The sudden death of Washington Bullets assistant coach Derek Smith on Friday night has stunned both the organization and the wide circle of people whose lives he touched.
Smith, 34, was participating in a promotional cruise involving Bullets and Capitals players and staff members when he collapsed after a farewell reception marking the end of the cruise to Bermuda. The Norwegian Cruise Line ship returned to New York yesterday morning. Fermin Pena, a clerk at the New York City medical examiner's office, said an autopsy was scheduled for late last night or early this morning.
"I don't think any of us know the impact; we know that we've lost a real good coach," said Bullets General Manager Wes Unseld, who also was aboard the cruise. "He had a way with all of these young guys. We know we've lost a very, very good person. It's going to be very difficult to fill that role. He developed a rapport with these guys that's very unique and special. . . .
"It does kick it back into perspective as to what is really important. It's a shock to all of us. Here's a guy who's 34 years old, not an abuser of anything -- smoking or drinking or anything. It was a shock to us."
Unseld accompanied Smith's wife, Monica, and Smith's children, Sydney and Nolan, back to the Washington area today.
"Considering everything, his wife is unbelievable," Unseld said. "She knows she's got two young kids to function with. She was unbelievable."
Darryl Prue, who was house-sitting while the Smiths were on the cruise, said Monica Smith was unavailable to comment.
Prue played for Smith when Smith coached the Louisville Shooters of the Global Basketball League, then got in contact with him when Smith joined Bullets Coach Jim Lynam's staff in 1994.
"We became good friends," Prue said. "He's such a great person. His personality just rubs off on you.
"It's just shocking. People just don't know how good a guy he was. For him to be an NBA player and be so successful, he was just a regular person. He'd rather work a 9-to-5 job than be in the glamour."
At one point Smith, a second-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1982, was on the verge of becoming an NBA star. The 6-foot-6 guard averaged 22 points a game while playing on the Los Angeles Clippers under Lynam in 1984-85. He made one of the highlight plays of the season in November 1984 when he got a pass from Norm Nixon, took off from the left side of the key, ducked under a soaring rookie named Michael Jordan, hung in the air and dunked from the right side of the basket.
Smith averaged 23.5 points in 11 games the next year before a knee injury cut his season short. He played for Sacramento the next two seasons and played for Philadelphia and Boston.
The Bullets activated Smith briefly last October as a precaution for the injury-riddled team. He had to pass a physical in order to be activated, which made his death Friday even more mystifying.
"He never had any heart problems, to my knowledge," said Ron Grinker, who was Smith's agent. "I have six or seven loose-leaf notebooks of medical records on him."
Grinker also represents Jim McIlvaine, who played his two seasons with the Bullets before leaving to sign a free agent contract with the Seattle SuperSonics this summer.
"Jim has taken Derek Smith's death very poorly," Grinker said. "Obviously, Derek contributed as much as anyone to Jim's growth."
Smith often could be found working with players before games. On the road, Smith would take a cab to the arena with Bullets trainer Kevin Johnson well before the team bus left and they would share their usual pregame cup of coffee. While Johnson treated injured players, Smith would be on the court helping other players with their shots or low-post moves.
"They could relate to him," Johnson said. "Here's a guy who played in the league. He went over early with me every game. Whether it was a guy we just signed to a 10-day contract or Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, he was there early and available to work with whoever."
Johnson said Smith also spent a lot of time with his children.
"He was a great family man," Johnson said. "He never missed his kids' track meets or tennis matches or basketball games or anything. He was a great father, a great husband."
"Whenever I think about Derek I think about his two kids," Bullets President Susan O'Malley said. "He always had his kids with him. He loved those kids."
Smith, from Hogansville, Ga., played college basketball at Louisville and was a member of the NCAA championship team in 1980.
"Derek was such a special person," Louisville Coach Denny Crum said. "He came from a modest background and he was a self-made success story. He succeeded at everything he tried -- earning his degree, becoming a great player in college, as a professional and as a coach. . . . People like Derek just don't come along too often. It's a tremendous loss for his family and all of us who cared about him."
Grinker said he could recall one time when he was mad at Smith. His clients used to gather in Grinker's home town of Cincinnati to work out before each season. One time, Grinker waited at Xavier University for two hours and no one was there. He heard that Smith had taken them somewhere.
It turned out Smith had read about a youth who had been arrested for selling drugs. Smith had taken all of Grinker's clients, who included Danny Manning and Craig Ehlo, to talk to the youth to make sure it didn't happen again.
"It didn't take me very long not to be mad anymore," Grinker said. "That was just typical of the way he was." CAPTION: DEREK SMITH