Duke's Smith carries an indelible memory

Duke's Nolan Smith, enjoying the Blue Devils' victory over Baylor, has a tattoo on his right arm memorializing his late father, Derek. "I know he's watching over me," Smith said.
Duke's Nolan Smith, enjoying the Blue Devils' victory over Baylor, has a tattoo on his right arm memorializing his late father, Derek. "I know he's watching over me," Smith said.
Posted: April 02, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS - The feature that pops up at you about Nolan Smith, at least when he's not knocking down shots for Duke on the basketball court, is the striking tattoo that adorns his right biceps.

The tattoo, which Smith got when he was 16, is a tribute to his father, Derek Smith, who made a lasting impression on everyone he touched in the NBA, including the 76ers, before he died of respiratory failure in 1996 at age 34.

"Forever Watching" reads the imprint, which runs above a picture of his father and the years of his life. It's something from which Smith has drawn strength and inspiration as he continues his NCAA run with the Blue Devils into Saturday's Final Four game against West Virginia at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"My mom wasn't a strong believer in tattoos, but when I told her I wanted to get a tattoo of my father, she said, 'It better look like my husband,' " Smith recalled Thursday.

"I said OK and went and got it. I just wanted something that I could always look down to when I'm thinking about him. I know he's always watching over me, and that he's behind me."

There is definitely karma at work here. Derek Smith helped lead Louisville to the 1980 national championship, in which the Cardinals defeated UCLA at the since-demolished Market Square Arena. Now 30 years later, Nolan Smith gets his chance to make it two championships in the family.

"I've had a chance to watch some games and talk to his teammates, hearing about how he played," said Smith, who was 8 when his father passed away. "Now I have a chance to follow in his footsteps and do the same thing he did. It means a lot to me. It really gives me a lot of extra motivation to go out and leave it all out on the court."

Derek Smith played nine seasons for five teams during an NBA career marred by a serious knee injury in the 1985-86 season. Still, he remained a valued team member because of a strong work ethic, uncanny focus, and a willingness to learn as much as he could.

The younger Smith, called "the unsung hero of our team" by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, seems to have inherited those traits. He leads the team in scoring (18.5), three-point shooting (6 for 13, 46.2 percent) and minutes played (38.2) in the tournament while showing an uncanny knack for scoring as the shot clock runs out.

He said comparisons by people who knew his father "mean everything to me."

"Now that I've taken a lot of his game, his passion and the way he approached every game, it makes me feel good," he said. "When I take the court and I look down at my tattoo and see him on my side, I think about: How did he play, how did he carry himself in the game?"

Smith's play in Sunday's South Regional final might be the most important factor in the Blue Devils (33-5) being here. The 6-foot-2 junior, from Upper Marlboro, Md., scored a career-high 29 points in a 78-71 victory over Baylor.

Smith received extra motivation for this game from watching an ESPN feature on his father earlier in the day.

"I really just let it go straight to my heart," he said. "As I sat there, I reflected back on those times with my dad, things that he had told me leading up to where I am now. I just used that emotion and energy just to play my heart out."

After Sunday's game, Krzyzewski told reporters: "We cried watching it. We all did. But then we talked, and I think he really felt good after that. He didn't have to tell that story anymore. It's a beautiful story, but he could just be who he is. It's like a weight came off of him."

Smith has combined with senior Jon Scheyer and junior Kyle Singler to account for more than 68 percent of Duke's scoring this season. Smith will have to pull his share of the load against West Virginia, known for a difficult 1-3-1 zone defense.

He's not going to let memories of his father overcome him. Rather, he plans to channel them into performing on the court.

"We're getting focused and ready to play," he said. "We're really just taking it as if it's another game. All the emotions that we have, all the excitement, we're balling it up and are just going to use that when we take the court."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.

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