Strangely, there was more relief than disappointment among all concerned Wednesday night after the Clippers had announced that injured and ill guard Derek Smith would miss the rest of the NBA season--just 16 games--because of what doctors termed a rare form of mononucleosis.
The announcement was made a few hours before the Clippers remained six games behind Sacramento for the final Western Conference playoff spot with a come-from-behind 100-96 win over the Seattle SuperSonics before 6,595 at the Sports Arena.
To Smith, the diagnosis served as vindication after he felt that many "second-guessers" had been whispering that he simply did not want to finish the final season of his contract.
And, to Clipper management, Coach Don Chaney and the quartet of doctors who have examined Smith the last few weeks, the diagnosis was good news because it was finally determined what affliction had kept Smith out of the lineup after his injured left knee had healed.
"You hate to see anyone have an illness, but I'm happy they finally came up with an answer," Chaney said. "Derek kept taking these tests and they kept coming up negative. I'm relieved, and I'm sure Derek is, too."
Smith, who tore a cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 13 against Seattle at the Sports Arena and only played briefly in two games in December before being hit with the until-recently undiagnosed virus, showed feelings of relief, frustrations and anger during a pregame interview before Wednesday's game against Seattle at the Sports Arena.
"Everybody else has gone ahead and wrote (the obituary), so let's make it official," Smith said with a wry smile. "Everyone has second-guessed me so many times that I'm a little angry. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I know of people who would be real slick and be nice to me, and then second-guess me behind my back.
"Trying to describe how bitter a season this has been is tough. Maybe because of the high expectations I had and also having people second-guess me all year makes it worse. It's been a brutal, brutal year. Sometimes, during the year, I wished to hell I could take a plane back to Hogansville (Smith's hometown in Georgia) and stay there."
Smith's problems began when he injured his left knee and had 60% of his lateral meniscus cartilage removed. The rehabilitation took longer than expected, and the fact that Smith returned for two games in December apparently impeded his progress.
Then, Smith said, he showed the first symptoms of his virus on Dec. 22, after what he said were several days of multiple rehabilitation workouts. Smith said he felt unusually tired.
It was diagnosed Monday by an infectious disease specialist at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood that Smith was in the final stages of a rare form of mononucleosis that is difficult to detect.
Smith said he was examined by doctors in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Louisville before a diagnosis could be made.
"I've been through both the knee and the virus," Smith said. "It takes a hell of a lot to depress me, but this has. They said I was psychosomatic. I didn't know what that was. They don't teach that word at Louisville. I had to ask Ron (Grinker, his agent) what it meant. He said it was being a faker. I heard that word a lot. But I knew there was something wrong with me."
Before Smith's injury turned into illness, Grinker and Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer had already started negotiating a new contract. Smith becomes a free agent after this season.
Recently, however, the sides have not scheduled any contract talks.
"I want to play for the Clippers next year but, if the past holds true to form, I'll have to bring in an offer sheet," said Smith, who was signed to an offer sheet by Denver before last season, only to have the Clippers match it and keep Smith. "I don't want to do it that way, but that's the way it looks. We've broken off contract talks."
Without Smith, the Clippers were able to come back from as much as a 12-point second-half deficit to take a lead midway through the fourth quarter and hold off Seattle.
Marques Johnson led the Clippers with 23 points, and rookie center Benoit Benjamin was again a force with 19 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocked shots. It was the third straight game in which Benjamin has had 16 rebounds, which couldn't please Chaney more.
"Ben's really coming through," Chaney said. "I don't want to get too excited with Ben because I might get let down. I'm just going to let him keep going. I'm really proud of him." The Clippers trailed the SuperSonics, led by Gerald Henderson's 23 points, by seven points entering the fourth quarter before going to reserves Darnell Valentine and Michael Cage, both of whom helped slash Seattle's lead.
Seattle broadcaster Jimmy Jones suffered a heart attack at the Los Angeles hotel where the SuperSonics were staying Wednesday afternoon and was rushed to a local hospital. A Clipper spokesman said Jones, who had suffered three previous heart attacks, was listed as stable in the intensive care unit. . . . Former Laker great Elgin Baylor was Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling's courtside guest Wednesday night. . . . The Clippers play host to the Sacramento Kings Friday night at the Sports Arena.