"This is only one game, the first step, a very small step. I don't know if I'll reach greatness this year. That's why I'm working so hard. That's why I can't wait for tomorrow." - Derek Smith on 4/3/91 after playing vs the Nets
As Celtic fans, we were stunned by the death of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis and saddened by the passings of Red Auerbach and Dennis Johnson. All of those names resonate with Celtics fans. But one guy who tends to be forgotten, and whom not many people even remember passing away, is former Celtic Derek Smith.
Smith was a 2nd round pick of the Golden State Warriors back in the 1982 season after attending Louisville. After one season with minimal playing time, Golden State waived Smith who went on to sign with the San Diego Clippers for the next season. After 3 years with the Clippers (they became the LA Clippers after 1 season of him playing there) he was traded to Sacramento. He had begun battling injuries with the Clips and that continued onto his days with the Kings, with whom he lasted 2 seasons before signing with the 76ers. He was a key member of that Atlantic Division Champion 76ers team in 1990 and that's when I first became familiar with him.
I for one was stoked when the Celtics acquired Smith in December of 1990. As a kid, I was all about stats, and knew he'd put up 22 ppg while shooting 53% from the field in 80 games back in the 1984-85 season with the Clippers. Of course I'd never seen him play back in those days before cable (let alone League Pass) but the back of his basketball card (yep that one to the right) told me all I needed to know: Derek Smith was going to be a terrific addition for Boston.
Smith didn't play very long for the Celtics. Only 2 regular season games at the end of the 1991 season as he continued rehabilitating from more knee trouble (injuries really derailed his career; he'd been injury-plagued since that breakout season with the Clippers). But then came the playoffs and when Derek Smith was added to the playoff roster (a surprise to some) he was ready to make his lasting impression on the Celtics forever. It was the first round against a cocky Indiana team lead by Chuck Person, Reggie Miller and Micheal Williams. Person played out of his mind that series scoring at will. Larry Bird & Ed Pinckney were too slow to keep up with him; Kevin Gamble was too scared; Reggie Lewis was too small and already preoccupied with Reggie Miller. The Celtics needed someone to step up. Derek Smith became that guy.
Throughout that Indiana series he stepped in, as if he'd been with the C's for years, and defended Person better than anyone. That series was a grueling one, going the full 5 games. Person talked about how everyone defended him and how he was able to get his shots off. But when asked about Derek Smith he said "I've got to get Hulk Hogan to help me out." Smith was annoyed, and in response stated "I played him physical and clean. I'm not trying to hurt Chuck, I'd like to see him play another 10 years in the league. But we were letting their shooters have too many clean looks at the hoop."
In the Game 5 closeout game of that series, Smith played a season high 22 minutes, finishing with 12 points, 2 rebounds and 5 fouls, most of which you can bet were used on Chuck Person. Person scored 9 of the first 11 Indiana points in that first quarter. After that Smith checked in and really made life difficult for him. Everyone remembers Bird's comeback that game where his head gruesomely hit the floor before he miraculously returned with a concussion and really helped propel Boston. Not to take anything away from Bird (who trust me was utterly sensational) but without Derek Smith that game, Boston may not have won. After averaging only 2.5 ppg in his 2 regular season games, Smith bumped that up to over 11 ppg for that series. And while Gamble had a terrific regular season, he continued to play like a shell of his former self (or sort of like the 2010 version of KG). Smith stepped in and did what needed to be done. (By the way check out the "D.Smith" on his jersey in the picture below. That's how it's supposed to be! Tell R.Allen and T.Allen please!)
Derek Smith retired after that season with the Celtics. All of his injuries had finally caught up with him. He had been an assistant coach with the Bullets for 3 seasons when he attended a cruise with his family back in August of 1996. On the last day of the cruise, Smith, 34, died of a heart attack. I remember it didn't make a lot of news anywhere, and I wound up finding out about it a few months later in the fall of 1996 when I was in college. I couldn't believe Derek Smith had died. While reading online that he had passed away I was immediately hit with thoughts of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. I was saddened and shocked. The guy who put Chuck Person in his place just a few years earlier, who helped the Celtics immensely in that series, had passed away.
In looking back, I'll always remember Derek Smith and what he meant to the Celtics that season. His contributions were enormous and he left an indelible mark on my youth and my adoration of the Celtics. He embodied Celtics pride and exemplified what role players were supposed to do in order to be successful and help the team win. When Boston beat LA two seasons ago, I wrote a long post, naming so many different guys who this championship was for. Of course Bias and Lewis were on that list. So was Derek Smith. And maybe the next time you have a conversation about former Celtics who died too young, you'll remember to mention him too.