Derek Smith taught his son that great basketball players never take a play off. He taught him that no amount of money, fame or possessions could ever mean more than family.
And in the years following Derek Smith’s death, at 34, of an undetected heart defect, Nolan Smith, then 8, developed an expertise that no one wants: How to go on without a father who reached his massive arms up to heaven the day his children were born and rearranged the universe with them at its center.
In so many ways, Nolan and Sydney Smith have followed in their father’s footsteps, learning from their mother, Monica, and Derek’s former NBA teammates and proteges (Johnny Dawkins and Juwan Howard chief among them) the type of man he was and the values he would have wanted at their core.
Sydney, now 25, graduated from Louisville, where a gym is named for her father, who helped lead the Cardinals to the 1980 NCAA championship.
Nolan chose Duke to be closer to “Uncle Johnny” — then-associate head coach Johnny Dawkins — a former teammate of Derek’s on the Philadelphia 76ers. Like his dad, Nolan helped lead his school to an NCAA championship, in 2010. On Thursday, he’s expected to follow his father once again when his name is called in the NBA draft.
But before drawing his first NBA paycheck, Nolan and his sister are doing something to give their loss meaning, establishing a foundation to help children who have lost a loved one. Through the Sydney & Nolan Smith Foundation, they’ll personally mentor a handful of boys and girls each year while trying to help a larger group through camps and other events. They’ll help with college scholarships, as well, and provide retreats and counseling for grieving single parents.
“We started talking about it over Christmas break and knew very quickly that it was the perfect thing to do,” Nolan said during an interview at the family’s home in Upper Marlboro. “What I needed [after his father’s death] was just love and support. A lot of that, I got from my sister and my mom. But I also got a lot of support from people that knew my dad.”
One of six children reared by a single mother in rural Georgia, Derek Smith told Monica soon after they married following a four-year courtship that he was going to be the best father ever. And he followed through, just as he had on the basketball court, where he earned a reputation as a fierce, unrelenting defender.
When Sydney was born, Derek got a license plate that read, “ILVUSYD.”
And when Nolan was a toddler, he turned down a lucrative contract extension from the Boston Celtics and retired after nine NBA seasons, explaining that he wanted to be sure, given that he had only one good knee left, that he’d able to run and play with Nolan as he grew up.
Three years later, Washington Bullets Coach Jim Lynam coaxed Derek back to the league as an assistant coach by promising he could bring Nolan to every practice, training camp, home game and trip he wanted.
Overnight, 6-year-old Nolan became the Bullets’ 13th man. He showed up for practice in full gear, got his ankles taped by the trainer, did drills with Howard and Chris Webber and was a ball boy at home games, with his big sister and mother looking on from the stands.
In many ways, Howard and Webber were children, too, when Derek Smith joined the Bullets’ staff, tasked with getting the young stars to play with the same grit he had.
“He taught me how to be a professional,” Howard said. “He always told me, ‘Hard work and determination equal success.’ I never forgot that, working hard to not let myself down or, more importantly, not let Derek Smith or the memory of him down.”
After returning from trips, Derek Smith would drive the children to school the next morning and frequently stay for class, taking a seat behind a tiny desk just to be with them. And when the family watched TV in the evening, Derek, Nolan and their dog Snickers shared one recliner.
“For someone who was on the road 40-some times a year, I don’t think he missed a beat with both of us,” Sydney recalls.
Naturally, the whole family was aboard the week-long cruise to Bermuda that the Bullets sponsored in 1996 to entertain staff and supporters. During a reception the final night, Aug. 9, Derek Smith halted mid-sentence and collapsed.
Monica was paged over the ship’s intercom. The children came running. And all three were by his side as paramedics worked in vain.
“The world is not as good as it was a week ago,” Charles Barkley said, eulogizing Derek Smith at a Louisville funeral service that drew 3,000 mourners.
Bullets owner Abe Pollin gave Monica season tickets for life and, later, a job in the legal department, urging her to never lose sight of her NBA family. And the Bullets players made a pact to stay close to the children, wherever their careers took them.
“Whenever you lose a family member, loved ones pull together and support each other,” Howard said. “It’s not just by default; that’s what you do.”
The next summer, Nolan attended Duke’s basketball camp and stayed with Uncle Johnny’s family. The same year, at age 9, he told his mother, “I’m the man of the house now.” He shouldered his responsibility quietly, never putting more than two things on his Christmas list, never letting on when he outgrew his sneakers (like Christmas, an annual occurrence.)
As promised, Derek’s friends phoned the children frequently. They told endless stories about their father. With each major event in their lives — high school graduation, college graduation, a big game or even a painful defeat — they told the children how proud their father would be.
Nolan was the first player on the D.C. Assault AAU team who had lost his father. Sadly, others followed. Each time, Nolan knew what to do and what to say, just as Sydney would when some of her friends recently lost a loved one.
Once they paused to reflect, it struck them as fitting to extend a hand beyond their own circle of friends. Their foundation (www. sydneyandnolan.org) is the result.
And Dawkins, now Stanford’s head coach, has no doubt that it would have been a particularly proud week for Derek Smith — not because his son will become an NBA player, but because of the man his son has become.
“That’s what everyone who touched Nolan’s life wants to see: That he continues to be like his dad, which was more than a basketball player,” Dawkins said. “And that has come shining through.”