Derek Smith is not a household name, which is a shame, given the extraordinary trajectory of his NBA career. Smith went from being cut at the end of his rookie season, after playing a grand total of just 154 minutes, to averaging 22.1 points for the Los Angeles Clippers just two years later.
By Mick Minas
On this day 32 years ago, Michael Jordan made his first appearance as an NBA player in the city of Los Angeles. The Chicago Bulls were in town to take on the Clippers and a crowd of 14,366 turned up at the Sports Arena to see the rookie sensation for themselves. Jordan’s evening was filled with a number of spectacular plays but there was no doubt that, on this particular evening, he was outplayed by his Clipper counterpart. Derek Smith finished the game with 33 points (on 70% shooting) and 5 rebounds, while Jordan scored just 20. And while the Bulls had the last laugh, coming from behind to steal a four point victory, the bulk of the post-game discussion focused on the performance from the previously unheralded Smith.
Two years earlier, Smith’s professional basketball career was close to being finished before it ever really had a chance to get started. He was selected in the second round of the 1982 draft and after winning a spot on Golden State’s roster, the Warriors elected to use Smith as an under-sized power forward. This was an experiment that failed miserably. Smith, who stood at just 6’6”, averaged 2.2 points across a total of 27 games and at the end of the season he was waived by Golden State.
Most people in the NBA expected that this would be the last they heard of Derek Smith.
As the 1983-84 season approached, Smith couldn’t find a single coach who was prepared to give him a spot on their summer league team, much less get an NBA general manager to offer him a contract. At least that was the case until Jim Lynam reluctantly agreed to allow Smith to join the Clippers' summer league team. Lynam didn’t think Smith had any chance of actually making the Clippers’ regular season roster and only agreed to take a look at him as a favor to an old colleague named Stu Inman. In fact, Lynam initially told Inman that Smith would only be able to participate in practice sessions, stressing that he would not get to play in any of their actual summer league games.
Smith eventually won himself a spot on Lynam’s roster for the 1983-84 campaign and then slowly made his way from the end of the bench to becoming the Clippers’ starting shooting guard for the final 19 games of the season. The following season, he started all 80 games that he played and finished with averages of 22.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, while shooting better than 53% from the field. In the 12 month period from December 1984 to November 1985, Smith was named the NBA’s Player of the Week on three separate occasions. It was a remarkable turnaround for a player whose NBA career seemed on the verge of being terminated just a couple of years earlier.
Derek Smith is also thought to be the person who invented the high five. The story goes, that while playing for the Louisville Cardinals during the late 1970s, a teammate named Wiley Brown went to give Smith a low five, which was the custom at the time. Smith responded by looking at Brown in the eye and saying, “No, up high.” Smith’s request seemed to be a natural fit for the Cardinals' above the rim style of play and from that point on the high five became something of a trademark for the team known as the “Doctors of Dunk”. And while there is certainly no clear consensus as to who was responsible for introducing the high five into the world, footage of Smith’s Louisville teams remain some of the earliest visual evidence of this new form of handshake being used.
Unfortunately, Smith’s life story does not have a happy ending. At the start of the 1985-86 season, Smith suffered a serious knee injury. At the time of the injury, he was averaging over 27 points per game and seemed to be on track for a long and successful career. However, when he returned to the court, it was clear that he had lost much of his speed and explosiveness and he spent his final five NBA seasons playing primarily as a role player. After retiring in 1991, Smith was once again given a helping hand by Jim Lynam, who was coaching the Washington Bullets at the time. Lynam hired Smith as an assistant coach.
Tragically, Smith’s life was cut short when he passed away at the age of just 34. Smith collapsed and never regained consciousness while on a promotional cruise with Bullets players, coaches and season-ticket holders. Perhaps Charles Barkley said it best when he reflected on the life of Derek Smith. “Usually when you go to a funeral, people will say good things about a person who really wasn’t a good person. With Derek, it’s the opposite. You can’t say enough good things about him. The world is a poorer place now.”
To read more about Derek Smith's remarkable life story, check out Mick Minas' new book The Curse: The Colorful & Chaotic History of the LA Clippers by clicking here. To purchase a copy click here.
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