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.