November 30, 2011
LostLettermen.com, the college sports fan site and player database, regularly contributes to Ball Don't Lie. Here's a look at former NBA player Rik Smits.
Rik Smits spent over a decade in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, where he was affectionately known as "The Dunking Dutchman."
Eleven years removed from his final NBA game, his nickname might need to be updated to "The Dirt-Biking Dutchman"; because these days you will find Smits competing in motocross races while still living in the Indianapolis area.
That's right, the 45-year-old, 7-foot-4 former NBA center that weighs nearly 300 pounds is now tearing it up on dirt tracks.
A longtime motorcycle enthusiast, Smits started riding competitively in 2001, just a year after hanging it up on the hardwood, he found the need to keep his competitive juices flowing.
"That's exactly it," Smits said last week. "I was combining an interest and a hobby that I've always had with competing again."
Growing up in the Netherlands and riding trails with his moped for fun, Smits kept away from bikes during his basketball career -- "Once you're in the NBA, they're not too keen on you riding it," Smits deadpanned -- but started competing in vintage racing after retirement. Just two years after Smits started, he received an award for outstanding cross-country performance. Smits has since worked his way up to the top amateur class of modern bike racing for his age group. He's such an avid racer he even had a track built behind his house.
But unlike the NBA, which is a game for giants, motocross favors competitors light enough not to weigh down the bike and small enough to maneuver it around.
Needless to say, all that extra baggage for Smits makes things a little challenging.
"I try to set up my bike [and] make it work for me a little better… but there's only so much you can do," said Smits, who is so tall he can't stand up on his bike like most riders because then he can't reach the handlebars. "You can't really start playing with the frame or anything like that because then you lose a lot of the qualities of the bike. So it's definitely a challenge. I'm the guy that, if it's muddy, that's when I excel."
Yes, Smits is a "mudder." He explains that when there's rain and mud, his long legs help him stay upright on the bike and navigate the course.
"I don't like to see that bright sunny day with perfect conditions because then I know there's always a smaller, lighter guy [that] can out-ride me," he said.
Speaking now, it's easy to see why Smits was such a fan favorite during his NBA days. He's very unassuming and polite and has a dry sense of humor. Smits doesn't attend many Pacers games and is rarely in the public eye, but he's hard to miss and is still a celebrity around town.
Smits has come a long way from being an unknown drafted No. 2 overall out of Marist in the 1988 NBA draft behind Danny Manning. He lived up to the selection during a very solid career with the Pacers in which he battled through constant injuries to average 14.8 PPG over 12 seasons as Reggie Miller's sidekick.
But let's be honest.
Smits will always be best remembered as the goofy-looking giant with the awesome nickname and equally amazing mullet.
As for the present, Smits is fortunate to be able to ride after all the medical problems he's had over the years. Smits' left knee has been surgically repaired, size 21 feet have been treated for nerve damage and his aching back continues to limit his travel because he can't take long trips in the car.
Yet, Smits says his body still feels good riding a bike. And as long as his health holds up, Smits hopes there is plenty more motocross riding ahead.
"I've seen a guy in Arizona one year and he was 93 years old," Smits said. "So as long as you can go, they let you race."
Most read on LostLettermen.com: