If you play the game of basketball long enough, you’ll inevitably be put into a conundrum while playing defense under the rim. You could get dunked on at any moment. While folks will generally stress over what could be worse, getting crossed up or getting dunked on, one could happen anytime you play defense on the perimeter, while the other is more circumstantial based on your defensive location.
Sure, Brandon Knight proved that a person’s ambition (and bad luck) could net a baptism at the rim. Yes, I remember Aaron Gordon dunking over that NBA mascot in the dunk contest. However, when NBA players come out and say that you got to get out the way, I began to think if some of the all-time greats ever got dunked on…
I remember that one time at LeBron James’ skills academy when LeBron might’ve caught a facial from Jordan Crawford…
I remember the only time Shaquille O’Neal remembers himself getting dunked on, courtesy of Derrick Coleman…
I remember that behind-the-back dunk greatness that Chris Webber gave Charles Barkley that one time…
This is just to name a few superstars who caught it. But….what about Michael Jordan? Did he ever catch a dunk in the face?
Derek Smith’s story is one that many an overlooked second-round pick will easily recognize. Smith, one of Louisville’s top players from their 1980 NCAA Championship squad, was probably the fourth most recognizable player on the roster. There was Dr. Dunkenstein a.k.a. Darrell Griffith and that 48-inch vertical of his, and there were the McCray brothers (Scooter and Rodney) who also got shine. Yet, there was Smith, a solid 6’6″ and 220-pound forward who was taken in the 2nd-round by the Golden State Warriors. A position change to power forward and 154 minutes later, he was cut.
The Los Angeles Clippers offered Smith an olive branch, and Smith delivered on a second opportunity with the chance to now play guard. A 22.1 scoring in the 1984-85 season drew the admiration of a certain rookie playing in Chicago, that being Michael Jordan. Many remember MJ’s first encounter with Smith when he made one of the most ridiculous made layups of all-time, but Jordan was cognizant of the battle that was had between Smith and himself, and when MJ returned to face the Clippers on the road Air Jordan decided to make a personal point:
“Derek Smith is the most underrated player in the NBA. I predict he’ll make the All-Star team this year. He’s got all the tools to be a great player, except for one.”
“Which one?” someone asked.
“He doesn’t have any media attention,” Jordan said.
High praise for Smith, as the media attention would come a bit more, courtesy of the emerging prince of the NBA. However, Jordan’s praise for Smith wouldn’t save him from that awkward moment that we spoke about earlier, being caught under the rim at an inopportune moment, with the prospect of getting dunked on staring you dead in the face. Derek Smith had his moment, and he finished that moment in epic fashion.
Most folks know of Derek Smith because he’s also the father of former Duke All-American and current Portland Trail Blazers guard Nolan Smith. Others remember Smith because he died of a heart attack at age 34 while the Smith family was on a cruise ship near Bermuda. Yet few remember this moment which seemed to be the potential springboard for the elder Smith, who in the following season would average 23.5 points/game in the 1985-86 season before suffering a devastating knee injury that he’d never fully recover from.
On November 30th, Derek Smith briefly stood as the king of the hill, in the same way, that DeAndre Jordan or Harrison Barnes did previously this season as one’s physical supremacy can and must be cheered in a loud fashion.
On November 30th, Michael Jordan briefly stood at the bottom of the hill, part innocent bystander and part ambition went bad, as the world got the chance to gasp, cuss, laugh,
tweet, text and call a friend to talk about that time MJ got put on a poster.
*Seeing Bill Walton celebrate the way he did, in a Clippers uniform, gave me goosebumps. I can just imagine the awkward high-five exchange and hippie logic that Walton would’ve used in congratulating Smith. If only the court had mics on it in 1984.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”