Derek Smith: A True Cardinal Family Story

By Tony Williams:

This story is meant to inspire and and to help continue the legacy of a Louisville Cardinal “All Time Great”, Derek Smith from Hogansville, Georgia. It proves that planting positive seeds in life without expecting anything in return will come back to you abundantly in the form of blessings. Those blessings include and begin with family, specifically Derek’s surviving wife, daughter, and son. Each family member contributed to this story memories and lasting proof of what Derek Smith stood for. I would like to extend a special thanks to Mrs. Monica, Sydney, and Nolan Smith for allowing CSZ and myself to present this article.

Sydney & Nolan Smith

For me, it started long ago, back when Derek was mentoring Louisville Central HS graduate, Dwayne Morton (UofL Men’s BBall standout from 1991-94). Derek had just finished a playing his last professional season with the Boston Celtics and I was about 13 or 14 which means that this time period was near the summer of 1991. I was an avid Cabbage Patch goer. The “Patch” was and still is a great non-profit community center located between 4th and 6th street, near Central Park in Old Louisville.

Cabbage Patch Settlement House

One Monday or Tuesday, following the last week(s) of that school year, I caught the city bus over to the center. Unknowing to me the summertime hours hadn’t started, leaving me stuck in the area very early with nothing to do. Not wanting to go back home, I took a walk north, through the park and up 4th st. I started to pass Spalding University and I heard basketballs bouncing inside the doorways of the gymnasium. I walked up the steps and into the gym and there  were about fifty kids with the camp tees on doing stretches. I remember like it was yesterday. I came through the gym passage and the first adult I saw was Mr. Derek Smith and he was briefing his staff on camp activities while policing the kids as they stretched. I started walking towards him and he must have sensed the hunger and wishfulness  in my spirit because I would have done just about anything to stay and play. He looked at me and asked “What’s your name?”. I answered him,  he threw me a camp tee, a red 32oz. “All Sport” drink and told me to get in line and to start stretching. I did just that. I continued camp every morning for the rest of that week and was treated like every other camper. I hadn’t signed any registration papers or paid any fees. This memory has been a huge motivating factor in my life. Work hard, give back to my community and to always show a  BIG heart.

One would naturally assume that, at that point I was running on very thin luck and maybe even wearing out my welcome, but that would prove to be a false assumption. Somehow, I was invited by Derek to his home after the last day of camp to hang out with his family and close friends. Maybe it was because they knew my uncle was Keith Williams, a former player who was just finishing his basketball career with the Cardinals. I remember Dwayne Morton, myself and others riding in a plush van that belonged to Derek as he was the driver and the man in charge.  I remember the garage door being open with short stairs leading into the house if my memory serves me correctly. I also recall lots of snacks, drinks and the awesome aroma of cooked food. This was for me the beginning of my realization that Derek Smith was a true family man who gained personal strength by helping others.

Sydney Smith: “Yes! The house was in Springhurst, and just as you remember directly across from KCD!”
After hanging out at the Smith house for a while, Derek had us all load back up into the van and on a very short ride over to KCD High School where we played  pick-up ball in the gym for the rest of that evening! I remember D. Morton doing sick moves and hitting shot after shot in every pick-up game.

My life changed after that week. It was like I had more of a purpose and that purpose was to work hard in life and use the sport of basketball as a tool to help myself, my family, and then others. This motivating blessing arrived in my life just in time for my high school career and helped me get through it. At the time, I just saw Derek Smith as a man who had wanted to help me out, but again I could tell that he was different than any other ball player I had ever met. I later found out that I was just one of many people who received a blessing through him during and after the time he was here on Earth.

I was shocked in August of 1996 to hear that  Derek had passed from an apparent massive heart attack on a cruise ship. As selfish as it may sound, at the time I was most disappointed  that he would never know the progress I had made since the summer of 1991. I hadn’t gotten a chance to see him again and say thanks or that I was the kid he inspired when he pulled me into his basketball camp. Even more ironic, Fall of 1996 happened to be the year that I would begin my career at the University of Louisville as a student athlete. I’m talking two or three weeks before the school year began! I honestly don’t know if I would have been a Cardinal had I not met Mr. Derek Smith.

Derek Smith All-Stars

Ray Cunningham, Derek Smith (r.i.p.), and Ronnie Griffin (r.i.p.) at the Pacers/Bullets game.

I didn’t have a clear memory of Derek’s two children, Sydney or Nolan Smith from back then, as they are 7 and 10 years younger than me respectively. The two would have been around 6 and 3 years old at the time. Ironic enough, I would meet them later in life, again and again. Small World and a blessing each time!

When speaking with Sydney and Nolan about their dad nowadays their spirits light up instantly.

Sydney: “My best memories with my dad would probably be all of them. There are so many instances where I can remember  spending time with my father. When living in Louisville we would get up early on weekends and go fishing, come home, clean them, and fry them for dinner!  I played tennis growing up and my dad was my coach! He was pretty tough on me- tougher than any coach I had after because he always said if you are going to play, each time you stepped on the court you had to give your best.  Another memory that I have is gardening with him in our backyard. Instead of paying a landscaper to come and plant flowers we did it all! And even grew strawberries and tomatoes in our back yard.”

Nolan: “My dad means the world to me, and to my career! He put the ball in my hands, so there will never be a day where I don’t think about him before I go to work! I play basketball for a job! All because of him.”

As for the younger of the two Smith children Nolan, I started to hear about him through the community around the end of my sophomore season at UofL. By the time he was 12, his name was already ringing throughout the Louisville area Middle school basketball community. Nolan was putting up numbers and well on his way to being an NBA draft pick just like his dad. At that same time my Aunt who had just finished serving in the military moved back home to Louisville  from Atlanta with her two kids. She was looking for a high school for her eldest, Rick Bodiford, to attend and start his Freshman year and told me to help make the decision. That summer I took Rick to Manual High School where Nolan was considering attending, to see if they could possibly play together throughout HS. I was going, pretty much, by what I’d heard about his game but I did know that Nolan had the genes of his father and would be a star. They ended up playing some open gym games that day if I’m not mistaken and started the beginning of their quick friendship. The Smith family moved away to Maryland and Nolan never played for Louisville Manual Highschool. Rick went on to Louisville Eastern HS, where he would play most of his high school ball alongside current NBA Superstar Rajon Rondo, small world. Seeing how everything has actually played out, it’s obvious that Momma Smith knew what was best for the family considering that she had recently lost her husband and the man of the house in Derek Smith.

Nolan playing for Oak Hill

Nolan Smith has since created a resume that most basketball players will only dream of.  He played most of his high school ball at Oak Hill along-side other future NBA stars like Ty Lawson and Michael Beasley. In 2007 Nolan was chosen as a McDonald’s Highschool All American. He was recruited by many major division I schools before narrowing his choices down to Duke, Charlotte, Georgetown and yes you guessed it Louisville. Nolan’s decision to choose Duke came as a surprise to some considering that his father was a major contributor to the 1980 NCAA Louisville Cardinal Championship team. Once again this proves that you really have no control over destiny. Nolan’s decision to go to Duke is hardly contested these days. In fact, with the Blue Devil’s, he managed to win the ACC title 3 of his 4 years and become the ACC Player of the Year during the 2010-2011 season. Choosing Duke would mean that Nolan wouldn’t get a chance to win an NCAA title with the Cards as his dad did. Instead, he received a special “cherry on top” of his 2010 NCAA title when he and Duke beat Butler University  in Indianapolis, the same city his dad helped win the NCAA title 30 years prior with the Louisville Cardinals. Sweeeeet!!

Sydney: This is our favorite picture taken after they won the Championship game next to the floor sticker for the ’80 Championship team that dad was on!

TW: What else has to be accomplished by Nolan Smith to say that all of his goals and dreams he had growing up have been accomplished?

Nolan: “I just want to continue to change and effect lives in any way I can. Through the foundation or just thru me reaching out to all the kids in this world looking for a positive role model, my life and goals will be complete! I feel God gave me the gift of basketball for that reason right there! Help the children who need guidance!”

TW: What do you think about the NBA so far in your young career?

Nolan: “I am pleased with my NBA career, because I am confident and I know that when coach calls my name I will make an impact! Until then, I will be a great teammate, work hard, and get better every single day!”

The Portland Trail Blazers selected Nolan 21st overall in the 2011 NBA Draft.

TW: Please tell readers something about Deuce Brand and/or any sponsorship deals or involvements you may be involved with.

Nolan: “I’m currently apart of the Adidas family and Deuce Brand family. They chose me because of character and I feel it is an huge honor whenever anyone wants you to be apart of their team.”

Sydney: “Nolan is an “Official” Adidas athlete.  He has been an Adidas athlete since high school, so it only seemed natural for him to remain loyal and wear Adidas as a pro. He has always felt that they are the most comfortable basketball shoe out.”

Sydney and I have a history that re-surfaced much later. Around 2004-05. I owned a Chicken and Waffles restaurant in town and I always invited the guys from Louisville’s hoop squad  to come and eat. She came in with one of the guys on the team and he told me that she was Nolan Smith’s older sister. I looked at Sydney and instantly I could see her dad’s eyes and smile. I was thinking to myself wow, this is how life happens, what a blessing! It always made me feel good when she came in to know that  Derek Smith and family were still very much connected to the University and the city of Louisville.

TW: Please explain a bit about what you remember from the 04′-05′ time period. Did you know that I had played for the University? Did you know I knew and looked up to your dad?

Sydney: “My freshman year at Louisville was Fall 04′ – I was dating Brian Johnson at the time and he mentioned me that a former player had opened a restaurant and that we should go check it out. When he told me your name, I remembered hearing it-but it was not sure until I came in and saw your face that I remembered back to my childhood and exactly who you were!! I never forget a face and I definitely remembered the camps and you coming over to the house! And even more so, the years that you played at Louisville. After my dad passed, I would come and spend summers in Louisville and stay with Scooter McCray and his family, as I was very close with his daughter Taryn. So with them I remember watching you and hearing about you as a player. No matter how far away we moved we always remained fans of UofL and watched the games! Twiams Chicken and Waffles was by far my favorite place to go on campus!! I think you saw us in there just about every weekend, if not multiple times! Still haven’t found a spot anywhere that comes close to the food!!”

TW: You went to UofL for four years and graduated from there right?

Sydney: “Yes- I finished online from U of L this past summer.”

TW: What did you get a degree in?

Sydney: “Communications.”

TW: Please tell me about your memories of your father and what he means to you  to this day and how he motivates you to succeed.

Sydney: “The memories that I have of my father are what get me through each day.  There are so many positive memories that I have of him spending time with Nolan and I. My father would come to class with me, field trips, teach me tennis, let us come to practice with him while he was coaching, he was very involved. Also- my father was very big on giving back to the community. Whenever possible he would give back and I believe he passed this on to Nolan and I, which is why we have started the Sydney and Nolan Smith Foundation, to begin our efforts and following in our fathers footsteps outside of basketball.”

TW: What are you doing with yourself now and what are some of your goals for the future?

Sydney: “I am now running our foundation full time.  We have some pretty high goals for the foundation and it is going to take a lot of work. We hope to make Louisville one of the main markets alongside Durham, Portland, and the Washington DC metropolitan area. Our goal is to hold bereavement camps in each city for boys & girls. After going through the loss of our father we want to send a message that even through loss you can persevere through life and still reach your dreams.  We want kids to take the positive road in life, and be resilient! Outside of the foundation I plan to work in sports- Events & Marketing. The past few summers I have had internships in the fields and have really enjoyed everything I learned and the business.”

In conclusion to this story I would like to say THANKS Derek Smith. Mr. Smith was and still is an inspiration to many people today. His spirit lives on through the people he touched while he was still with us. My family and close friends are all beneficiaries and silent witnesses to what he has done for me. I feel truly “blessed” to have met Mr. Derek Smith (R.I.P. 11/01/1961-08/09/1996).

Robbie Valentine played for the Cards from 1982-1986. He had this to say about Derek Smith: “Derek was one of the main reasons I came to Louisville. He was one of the most loyal and honest people you could ever meet. His drive on and off the court made me want to be a Card.”

Derek Smith’s career stats at Louisville:   1,826 points (6th all time at UofL) 884 rebounds

1978-79      9.8 ppg      4.8 reb

1979-80     14.8 ppg      8.3 reb

1980-81     15.5 ppg      7.8 reb

1981-82     15.7 ppg      6.9 reb

Career NBA stats (1982-1991) : 5,232 points (12.8 ppg)   1,300 rebounds (3.2 reb per game)

Here is a clip of Derek Smith dunking over Michael Jordan in 1984 as a member of the Clippers.

One Reply to “Derek Smith: A True Cardinal Family Story”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.