Photos by Melissa Lawson/Bizzzey Bee Photography
How about feeling a little older for a moment? Do you perhaps wonder where yesterday went? Maybe reflect on your history while remembering the career of a familiar face in Central Indiana?
If so, then let’s play a Hoosier edition of What’s My Line?
• It has been 25 years since the Indiana Pacers selected this Netherlands native with the second pick in the 1988 collegiate draft. (Yes, he still remains the only NBA player ever drafted from the Red Foxes of Marist College.)
• It has been 13 years since this towering Zionsville resident last played in the National Basketball Association. (Indeed, his last appearance was in Game Six of the 2000 NBA Finals when he was sparring against someone named Shaquille O’Neal.)
• He is now 47 years old. (That’s right, 47.)
• And hold on to your jumper – not only does he have a 20-year-old daughter (Jasmine) in college, but his son is rapidly becoming one of the state’s premier high school basketball players as a junior at the local high school on Mulberry Street.
Somehow, surprisingly, the onetime Dunking Dutchman, Rik Smits of Netherlands, Marist and Pacer fame, is entering middle age and appears on the verge of surrendering the Smits family basketball title to his son, another 7-footer, 17-year-old Derrik. The letter “c” may be forgotten occasionally in the Dutch alphabet, but there is another sighting of a Smits on the American basketball landscape. The name Smits is not disappearing anytime soon. In fact, it may again cast a huge shadow in Indiana and beyond.
“He [Derrik] can become as good as he wants,” assessed one Hoosier Crossroads Conference coach. “He is getting better and better.”
That is wonderful news for the college recruiting crowd that is always circling overhead for potential centers. Derrik recently visited Xavier and Clemson, while Butler, Purdue, Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and numerous NCAA Division I scouts have been following his exploits since his sophomore season when he led the Eagles in blocked shots while averaging 7.1 points. The younger Smits enters his junior season three inches taller and filled out to 220 pounds.
Derrik is also fresh off a robust and competitive AAU summer season with the Spiece Indy Heat team. “I found out that I can get better at a lot of things,” he said, “especially rebounding and consistency.”
Ironically, the recruiting saga for the second Smits is unfolding differently than the one encountered by his father almost three decades ago. Despite being over 7 feet tall and playing as a 16-year-old for the Netherlands National Juniors Team, Rik was missing from virtually all American NCAA Division I recruiting lists. The pipeline from Europe to the United States was barely dribbling talent in 1982.
“No one saw me play,” remembered Rik. “They didn’t know who I was, so I sent out a lot of letters. Finally, I got one offer.”
The offer came from Marist, an outpost in Poughkeepsie, New York. His height (7’ 4″) and skills (a deadly shooter) were not overlooked by NBA scouts in 1988 when the Pacers snared him with the No. 2 pick, hoping in time to train the Dutchman to replace the injury-riddled Steve Stipanovich someday at center.
That forecast changed dramatically during Rik’s rookie season. After an injury early in the season
knocked out Stipanovich, Rik became the Pacers’ starting center for the next 12 seasons. Ironically, injuries (foot) also forced him into retirement after the 2000 NBA championship finals.
“I could see it coming,” said Rik, who averaged 14.8 points; shot over 50 percent from the field; and made the NBA All-Star Team in 1998 during his illustrious career as Reggie Miller’s sidekick. “My injuries were getting worse. I had my mind made up [during the playoffs] that it was time to retire.”
And he was not alone in retiring. Larry Bird left the coaching world after the six-game loss to the Lakers.
“I owe a lot to Bird,” said Rik, who played for nine different coaches in 12 years with the Pacers. “I had a great time playing for him.”
With basketball now in the rear mirror, Rik turned his attention in 2001 to another passion. He returned to a childhood hobby, racing in dirt track motorcross events throughout the Midwest. He even constructed a track behind his Zionsville home. “Once you’re in the NBA, they’re not too keen on you riding,” he recalled in an interview in 2011. “I was combining an interest and a hobby.”
Rik was also a talented rider despite his vast size which forced him to be a sit-down rider because if he stood, he could not reach the handle bars. He was known as a “mudder” on the tracks. “You couldn’t miss me,” admitted Rik, who won races and honors on the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association. “I was a bat out of hell when I took off. I was hooked.”
But he again went one-on-one with pain. This time, his struggles involved recovery from back surgery nine years ago to repair two cracked bones. The pain eventually forced the world’s tallest motorcycle rider to the sidelines. His competitive biking became history, but basketball would again knock at his door. Son Derrik was sprouting and needed a tutor to hone his big man skills.
“He’s way ahead of where I was at his age,” said Rik. “He has more range than I had and can do the pick and roll and other things that I didn’t do at his age. I was more of a back to the basket player. He has made tremendous strides.”
The elder Smits also recognizes the shortcomings of the younger one. That includes consistency, battling fatigue and rebounding. Derrik averaged less than three rebounds in 16 games as a slender sophomore. That number will climb, promised father.
“He can rebound,” noted Rik, who also encountered rebounding critics as a professional. “He needs to keep his hands up and work on his conditioning. It will come.”
Zionsville head coach Shaun Busick agrees with father’s assessment. “Derrik needs to get stronger, and his rebounding needs to improve. He needs to play lower both offensively and defensively. He has to keep his butt down. But he has all the tools to be a great player. He has a chance to make the game a career.”
Positive reinforcement like Busick’s is a trait that the former NBA center wants to be a part of his coaching philosophy: Stay positive with his son and others whom he assists.
“I try not to be in the middle when it comes to coaching,” said Rik. “I have learned to be positive. I try to help with advice when they want it, but I also know Derrik and others have to learn on their own.”
Derrik is not the only Eagle in the Smits’ school of big men. Rik will assist with frontcourt players Alex Sibila; 6’ 6″, 270-pound Josh Dunlop; and a freshman named Cassius Smits. (Cassius is the son of Rik’s sister and is Derrik’s cousin. “He is very active, very quick,” said Uncle Rik of Cassius.)
As for his coaching techniques with son, nephew and others, the elder Smits keeps the message simple. “I try to help where I can,” said Rik, who sits in the stands and not on the bench on game nights at Zionsville. “If nothing else, I can be a big obstacle for them to shoot over in practice.”
Busick is a big fan of his tallest assistant who has been part of the Eagle family for eight seasons. “He has been great with the kids and the coaches and is just one of the guys,” said Busick, who connected with Smits during Derrik’s AAU seasons in the sixth and seventh grades. “We have expanded his role. He is highly knowledgeable, and we believe he is one of the top experts in the world on post play.”
Presently, Busick, the Smits trio and the Eagles are concerned about the 2013-14 season and the treacherous Hoosier Crossroads Conference. Brownsburg and Zionsville are expected to be the league favorites, but not too far back in the predictions are Hamilton Southeastern, Noblesville, Fishers and Avon.
“We believe we can compete with anybody in the state,” said Derrik of the Eagles, who lost top scorer Andrew Dakich to graduation.
“We like where we are going with this group,” said Busick. “Derrik will play a big role for us. The sky’s the limit for him.”
And for Derrik, his biggest challenges will still include banging away in one-on-one games with a tall familiar rival, his father. The two will match skills at Rik’s remodeled home on the west side of town. Besides housing the elder Smits’ muscle cars, John Deere tractor and American roadway memorabilia, the renovated home will include a half-court basketball gymnasium.
So who would win this family confrontation? The 17-year-old or the 47-year-old?
“It depends upon the day,” said father. “It would be close. If he’s having a good day, I could be in trouble. Someone would win probably four games to three games.”
But son sees it differently and sees the advantage shifting to his side. “He’s slow,” said Derrik. At least he didn’t say “old!”
10 Q&A for Zionsville’s tallest father-son combination – 7’ 4″ Rik Smits and 7’ Derrik (Actually, nine questions for the father and one question for the son)
Rik, what was your greatest personal moment in the NBA?
“It had to be the last-second shot against Orlando in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals at Market Square Arena. I will always remember that shot. The place went wild.”
What about as a team? What Pacer moment is at the top of your list?
“It had to be when Reggie [Miller] scored his eight points in 18 seconds against the Knicks [Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals that wiped out a presumably secure six-point lead for the hometown team]. It was unbelievable. The fans are usually very cocky in New York, but they were real quiet the next couple of days.”
What was it like to play against Shaquille O’Neal during his prime?
“Shaq was tough to guard, and he could jump so fast. The first time I played against him, he blocked a hook shot of mine. A hook shot! That made an impression on me.”
You also played against another giant on the court, 7’ 7″ Manute Bol, who towered over you? Any special memories of Manute?
“Yes, he was always talking. Nothing bad. Just talking.”
What NBA player do you wish you could have played with during your career?
“It would have been cool to have played with Michael Jordan. But I can’t complain. I was able to play with Reggie.”
You wore two numbers when you were with the Pacers. Can you tell us about how you started with 24 and ended with 45?
“I wore 45 at Marist, but Chuck Person already had 45 with the Pacers. And if you know Chuck, he wasn’t going to give it up, so I took 24. But when Chuck was traded for Pooh Richardson, Pooh was upset because he couldn’t have 24, so I gave him 24, and I took 45.”
What are your observations about the current Pacer center, Roy Hibbert?
“I see him getting better and better. I was asked to work with him, but I couldn’t because of my back. Besides, he can do things both left- and right-handed. I wasn’t good with my left hand.”
After retiring from the Pacers, you became a playground legend, playing in numerous gymnasiums around Central Indiana. What was your best game as a Joe Hoops?
(Laughing) “I once scored 62 in a Jocks vs. Docs game.”
Why are you still in Indiana?
“I have always liked Indiana. I am not a big city guy. I prefer a smaller town atmosphere.”
Derrik, what is your favorite memory of your dad’s professional career?
“I really don’t remember much. I was three when he retired.”