Duke's Nolan Smith reaches Final Four

Duke's Smith reaches Final Four

Staff WriterApril 2, 2010 

  • Coming Saturday: A complete guide to the Final Four. All you need to know about the NCAA tournament.

    Saturday's games

    Bulter vs. Michigan State

    When: 6 p.m. TV: WRAL, WNCT

    West Virginia vs. Duke

    When: 8:30 p.m. TV: WRAL, WNCT

The text from Duke guard Nolan Smith's mother, Monica Malone, reminded him what was at stake Sunday before the most important game of his life.

If you win, you go back to Indy, where your father played for a championship.

For months, Smith had looked forward to competing in a regional final for the right to play in the Final Four in Indianapolis. Before the game against Baylor on Sunday, he watched as ESPN replayed a feature that first aired last year about him and his father, Derek Smith, who died tragically at age 34 of a heart attack in 1996, when Nolan was 8 years old.

Thirty years ago in Indianapolis, Derek Smith helped Louisville defeat UCLA 59-54 to win the NCAA title. Wiley Brown, Smith's close friend and teammate, remembers Smith stepping forward for the first time at that Final Four to share team leadership duties with high-scoring Darrell Griffith.

"He started telling the guys what they needed to do," Brown said. "'We've got an opportunity. We can't mess this up. So get your rest. Eat right. Let's start focusing on winning a championship.' And that defined the rest of his career at Louisville. He became a leader."

Nolan Smith has a DVD of that game against UCLA and has watched it many times. He has noticed the fearless, determined look in his father's eyes.

On Sunday, fans in Houston saw that same look in the eyes of Derek's son.

Earlier, that morning, he sent out a note on Twitter. "This one is for you Dad!!" it read. "I love you!"

Buoyed by his desire to honor his father, Nolan Smith played perhaps the best game of his life.

With the South Regional title on the line, Smith scored a career-high 29 points. He scored four points on one possession after the final media timeout to give Duke the lead for good in a 78-71 win over Baylor.

"He just came up with big plays, big buckets for us," Duke forward Kyle Singler said. "And Baylor had no answer for him. They just couldn't stop him."

Father an enforcer

Now Smith will have his own chance to play in a Final Four in Indianapolis as the Blue Devils (33-5) meet West Virginia (31-6) at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA semifinals.

The event's stature has grown tremendously since Smith's father played for Louisville. It's expected that about 71,000 fans will attend each session at the Final Four this weekend at the new Lucas Oil Stadium. In 1980, when Derek Smith was a sophomore, the NCAA final was held in front of 12,356 fans at cozy Market Square Arena.

A year before, Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird had dueled in an epic NCAA title game. Derek Smith had seen the way Johnson smiled and hugged teammate Greg Kelser late in that 75-64 Michigan State win.

Smith promised his own teammate, Brown, that they would share a similar hug if Louisville could win the national title.

Recruited out of small-town Hoganville, Ga., Smith was a 6-foot-6 forward who could guard multiple positions and was known for his toughness. He was only 16 when he enrolled at Louisville but quickly became known as an enforcer.

"He would come up to pickup games," said Wade Houston, who was an assistant coach on Louisville's staff. "We had a lot of older players who were playing in the pros, and you could see in the pickup games that he wasn't going to back down from anybody."

He certainly didn't in the NCAA title game. As usual, Griffith led Louisville in scoring, pouring in 23 points.

Smith, with nine points, was next. He added five rebounds and was removed from the game along with Brown in the closing seconds.

While coming off the court, they hugged and smiled, just as Johnson and Kelser had done the previous year.

"He was so happy," Brown said. "He was so proud."

Those who knew Derek Smith say he would be just as proud now.

A mentor's advice

When Wade Houston's son, Allan, was beginning his NBA career with the Detroit Pistons in the mid-1990s, he became disheartened because he was sitting on the bench behind Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Derek Smith, who was an assistant coach on the Washington Bullets' staff after a nine-year NBA career, called Allan Houston often. He told him that it was OK not to play as a rookie but said it would be a travesty not to be ready when the coach called his name.

Strengthened by that advice, Allan Houston went on to become a two-time NBA all-star.

Nolan Smith, who's from Upper Marlboro, Md., has followed a similar path at Duke.

He averaged just 5.9 points per game as a freshman but is up to 17.4 as a junior.

"I can just see the smile on [Derek's] face now, knowing how proud he would be of Nolan, from where he's come, to where he is now," Wade Houston said. "That's what he was about.

"That was Derek, a mentor, someone who wanted to encourage young guys. And to see his own son do that, wow, I can't imagine just how proud he would have been."

Nolan Smith knows it. Everywhere Derek went when Nolan was little, Nolan tagged along. He went to basketball camp at Louisville in the summer when Derek was working there.

When Derek went fishing, he would take Nolan along. Even as a fisherman, Derek's advice was similar to what he had told Allan Houston.

"As a kid, you don't catch fish, you get frustrated," Nolan Smith remembers. "My father would say. 'Don't pout. Get out there. Keep trying. You'll catch one.' At that age, you learn from things like that."

In his father's image

Smith and teammate Jon Scheyer have a favorite YouTube clip ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF11PzhIpjM) of Derek Smith playing for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Defended by Michael Jordan on a fast break, Smith elevated and slammed home a one-handed reverse dunk against one of the greatest players of all time.

"The thing that stands out to me is how much stronger and bigger his dad is than Nolan," Scheyer said. "I give him a hard time about that. I never let him hear the end of that. But clearly there is a love there."

Nolan is a much different player from his dad. He's a 6-foot-2 guard who relies on his quickness rather than strength and is an accomplished perimeter shooter.

But flashes of his father's "enforcer" role - when Nolan harasses opposing point guards on defense, when he rose to Scheyer's defense after a Baylor technical foul Sunday - sometimes show up in Smith's game.

"Just to watch Nolan run up and down the court, it's a spittin' image of his dad," Wiley Brown said. "It brings chills to my heart and tears to my eyes when I see him play because he is so much like his dad."

Smith will bring one of his most prized possessions with him this week, something his father left him. It's old, and Nolan said it doesn't look like anything you could buy today, but it is set with small diamonds and his father's name and jersey number, 43.

Smith plans to keep his father's NCAA championship ring with him this week while chasing a ring of his own.

"I'll honor him this week by playing hard," Smith said. "That's how he played, and that's how he won the championship in 1980, by playing hard, playing with his teammates and having fun out there on the court.

"And that's what we're going to do."

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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