Nolan Smith is the most outspoken, open personality on Duke's team. He tweets often and each one, seemingly, is never sans an exclamation point or two. Smith's demeanor is somewhat surprising given the story you may heard about at this point: He doesn't have a father. Smith's dad, Derek, died aboard a cruise ship when Smith was 8 years old. The Nolan Smith story is one that we can easily cling to, but this team winning four games in a basketball tournament doesn't make the fact Smith has lived without a father for 12 years any less sad or significant.
Derek Smith had a basketball pedigree that he passed on to his son. He was a nine-year veteran of the NBA, most notably playing with the Washington Bullets, but he's become well-known as of late because of his national championship 30 years ago while playing under Denny Crum at the University of Louisville. There is an opportunity for near-perfect symbiosis between that title team and Duke, should it win Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Louisville's championship was won in Indianapolis, at Market Square Arena. It was the Cardinals' first championship in basketball. Now, with Duke two wins away from the program's fourth title, the primary story line injected into this year's perennially hateable team is the loveable story about Smith, his father and it all coming full circle in a cosmic sort of way.
This culmination has been on Smith's mind since the beginning of the year, when his mother told him about the 30-year anniversary and what she thought he and his teammates could do. In the days since Duke defeated Baylor, Smith hasn't reflected on the coincidence because he hasn't had time to — or hasn't allowed himself to — yet.
"I haven't thought about it too much yet, to be honest. Being in the Final Four hasn't really hit me yet, and neither has this being the 30-year anniversary of my father playing and winning in Indianapolis," he said over the phone while riding on the team bus to the airport. "I've been using [my dad winning a title in Indianapolis] as motivation and the coaches have been using that to get me motivated every day."
Smith tries to keep his father on the court with him at all times. He does that in a spiritual way, but also a physical one. In some aspects, he can't help it; he said he's reminded frequently about things he does that mimic his Pops.
"I hear that all the time about certain things," he said. "I hear it from my sister, my mom, friends of my dad. I walk just like him, they say. Everybody really says I really smile like him too and have the same mannerisms. It's true: I'm just a miniature version of my dad. He was 6-6. I'm only 6-2."
And aside from the unintentional tributes, he has a memorial on his right bicep that's nearly eight inches long and in praise of the man who never saw him reach an age where he could drive a car, dunk a basketball or lose all of his baby teeth. The tattoo on his right arm has his father's likeness inked in with the phrase "Forever Watching" put above it.
"I got it because it was something that was important to me," Smith said. "[I wanted my dad] to be there with me. And I know he's on my side and watching me. I can wonder how we would be doing in this situation; how he would have handled it. For this, I want it to be like father, like son."
Johnny Dawkins, an assistant coach at Duke at former teammate of Derek Smith, has been the closest thing to a father Smith's had since his father left him the day before the family's cruise ship was due to return to the shore. In the wake of that death, many NBA players who were close with Derek Smith took the young Nolan and became mentors-but none like Dawkins, who has been a massive factor and positive influence on Smith's life.
"He's been uncle Johnny to me for so long," Smith said. "He was a huge influence. My mom did remarry and my stepfather's been a part of my life as well. But Johnny, he had a hand in me coming to Duke. And even before Duke he was really that person that had a close relationship with my father and had a close relationship with him and helped me understand my father through him. He knew what my father would tell me and he was that guy I could really listen to as a father because he knew so much about the both of us."
Death has been around the Duke team this season, too. Andre Dawkins' (no relation to Johnny) sister, Lacy, was killed in a car crash in December. For Smith, it wasn't an opportunity — it was a responsibility. It was his chance to step into a role he had not been in before.
"When that happened I was definitely there for [Andre]," Smith said. "I had to be. I play with a heavy heart every night, and when that happened to Andre I was there for him and helped him get through it and tried to be the big brother for him."
But this team hasn't been a one-note squad that's been fighting for respect, pushing past depression due to the death of Lacy Dawkins. This group mixes business with pleasure and is a team head coach Mike Krzyzewksi has said is "the closest group" of any he's ever coached.
"The atmosphere with the team has been the same as it's been all year," Smith said. "This is a regular road trip right now. We're on the bus for the next one. We've already won three championships this year (the preseason NIT, the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament), and this is really nothing new to us. We haven't thought about what Duke hasn't done in [recent years] or what it needs to do. We're only thinking about what this Duke team wants to do."
And as for his Twitter fascination, Smith said he uses it because it allows fans of him and the team to see who he is in the best possible way.
"When players came out of college I saw NBA guys use it and I thought it would be a great way to be connected with my fans and my personality," he said. "It lets my fans know me and helps how my fanbase looks at me, really. And it's consistent and a constant with the way I am and the way I carry myself."
Given how many interviews he's gone through talking about this very subject, Smith's character and willingness to talk about his father's death over and over and over speaks more to his character than he ever could with 140 of them.