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The Uncommon Common Man : Derek Smith Has Clearly Risen Above the Average With Clippers : By SAM McMANIS, Times Staff Writer

January 29, 1985

"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."

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