Forever Watching" inscribed on his arm or a pregame tweet to a lost loved one, Smith has tried to honor his late father since his death 14 years ago. A junior guard at Duke, Smith knows the ultimate tribute comes this weekend when he competes in the Final Four in the same city where his father, Derek Smith, won a national title with Louisville 30 years ago.
On Thursday, Smith, a native of Upper Marlboro, sat in an interview room at Lucas Oil Stadium -- a short walk from where the 1980 Final Four was held at Market Square Arena -- cracked a wide smile and said: "It's going to be crazy knowing he won it 10 blocks from here. I know he is looking down."
Smith proved the biggest reason why Duke took the final step to Indianapolis. Before Sunday's South Region final against Baylor, Smith caught an ESPN feature on the bond he has with his dad and Tweeted this message: "This one is for you Dad!! I love you! #43 Let's go Duke." Smith then played the game of his life, neutralizing Baylor's zone, size and athleticism with strong drives to the basket and hot shooting. He scored a career-high 29 points in the victory.
"I let it go straight to my heart," Smith said about the pregame inspiration.
Reaching Indianapolis -- forever establishing a link between father and son -- was a scenario Smith's mother, Monica Malone, envisioned during the season's first game, when she told her son, "If you work hard, this year will take you on the path your dad went."
Malone, who has since remarried, will be sitting in the stands for the Final Four this weekend, just like she was 30 years ago. Then, she was a sophomore at Louisville cheering on her sophomore boyfriend Derek Smith, one of the players who helped popularize the high-five. To this day, Malone can't watch "One Shining Moment" without crying.
Smith was attached to his father's hip as a child. He'd tag along to NBA practices. He'd run through drills and shoot around with players. Sometimes he would even scribble down plays for coaches.
But in 1996, Derek Smith died from a heart defect while on a cruise as a member of the Washington Bullets' coaching staff. Smith, his sister and mother also were on the cruise.
Throughout the years, Malone has given Smith tapes and highlights of his dad so he could study his game, mannerisms and body language. And Johnny Dawkins, who was friends with Derek Smith while the two were on the Philadelphia 76ers, remained a close family friend who could tell Smith more about his dad.
But during Smith's college recruitment, Dawkins, then the associate head coach at Duke, figured -- like many did -- that Smith would follow in the footsteps of his father and attend Louisville. Dawkins did not feel it was his place to tell Smith that it would be better if he did not deal with the pressure of trying to fill his father's large shoes. It was only when Dawkins made a routine check with the family did he learn that Smith was opening up his recruitment and would welcome Duke's courtship.
From time to time at Duke, Dawkins would sit down with Smith and say, "Let me tell you a little bit about your father." Others could say they knew his dad would want him to do something, but when Dawkins said it, it carried extra weight because of how close Dawkins and Smith were.
"He didn't have an idea of exactly who he came from," Dawkins said. "I wanted him to know. I wanted him to know how his dad would respond to the same situations. I knew it was something very few people could share with him."
When Dawkins left Duke to take the Stanford head coaching job in April 2008 -- after Smith's freshman season -- it proved a significant setback for the player who had developed a strong bond with Dawkins. Smith said Thursday that he contemplated leaving Duke and whether he should follow Dawkins to Stanford.
"He had choices to make," said Smith's stepfather, Curtis Malone. "Either he packs his bags up and runs along with Johnny or you be the young man that your dad would want you to be and finish what you start. That's what he chose to do and it paid off."
Smith said he ultimately thought of his father and decided, "When things get tough, you don't run." Dawkins, who had talked to Smith's mother and Malone about Smith's future, felt that his move to Stanford removed Smith's safety net, which was not necessarily a bad thing.
"It forced Nolan to go outside and search within himself and pull out what you see now," Dawkins said. "I don't know if all those things would have come out if he constantly felt he had a net there. He is responding. He is taking ownership of himself. And you see him blossoming."
Smith is now an integral part of the Blue Devils, a player who has proven capable of making clutch shots and carrying the team offensively on occasion. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Smith the "unsung hero of our team."
Smith is neither as tall nor as big as his father. But Monica Malone gets calls from Louisville fans who say they see Derek Smith when they watch Nolan play. Smith crossed his legs the same way while stretching. He jogs the same way during warmups. And he chews his fingernails the same way on the bench.
"Oh my gosh," Monica Malone said, "if that wasn't Derek, I swear."
And on Saturday, Smith will be in the same role his father was three decades ago.
"I have a chance to follow in his footsteps," Smith said. "It means a lot to me."