Just 11 months ago, when they were seniors on a Georgetown basketball team that reached the NCAA finals, Eric Floyd and Eric Smith were as secure and confident as two young men could be. Now, both are fighting their sport's most inevitable and often debilitating disease: the basketball bends.
Floyd has been traded coast to coast in the middle of his rookie season. Separated from family and friends by a continent, last year's all-America will spend the rest of this season living in that symbol of NBA transience, a motel room at the Oakland airport. There, Floyd will have plenty of solitude to reflect on what led to his departure from the New Jersey Nets, why his jump shot suddenly disappeared and what his future holds as a Golden State Warrior.
"This league will mature you real quick," says Floyd.
Smith, possibly the best all-around athlete the Hoyas ever had, has been cut by both the NBA and, stunningly, the lowly Continental Basketball Association. Living back home with his parents in Potomac, Smith runs 40-yard dashes in the snow in hopes of a spring tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals or Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. If that fails, Smith and his lawyer talk of more possible tryouts in the USFL and the NBA. Of this dubious succession of slight-hope trials--a cycle from which some players take years to escape--Smith says tartly, "I don't want to make a habit of it."
For his Erics, Georgetown Coach John Thompson has opposite advice. To Floyd, he says, "Keep shooting." To Smith, he admonishes, "Get a job."
Floyd and Smith are beginning their trek through those treacherous years that every athlete faces when he goes from the campus into the world.
A generation ago, Paul Nizan wrote, "I was 20. I will let no one say it is the best time of life. Everything threatens a young man with ruin: love, ideas, the loss of his family, his entrance into the world of adults. It is hard to learn one's part in the world."
Nizan might have added to his everyman's list: exceptional athletic gifts. As often as not, being a young physical poet, especially in the claustrophobic job market of basketball, is a curse as well as a blessing. Even with the best of preparation, the transition is emotionally brutal. The early 20s are the years when players suffer from a sort of "rapture of the hoop" as they try to resurface too quickly in a new environment.
"We coaches spend a lot of time worrying about ways to motivate our players for all these 'big games,' " says Thompson, "but we don't spend too much time worrying about how to debrief them when it's over."
Last season, four-year starter Floyd was the guard the Hoyas called upon in all vital situations which didn't involve the particular talents of Patrick Ewing. What Ewing brought to the inside power game, Floyd provided on all other portions of the court--a poised pro-quality presence.
His buddy Smith was the team's most versatile player. The 6-foot-5 swingman defended, and usually hindered, the opposition's best scorer. Because Smith could and did play every position except center, he was also asked to score, rebound, pass and steal as much or as little as GU's various game plans required.
"If I could have one player back from last year's team," Thompson says, "I'd take Eric . . . Eric Smith. He was the link that made us a team."
Now, GU's Erics find themselves in drastically more testing circumstances.
Smith, a fourth-round draft pick by the Portland Trail Blazers, was the next-to-last training camp cut by Coach Jack Ramsay. The pain stays with Smith, revealing itself in unusually clipped answers. How'd it go in Portland? "Obviously, it didn't." Did he get enough preseason playing time at the swingman spots? "Didn't get any."
The blow to his pride is acute because the sleek, 195-pound Smith has always been told, truthfully, that he could star at almost any sport. However, no one has even known what Smith's best sport was, or even what his best position was within any sport. In football, he was a star at Churchill High School as a quarterback, defensive back and punter. In basketball, he played everything at Georgetown from point guard to power forward, his defense stopping men 5-10 and 6-10 in the same game.
"I never played just one spot and got as good at it as I might have," Smith says, perhaps a touch bitter at the price of his unselfishness as a Hoya. "It seems like those (versatile, rather than specialized) players are the kind who don't get the breaks . . . If you don't have a superstar reputation, if you're not being spotlighted, then you need the breaks.
"I felt bad (about being cut). But I always prepare myself for the worst. That way, you don't get hurt so badly."
Nobody, however, could have prepared Smith for what happened next. He went to Montana in the Continental league to work for another NBA chance. To his shock, he was released there, too. Three Montana players from the previous season were cut by the San Diego Clippers. "The coach told me he felt loyalty to them and had no room for me," says Smith, who remembers the names of the players who supplanted him. "Mike Evans, John Douglas and Rob Smith," he says. "How can I ever forget?"
Smith will probably try out with either the Cowboys or Cardinals in May. If he doesn't pan out as an NFL safety or punter, he will look toward the USFL or another go at the NBA. "I believe I could play for any team in the NBA right now," he says defiantly.
"Smitty's floating and trying to decide between various teams and sports. But I wish he'd turn them all down. I disagree with prolonging this pro dream," said Thompson. "I'd like to see Eric Smith take one of the job offers he has. His value as a man in the world of work is just as great as his value as a pro athlete . . . Smitty will make his decision in his own time. I know what it's like. Goodyear offered me a job after I graduated (from Providence), but I had to try out with the (Boston) Celtics. I had to take my shot."
After two years, Thompson knew he could hold his own, but he couldn't leave a mark. So, he said goodbye.
"I've told all my players who think they have NBA ability that, in the long run, Ron Blaylock (a sub who didn't even average single figures as a Hoya) will surpass them all. He works on Wall Street with Citibank. Over a lifetime, his experiences, where his work will take him, will leave them behind . . .
"They know what impresses me. Derrick Jackson is a minister. We still have our debates. Craig Esherick (GU assistant) just passed the (law) bar. Steve Martin, who played a lot like Eric Smith, has just been named chief accountant for the World's Fair in New Orleans. I tell my players that whatever you end up doing, be satisfied and do it well . . . But when Craig passed the bar or Steve got that post, I'll admit your chest tends to stick out a little more."
Despite his role as dispenser of stop-kidding-yourself truths, Thompson won't deny that his chest will swell if Floyd lights up the NBA. "Floyd has the potential to be a star in the NBA, not a bit player," says Thompson. "He has the personality to survive in that league and the confidence to take over the game when it's on the line."
So far, Floyd's odyssey has been a mixed adventure. Drafted in the first round by the Nets, Floyd measured up immediately when New Jersey discovered he was 6-foot-4 1/2, not the listed 6-3. "I'm taller than (all-star Otis) Birdsong," Floyd told his lawyer, David Falk. After just two days of practice, Floyd was back on the phone to tell Falk, "I can be as good as Birdsong."
At one stage, Floyd was starting for the Nets. Then, he and forward Mickey Johnson were traded to the Warriors for guard Michael Ray Richardson, a favorite of New Jersey Chairman Alan Cohen.
"I thought everything was going well with the Nets," says Floyd, averaging 7.8 points a game and shooting only 32.9 percent from the floor. "Maybe I let Jersey down in some respects, but, in this league, a trade is not always an indication of your ability. They traded Julius Erving . . . At least I've come to a team that really wants me. I think it's the best thing that could have happened to me.
"In Jersey, I almost felt like my destiny was out of my control. I'd play five minutes, then, whether I was going good or bad, I'd come right out. When I got here, (coach) Al Attles told me I fit into their long-range plans and to just go out and play."
In his first four Warriors games, Floyd played so much, had so many picks and plays called for him, took so many pressure shots that he says, "It felt like college again."
When Smith heard that Floyd had played 31 minutes in one Warriors game, all he said was, "Ooooohh," knowing that minutes are the true measure of an NBA team's love. "Tell Sleepy to keep me in mind," Smith said with a laugh, "and send me some of that money."
Through 10 games with Golden State, Floyd is averaging 19.3 minutes per game.
To a degree, Floyd will be an interesting test of how a pure Thompson player prospers in the NBA. True, he didn't come to GU out of Gastonia, N.C., as a five-star blue chipper, but he left with that tag.
Gregarious and naturally social, Floyd is seldom intimidated by new places or people; he already knew five Warriors well when he walked through the door. Finally, he has the hard-eyed, you'll-only-fool-me-once Thompson world view.
On the other side of the coin, Floyd is not so naturally talented that he couldn't fall through the league's cracks and disappear.
"I'm young. I'm having fun. But I still want to prepare myself to be able to go 9-to-5 whenever this (NBA career) is done," says Floyd, a government and political science major. Last summer, Floyd worked in the office of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), going to Budget Committee hearings, then writing reports to the senator's staff.
"Listening to (Sen.) Bill Bradley speak in a financial hearing, then reporting what he thinks, how he's going to vote, was very interesting to me. It inspired me," Floyd says. "I want to work on the Hill again this summer. Some of the guys on the Nets would laugh or make jokes when I'd read the Wall Street Journal or Newsweek on a plane. Doesn't bother me. You don't hear anybody laughing at Bill Bradley . . .
"Too many athletes are catered to. We didn't get that at Georgetown," Floyd goes on. "When I was a freshman and I'd show up a little late for something, I couldn't believe how Coach Thompson would blow up. Now, I understand . . . You have to be responsible for yourself. That's helping me now.
"I can see how a guy could just sit in this room for seven hours a day and wait for the game. But I like to use my time well. I'll set up a lunch with a Georgetown alumnus who lives out here and is in business. Today, I went to the Bay Bridge. Saw Alcatraz. I'll take the tour over there tomorrow . . . .
"Tell everybody back home (in Washington) that my confidence is still high and, sooner or later, I'll be on the top."