Heads turned when Derek Smith, dressed in his bright blue Clipper sweats and unlaced high-top basketball shoes, walked into an Italian restaurant one recent afternoon.
It was obvious that he was a basketball player, but there was whispering among the lunch crowd. No one, it seemed, knew who he was. Even if people had been told that he was the Clippers' leading scorer this season, they probably still would have been stumped.
Derek Smith, accustomed to lack of recognition, was not offended. On a team that features such marquee names as Bill Walton, Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson, it is easy to be overlooked. As far as most people here are concerned, he could be just one of 2,783 Smiths listed in the Los Angeles phone book.
"I'm just the guy at the grocery store shopping for his wife," Smith said. "Not many people know me. I probably have the most common name in sports--Smith. Nobody cares about the name Smith. Maybe I should change the spelling or pronounce it like Smythe . . . It doesn't matter, though."
If he hadn't previously experienced nationwide anonymity, Smith probably would be somewhat irked that, despite having played as well as any Western Conference guard except Magic Johnson, he wasn't selected to play in the NBA All-Star game Feb. 10. It neither irks nor surprises Smith, though, since he wasn't even included on the fan ballots printed before the season.
Asked about it, Smith gave a so-what-else-is-new shrug. It really is nothing compared to how ignored he felt in 1980 when he was a sophomore starter on Louisville's NCAA championship team.
"I was the second-leading scorer, but when the press came to do stories on us, they didn't talk to me," he said. "We had Darrell Griffith on the team, and he got the publicity, deservedly so. And we had Scooter and Rodney McCray, probably the best brother combination people had seen in a while. And Wiley Brown didn't have a thumb. The press never saw a guy play without a thumb before. I was kind of just the fifth guy, the other starter."
So Smith is used to anonymity. But if he continues to play as well as he has so far this season, it won't be long before he gains recognition.
Certainly, his contribution hasn't gone unnoticed by those who follow the Clippers closely. But for those who know little about Smith--no doubt they are many--some background information might be helpful:
Smith, 23, ended his college career in 1981 as the second-leading scorer in Louisville history, ranking behind Griffith. He was chosen in the second round of the NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors, then was released after the 1982-83 season. The Clippers plucked him off the waiver list before last season.
It wasn't until early this season, however, that Smith began emerging from the shadows of Walton, Johnson and Nixon. In a late November game against Chicago at the Sports Arena, Smith outplayed rookie sensation Michael Jordan in a matchup that figured to be one-sided, the other way. Smith scored a career-high 33 points and held Jordan to 20. In the fourth quarter, Smith made a left-handed, reverse windmill dunk that made Jordan's incredible shots seem routine that night.
Typically for Smith, though, his performance went mostly overlooked when Jordan made the winning shot for the Bulls. Afterward, the media surrounded Smith--to ask him about Jordan.
Since he took over the Clipper scoring lead two months ago, Smith has drawn more attention. He might not have warranted a spot on the All-Star ballot before the season, but several East Coast writers recently said that Smith deserves a starting spot on the team.
Boston Globe basketball writer Dan Shaughnessy wrote: "Don't look for Smith in Indianapolis (site of the All-Star game), but he's played better than any guard except Magic."
Even Nixon, who played alongside Magic Johnson with the Lakers for four seasons, has compared part of Smith's game to Johnson's. "Rock has more inside moves than Magic," Nixon said. "He is the strongest guard I've seen inside."
Clipper players have nicknamed him Rock because, as the 6-foot-6, 208-pound Smith says, "when players run into me at practice, it's like hitting a rock." But it also could be because Smith's performances are consistently solid. He has scored in double figures in 42 of 43 games this season, although not many have noticed.
"I'm not going to have many games like the one against Chicago, where I go on a scoring tear," Smith said. "But I like to think I can be counted on for 20 (points) a game. And I want people to know that every time I step on the court, I'm going to give the best effort I can."
Folks in Smith's hometown of Hogansville, Ga., population 2,700, would expect nothing less from their most famous native son. Smith may not be widely known in Los Angeles, but he's big in Hogansville.
Smith likes to recall how the town's old men sat in front of drug store and flipped him quarters as he ran through the streets dribbling a basketball.
"Some of them are still living, and they're proud of me because they remember me as a little runt," Smith said. "They pushed me and encouraged me to keep going and stay away from the bad girls and the bad cigarettes and all the other bad things that tear peoples' lives apart."
Were it not for his basketball skills, Smith figures, he would still be in Hogansville, working for minimum wage at the local rubber mill, just as his two older brothers and one older sister have done. He is one of seven children who were brought up strictly by their mother. Smith doesn't remember his father, who left when Derek was young.
"Very few kids went to college," Smith said. "The big thing in my hometown was to graduate from high school. Once you got that, you were almost assured of getting a job at the mill. If you didn't work at the mill, you sat on the corner and shot craps, drank or whatever.
"All I thought about was getting the high school diploma back then, not going to college or playing pro ball. Everyone around me did the same thing. There are people in Hogansville who have never left, never even gone to Atlanta (60 miles to the north) to visit."
Smith's mother was one of those people. She has worked at a sewing factory in town since she was 16 and never thought of moving the family to Atlanta. The biggest weekly paycheck she ever brought home was $110, but she always put clothes on the kids' backs and shoes on their feet. Besides, rent was only $18. Basketball entered Smith's life when he was in the seventh grade. It wasn't until the next year, however, that he played inside a gym.
"When I first stepped into the gym, it was like, 'Hey, this is for me.' The floor was so smooth and you didn't scrape your knees on the floor. From that day, I played every day. I played because I liked the game, not for a scholarship or to play professionally."
Hogansville High was a small school but very big on basketball talent. With Smith, then 6-4, playing center, the team won the state championship twice. In the last 11 years, Smith said, Hogansville has won seven state titles. "From whatever end of town you drive in from, there are signs saying State Champs," Smith said.
Smith's coach was a former Marine drill instructor who, naturally, was a firm believer in discipline and fundamentals.
Smith said: "We would line up at the baseline and the coach would expect me to outrun all the 5-6 guys dribbling the ball with my left hand. Then right-handed. Then through the legs. I never had to use those skills until I became a guard (last season). But it was good to have."
Even though he was the best player in Hogansville and one of the best in Georgia, Smith was ignored by most colleges. The only one that actively recruited him was Gardner-Webb College in North Carolina, which produced John Drew.
Smith probably would have gone to Gardner-Webb if a friend, attending Louisville on a football scholarship, hadn't approached Cardinal basketball Coach Denny Crum and told him of Smith.
Later that season, when Louisville played Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Crum dispatched an assistant to check out Smith. A day later, Crum took a look himself. Smith visited the campus, then signed a letter of intent.
"It was pretty easy recruiting me," Smith said. "I was excited just about flying to Louisville, playing on TV and before 18,000. I was ready to go wherever I had the opportunity. My mom, at first, didn't want me to leave home, but when I signed she said she'd fly up to see me play."
Although he was only 16 when he began college--his mother had started him in school at 4 because she couldn't afford a baby sitter--Smith made an immediate impression on Crum and Louisville fans. In his first intra-squad scrimmage, Smith arrived two hours early, taped his own ankles--"That's the way you did it at Hogansville."-- and made his first 12 shots.
After that, Smith let the trainer tape his ankles and he played 20 minutes a game his freshman season. As a sophomore, he averaged 14.8 points on the NCCA championship team. In his junior and senior seasons, Smith averaged more than 15 points a game and was named the co-Metro Conference player of the year.
Because he was so young and from a small town, Smith was shy and socially unprepared for college.
"I always felt more comfortable talking to someone with a basketball in my hands," Smith said. "If I didn't have a basketball in my hands, I wouldn't talk very much."
Still, he found enough courage to introduce himself to a girl named Monica. She is now his wife. Smith said she helped him develop confidence and also helped him with schoolwork.
"I met Derek when I was bringing up groceries to my room," Monica Smith said. "He offered to take them for me. When we got to the door, he wanted to come in and talk, but he didn't say anything. He just sat down and sat there. I got on the phone and talked to my mom for an hour, did errands and he just sat there and didn't say a thing. Finally, we broke the ice."
Smith's personality and his basketball career blossomed at about the same time. He first thought of an NBA career when Griffith returned to Louisville after his first pro season with "diamond rings, diamond watches, a big Cadillac." Smith was projected as a low first-round pick in the 1982 draft and was disappointed when he was picked 35th by Golden State.
Three days before the Warriors' training camp began, Smith got married. It was about the only good thing that happened to him that year. Golden State wanted to use Smith as a power forward and it didn't work out. He played only 27 games--154 total minutes--and spent most of the season on the injured-list with back spasms.
In the summer of 1983, Smith went back to Louisville without the fancy jewelry and big car. He knew he was about to be released, and brooded for a week.
"Derek was very irritable during that time," Monica said. "He wanted to play so badly."
Instead of giving up, though, Smith worked to improve his game and earn a tryout with an NBA team. With the help of Ed Badger, former University of Cincinnati coach, Smith worked on being a big guard, which meant learning to play facing the basket.
"It was like being back in high school with the drill sergeant," Smith said. "It was about 110 degrees inside the gym. It was torture."
But it earned Smith a tryout with the Clippers late that summer. He impressed Coach Jim Lynam and was offered a one-year contract for $55,000 if he made the team.
"I had prepared myself for not making it," Smith said. "I'd call Monica every day (back in Louisville, where she was attending law school) and I'd say, 'Well, I've only got a couple more days before I come home.' But she didn't know that I had my fingers and toes crossed. I just didn't want to plan for anything. Everything I had planned never worked out."
Smith's career has worked out fine with the Clippers, however. Last season, he became a starter in the final 19 games and finished the season with a 9.8-point scoring average.
As a free agent last summer, Smith signed an offer sheet from Denver believed to be worth $800,000 over two years. It took the Clippers less than two days to match the offer and keep him.
"I don't think we had a choice," Lynam said.
This season, Smith's play has made the decision look like a wise one. Everything Smith had planned has happened. Well, almost. He still hasn't received much recognition.
"That doesn't bother me too much. It's a lot less pressure . . . but a lot less fun, too."