The only thing wrong with Derek Smith, Michael Jordan says, is that nobody knows about him. Nobody knows what a super basketball player he is. Nobody knows that "Derek Smith is the most underrated player in the NBA."
Derek Smith thinks he knows what is wrong. Never mind that he is averaging 25 points a game for the Clippers. Never mind that he has just been named the 1985-86 season's first player of the week. He knows why nobody knows about him.
It's that name.
Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, World B. Free-- those are names people remember.
"I'm up in Sacramento for the first game of the season, standing in the airport," Derek Smith said. "This guy runs up to me and whips out his California driver's license and shows me his name: 'Derek Smith.' Spelled exactly the same.
"It's just not that unusual a name. I've got to get me another one."
Some of the guys on his team call him Rock. Rock Smith. A good, solid name for a good, solid man.
Norm Nixon, his partner at guard with the Clippers last season, started calling him Rock because of his body, which is so hard and muscular that everybody takes Derek Smith for granite.
Now, when the Clippers play home games at the Sports Arena, Smith occasionally hears fans chanting: "Rock! Rock!" He said he likes that a lot.
For years, this capable and personable person has received almost no attention at all. Even a year ago, when he made the highest vertical jump ever seen on paper--9.8 points a game to 22.1--Smith's spectacular improvement from the previous season seemed to catch no one's eye.
The first time rookie of the year Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls came to the Clipper gym, Smith outplayed him most of the night. With time running out, though, Jordan got a breakaway that could have won the game, so Smith practically tackled him to stop him. Jordan flung the ball at the hoop, and it went in.
The Clippers lost, and the only reason anybody wanted to talk to Smith after the game was to ask him about fouling Jordan.
But Jordan has not forgotten how the rest of that game went. Last week, when the Bulls were in town, Jordan made a point of saying: "Derek Smith is the most underrated player in the NBA. I predict he'll make the All-Star team this year. He's got all the tools to be a great player, except for one."
"Which one?" someone asked.
"He doesn't have any media attention," Jordan said.
Maybe it is the name. Maybe "Rock" Smith would have made the headlines long before Derek. Or maybe it is because in his two-lane hometown, Hogansville, Ga., the sportsmanlike coach of the team, John Penland, thought it best that every player share the playing time and share the shots--"even though I probably could have scored 50 points a game," Smith remembers.
Or maybe it was because his NCAA champion college team, Louisville, surrounded him with Darrell (Dr. Dunkenstein) Griffith, a superstar; Scooter and Rodney McCray, a famous brother act, and Wiley Brown, a man who played with a missing thumb.
"If I'd played with one thumb, maybe someone would have noticed me," Smith said.
Pro ball did not bring him any new publicity. Those master judges of talent, the Golden State Warriors--who have given up on Bernard King, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes, Gus Williams, Micheal Ray Richardson, Rickey Green, Lewis Lloyd and World B. Free, among others--chose the 6-6 Smith as the 35th pick of the 1982 draft and immediately turned him into a power forward. Derek Smith belongs at power forward the way Maurice Lucas belongs at point guard.
When he couldn't cut it there in the 154 minutes they let him play, the Warriors cut him. For five days he was out of work, until Coach Jim Lynam of the Clippers offered him a new position--literally. At guard, he averaged 9.8 points his first full season, then a startling 22.1 in 1984-85.
"I didn't realize just how many good players there were that Golden State gave up on," Smith said Tuesday. "My advice to (contract holdout) Chris Mullin or to anybody else in that organization is: 'Don't worry. There are better days ahead.' "
Looking back on his own situation, Smith said: "The last two years have been like a dream. I never looked at myself as an NBA starter, much less a star. I always compared myself to a Michael Cooper, to a guy who's willing to stick around and do the hard things, like taking the charges and playing good defense. I never have had the freedom to be creative, even in high school.
"My high school coach believed in equal time, equal shots. My first year of college, all I did was shoot, but my second year, the coach said, 'Go get the rebounds,' and that's what I did after that. I didn't mind. I thought it was right for the team."
Then Golden State misused him and disposed of him. He was out of the NBA. "I felt like a man with a terminal illness."
Not anymore. Last week, he celebrated his 24th birthday in style, leading the Clippers to wins in their first five games and winning the week's top player honor.
"I've been thinking about that," he said. "That means for one week, at least, I had the distinction of being the best basketball player in the world."
If no one had called when Golden State let him go, Smith said he might have gone back to school, earned a teaching degree and worked as a coach. He said he would have handled players just as does John Penland, who is still coaching in Hogansville and who talks to Smith all the time.
In January, when the Clippers go to Atlanta, Smith has promised to drive his teammates to Hogansville.
"They want to see if they can survive the frantic, hectic pace of 2,500 laid-back Southern people in a town with one traffic light," he said.
Hogansville's hero is coming home. Nobody there calls him Rock.