Nolan Smith was searching. Just where was Kevin Johnson, anyway?
Someone pointed the Portland Trail Blazers’ second-year guard in the direction of the 76ers’ locker room Monday night, before Portland lost to the Sixers in the Wells Fargo Center. Turn right and go through this door, Smith was told. The trainer’s room is straight ahead.
Smith did as he was instructed, and before he knew it Johnson – “K.J.,” as everybody calls the Sixers’ head athletic trainer – was standing before him.
Johnson is a relentlessly pleasant man, always smiling, always ready to dispense a kind word. But the mere sight of Smith made him brighten that much more.
“Lookin’ good, man,” he said, as the two men hugged.
Their meeting was brief. Their connection is everlasting.
Mr. Kevin – that’s what Nolan used to call him, even after he had become a star at Oak Hill Academy and Duke, two storied basketball programs. The nickname harkened back to a day when Nolan was young and his dad had died and he needed some moorings.
“K.J.,” Nolan said, “was someone who became like a father figure in my life.”
Emblazoned on Smith’s right arm is a tattoo bearing his father’s likeness underneath the words, “Forever Watching.”
Turns out a great many others have been, too.
* * *
To understand the force of nature that was Nolan’s father Derek -- a one-time Sixer -- it is necessary to retreat to an auxiliary gym at Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, in the summer of 1983. Smith, who had grown up poor and fatherless in the town of Hogansville, Ga., had nonetheless gouged out a career at the University of Louisville and was part of the Cardinals’ national championship club in 1980.
But he was gaining little traction in the NBA, having been cut after an unproductive rookie season with the Warriors in ’82-83. So now he was going to work out for the San Diego Clippers’ first-year coach, Jim Lynam.
Lynam, once the coach at St. Joe’s, later the coach of the Sixers and now a Comcast SportsNet studio analyst, had agreed to host the workout only grudgingly, as a favor to then-Trail Blazers general manager Stu Inman. Summer-league play was about to begin and the Clippers’ roster was already set. But a friend is a friend, and a favor’s a favor. And, Lynam had to admit, Smith made an immediate impression upon him; he responded to everything he was told with yes-sir this and no-sir that.
“And he didn’t look at me in the eye,” Lynam recalled in an interview a few months ago, “he’s looking at me in the brain, with this penetrating stare.”
Must have been 110 degrees in that gym, Lynam said. Maybe hotter. But he and Smith cleared some weightlifting equipment off the court and went to work. When Derek was asked to execute a few dribble drives he didn’t just lay the ball up, he dunked it -- hard. It seemed to Lynam that he was bent on tearing the basket down, that he wanted to make a statement about his ability to play in the NBA.
He was less impressive when asked to make spot-up jumpers, but Lynam then told him to incorporate a dribble or two, and attempt some pull-ups. And then Smith began raining in shot after shot after shot.
Lynam had seen enough. He sent Smith on his way and in that pre-cell-phone era went looking for a payphone, so that he might call his wife Kay in Manhattan Beach.
And on a typically cloudless Southern California day, he told her this: “I may have been hit in the head by lightning.”
By ’84-85, Smith was one of the finest shooting guards in the NBA, averaging 22 points per game for Lynam’s Clippers (by then based in Los Angeles) and memorably schooling a rookie named Michael Jordan early in the season. Though Chicago won the game, Smith outscored Jordan, 33-20, and threw down a YouTube-worthy dunk.
The next year, he started off even better, averaging 23.5 points through the first 11 games.
Then his left knee crumpled, and with it, his career.
He drifted to Sacramento, then the Sixers -- there to be reunited with Lynam, who at that point was coaching a team starring Charles Barkley and featuring a stellar supporting cast (Rick Mahorn, Mike Gminski, Johnny Dawkins, et al.). Smith served as leader of the second-unit, locker-room counterbalance to loudmouths like Barkley and Mahorn, mentor to young players like Scott Brooks and defensive stopper: Open In Case of Michael Jordan.
The Sixers breezed to an Atlantic Division championship and won a round in the playoffs. But Smith’s balky knee would allow him to play just a single game in a second-round series against Jordan’s Bulls, and Chicago took the Sixers out in five.
Then Smith was on the move again, playing for the Celtics at the tail end of the ’90-91 season. His defensive work against Indiana Pacers star Chuck Person caught the attention of Kevin Johnson, by then the Pacers’ assistant trainer. Even now Johnson can remember screaming at the refs, calling Derek a hack, wondering how in creation this guy could possibly get away with such mayhem.
Gimpy-legged but game, Smith slowed Person just enough. And the Celtics won the series in seven.
Three years later, after Lynam summoned him to be his assistant coach with the Washington Bullets, Smith made the acquaintance of Washington’s trainer … Kevin Johnson.
“Man you’re not going to believe this,” Johnson told him. “I couldn’t stand you when you were with the Celtics. You were hacking all my players up.”
Smith laughed, and they immediately became friends. K.J. remembers that Derek was “rock solid,” teaching the young Bullets -- Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and the rest -- about what it took to be a pro. And Johnson remembers Derek always had Nolan in tow, that the younger Smith always tagged along to practices and games. Nolan would ask Johnson to tape his ankles. He would stretch with the players and go through the layup line.
More than once it has been written that Derek, a no-nonsense dad, put Nolan through his paces on the court, that he was always reminding him that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing to the best of one’s ability.
Johnson remembers something else, too. He remembers that Derek had never been on a boat until K.J. took him out on the Chesapeake Bay in his 24-footer, shortly before Smith and his family -- wife Monica and daughter Sydney, in addition to Nolan -- went on an Atlantic cruise with Bullets fans in the summer of 1996.
Derek Smith didn’t survive that cruise, dying of a heart attack on Aug. 9, 1996. The cause of death was later determined to be an allergic reaction to seasickness medication. He was 34.
Nolan was eight at the time. The last day of his dad’s life, the younger Smith played a 14-year-old in a game of one-on-one on the ship’s deck. The kid was bigger and stronger, and he had his way. Nolan would later tell ESPN.com’s Tom Friend that he grew so frustrated, he fired the ball into the ocean. But before he knew it, Derek was at his side -- he had been looking on from afar, forever watching. And he told his son such tantrums were unacceptable, that nobody was going to want to play with him if he acted like that.
From that point forward, Nolan said, he always tried to be the best teammate he could be.
The Bullets extended him the same courtesy, rallying around their tiniest teammate after Derek’s death. It was everybody -- Webber, Howard, Gheorghe Muresan, Tim Legler. And it was K.J., too. He would pick Nolan up for games and often give him rides home as well.
And they would talk.
“Some of the talks were … I couldn’t answer all the questions,” Johnson said Monday. “Like, ‘I couldn’t believe it happened. … How do you think it happened?’ We just tried to make it seem like he wasn’t going to lose that part of his life.”
“There’s no telling where I’d be without those guys,” Smith said, ticking off the names. “A lot of the guys on that team just stayed in my ear and made sure I stayed on path. They helped me a lot, to grow into the man I am today.”
His career gained momentum. He became a star at Duke, winning a national championship in 2010, exactly 30 years after his dad won his.
A first-round pick of the Blazers in 2011, he has struggled to date -- this season he has appeared in just 32 games. But all deep subs understand that if they are not going to sweat during games, they must do so beforehand. Prior to Monday’s tipoff Smith could be found on the Wells Fargo Center court getting some shots up, or in the hallway outside the Blazers’ locker room doing flexibility exercises with some teammates.
The other thing deep subs understand is that they are always being evaluated, no matter the circumstances -- that someone is forever watching.
Then again, Nolan Smith always knew that.