"Because Eric Smith kept order on the court last night, because he was a demon defensively with turnovers that set up a half-dozen baskets, Georgetown whipped . . . "
You haven't seen that sort of first paragraph on a Georgetown basketball story; you're not likely to, unless he steals Connecticut blind Saturday or the laws of journalism get changed before the Big East tournament next week, for what Eric Smith does is important for victory but not quite vital.
He has been overlooked for at least two years, in part because what makes him special requires work to appreciate. Fans are awestruck by Pat Ewing's dunks, dazzled by Eric Floyd's long-range jumpers. Coaches and the former limping floor burn composing this column love Smith. After the victory over Villanova in Capital Centre a month ago, John Thompson gave freshman Ewing a manly pat on the rump; he hugged senior Smith.
"As Eric Smith goes," the coach insists, "so goes us."
The Hoyas have a chance to go all the way to New Orleans, as long as they play the sort of final four defense they have shown very often during this 22-6 season. Without the turnover baskets off its full-court press, Georgetown frequently seems ordinary on offense, the team that couldn't shoot straight at times.
"Our salvation," Thompson calls his defense.
Guess who the exceptional Hoya defender is? Guess who calls all those presses and traps, keeps order during what seems chaos? Guess who hitches up his shorts and takes on such as Albert King and Louis Orr, Rudy Macklin, Mark Aguirre, John Pinone and Corny Thompson?
Yep, Eric Smith is one of the few athletes capable of playing point guard on offense and checking a center on defense. He'll try anything once, because he has most of his sporting life.
"Jumped center (at 6-foot-5) in high school (Churchill)," he said, "played guard on defense and forward on offense."
Smith might get as fair a chance to make an NFL team as one in the NBA. The football scouts see a strong safety flicking the ball away from opponents; many pro basketball evaluators are as mesmerized as fans by glittering stylists who never develop. A league that had no place for Mo Howard surely sometimes sits on its mind.
Still, Smith is limited. If he were exceptional, even us dummy newspaper stiffs would have noticed a long time ago and Thompson would have offered him a scholarship before almost the last possible moment. But, even though what the Eric Smiths do tugs at our hearts, teams can win without them. They usually don't get to the final four without a Ewing.
"The Patricks of the world don't need the Smiths," Thompson said, "but their way is made so damn much easier with 'em."
And if Smith had not been around to play everything from lead guard to power forward, to keep his wits during calamity, to be the textbook example of captain, Thompson might need a gallon of milk instead of a quart to steady his postgame stomach.
"You don't have to explain to him, or convince him," Thompson said. "He's a lot like John Duren (the former Hoya point guard now with the Utah Jazz) in the sense that he is willing to think that you're right, and let you prove yourself wrong, as opposed to questioning what you're doing.
"If not the best, he's one of the top defensive players in the Big East."
Although his shooting percentage (45) is not dazzling, Smith can score. A classic Eric Smith game would be the one against Missouri last week: five for nine from the field, 11 points, six rebounds and four assists. Doing everything without getting much credit for anything.
Thompson's major concern before that upset of the alleged fourth best team in the country was Smith's sprained ankle rather than Steve Stipanovich's inside moves or some exotic strategy from the Tigers. Smith played well; the Hoyas won big.
Smith is a natural forward forced to play point guard often this season after Gene Smith's injury. Even Thompson was surprised that the transition came so easily, Eric's other experience as a quarterback having been in football.
"I thought we were in some serious trouble when Gene got hurt," Thompson said. "I had never planned on using Smitty at the one spot, but he's played it extremely well. He's just that kind of guy.
"He plays the four position when I put the small lineup out there trying to catch up." The coach snickered, for he was talking about power forward. Smith, all 6-5 of him, with the gentlest-looking face you can imagine, plays the toughest position on the court during emergencies.
"Then when I'm scared that a lead is getting out of control," Thompson said, "I tell him to get back there to one."
It's at his small forward position that Smith excels defensively. King was six for 18 against him in the NCAA regionals two years ago in Philadelphia. Smith shut down Orr and made several steals when the Hoyas beat Syracuse for the Big East tournament championship earlier that year.
The lingering tournament memory, though, is Iowa in the 1980 East Regional final, of Smith and Eric Floyd tripping over each other after a final-seconds inbounds pass and starting a defensive breakdown that ended in a one-point loss.
"Something that's hard to put away in your mind," Smith admits. "Keeps popping up every once in a while."
If outsiders rarely give him much public attention, how does Smith see himself with the Hoyas? What does he consider his role? In about two dozen words, he defined the essence of leadership, saying:
"I've been here four years. I know the system, so I have to pass that on to the younger guys."