When Clipper guard Derek Smith, the NBA's fourth-leading scorer this season, clutched his left knee and screamed in pain with 3:05 remaining in the Clippers' 93-89 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics Wednesday night, an eerie hush came over the Sports Arena crowd of 5,240.
At that point, no one even knew if the injury was serious, but it certainly seemed so when it took two of the Clippers' biggest players to escort Smith to the locker room.
Smith's injury was later termed major by Dr. Eugene Osher, who briefly examined the 6-6 guard and placed him in an immobilizing brace. An exact diagnosis will be to be made today, but first indications were that it was either cartilage or ligament damage.
Osher, an associate of Clipper physician Tony Daly, said that Smith's injury was on the outside near the back of his left knee and that he was unable to straighten his leg.
Smith, 24, was taken to Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital for X-rays, even though Osher said there probably was no break. A Clipper spokesman said Smith would spend the night at his Playa del Rey home before receiving further treatment today, perhaps an exploratory arthroscopic surgical procedure.
In a prepared statement, Smith explained what happened:
"When I went to jump, I bent my knee to take off. When I bent it, I felt the leg pop. It sounded like a miniature firecracker going off. Pop."
Said Osher: "That sounds more likely to be a cartilage than ligaments, but it's too early to tell. It certainly would be much worse if it were a ligament."
Smith suffered the injury with the Clipper trailing, 87-83. He took the ball on the left wing and drove through the lane. Although it looked as though no SuperSonic hit Smith's leg, he hopped several steps and then crashed to the floor about 10 feet from where Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling sat.
"All Derek said was that he felt a pop--I don't think there was impact," Osher said.
The fear among the Clippers, who lost their fourth straight game and fourth player to injury in two days, is that they may lose Smith for the season. If it is a ligament tear, there is a chance Smith may be out the entire season, maybe longer. But if it's a cartilage injury, Smith could undergo arthroscopic surgery and possibly return in four to six weeks.
Clipper Coach Don Chaney, who naturally was dismayed by the injury to Smith Wednesday night after losing Marques Johnson (lower back strain), Cedric Maxwell (strained hamstring) and Jamaal Wilkes (sprained ankle) on Tuesday night, called Smith the "backbone of the team."
For good reason.
Smith was averaging 27.3 points a game before Wednesday, and he had scored 26 points against Seattle before the injury. The Clippers fell to 5-4 and face the grim prospect of playing the Lakers Friday night without three starters and their top reserve.
"I once saw this many guys go down, but it was in a war movie," Maxwell said.
It was his only joke of the night.
Smith sat in the trainer's room and asked not to face the media. He was in tears. In his statement, Smith said: "Now, all I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best and be prepared to work extra hard to get back." During Chaney's lengthy professional career, he had major surgery more than once to repair ligament damage in the back of his knees. He said it took him three years to come back and play with confidence. Some players with severe ligament tears never return to action.
"I hate to see any player go down," Chaney said. "We'll really miss him. I really didn't even believe it occured. He's so tough, he always gets up. I thought it was just another bump or bruise. I said, 'Get up, Derek, Get up.' "
But Smith didn't, and the Clippers may have lost more than just Wednesday night's game. With point guard Norm Nixon still an unsigned free agent and Smith, Johnson and Maxwell currently out of action, the only Clipper starter still playing is center James Donaldson.
"We'll have to sit down and figure out what to do," Chaney said. "(Assistant coach) Brad Greenberg has a list of CBA players and free agents, and we'll go over it. We have to get players now. But I can't do anything until we know more about Derek. In 18 years in basketball, I've never seen anything like this. Four injuries to key players in two days. I can't believe it."
Clipper Notes Jack Sikma led Seattle with 20 points--13 in the fourth quarter. Guard Gerald Henderson added 19, making 9 of 12 shots . . . Franklin Edwards supported Derek Smith with 20 points and 5 assists . . . Wednesday's win was Seattle's first on the road.