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Nolan Smith heads to Louisville eager to embrace his late father’s legacy

After picking Duke over the Cardinals as a high school All-American, he is leaving to coach where his dad won an NCAA title in 1980

Just a day after the announcement that Nolan Smith was leaving Duke for Louisville, the Cardinals’ newest associate head coach reflected on what almost brought him to the campus 15 years ago. 

Smith, at the time, was an All-American guard who strongly considered playing basketball in the city where his late father, Derek Smith, had helped Louisville win the 1980 NCAA championship. The decision to avoid Louisville had nothing to do with basketball.

“My sister, Sydney, was in school there at the time and told me it was too emotional being there as Derek Smith’s daughter,” Smith told Andscape. “So I imagined going there as Derek Smith’s son who’s playing basketball and putting on the same uniform that he wore every single game. At that time, for me, that would have been a bit much.”

Smith, today, is more than ready to accept the challenge as he arrives at Louisville to work under Kenny Payne, the first Black head coach in the program’s history. It’s another step forward in the career of Smith, whose departure was announced just days after Duke was eliminated in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament that was the last game in the career of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.

When Smith arrived at Duke following a brief professional career (he played two seasons in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers) he was hired as a special assistant. He was named an assistant coach at Duke a year ago, quickly earning respect as one of college basketball’s most promising recruiters.

“He brings instant credibility from the standpoint of his playing career and coaching career,” said Marquette head coach Shaka Smart. “Look at the players that Duke has had in the time Nolan has been there. Not a lot of guys have coached and mentored that level of players.”

How big is the loss to Duke? Former Blue Devils point guard and ESPN analyst Jay Williams speculated — and this appears far-fetched — that Smith’s departure could lead Krzyzewski to unretire.

“It leaves a huge gap at Duke,” Williams said. “And the question is who fills that void from a recruiting perspective.”

For Smith, the 10 years he spent being closely associated with Krzyzewski — four as a player, six as a coach — gave him invaluable experience in running a successful program.

“My preparation will always be at an all-time high because of what I witnessed with Coach K,” Smith said. “Also, it was masterful how well he read people’s body language. Some guys were poked harder than others, and I was fortunate to be behind the scenes to see how he pushed the buttons on players to get the most out of them.”

Nolan Smith (left), who played at Duke under the retiring Mike Krzyzewski (right), was a key recruiter for the Blue Devils as an assistant coach.

Lance King/Getty Images

Smith said that while he had closely watched the happenings surrounding the Louisville program after Chris Mack’s departure in January, he didn’t really think about making a move until discussions that occurred after Duke’s season ended.

“I spoke to Coach K, and he knows I would like to be a head coach,” Smith said. “He told me this was a great business decision and a perfect setup for me to get to where I want to go.”

He goes to Louisville as the top assistant to Payne, who was hired as the Cardinals head coach after two seasons as an assistant with the New York Knicks.

To Louisville fans, Payne represents an era of winning for the school — as a freshman, he played on the team that won the 1986 NCAA title. To Smith, Payne has always been a mentor and family. It was an extension of the role Derek Smith assumed with Payne.

“My dad and Kenny were great, great friends, like brothers,” Smith said. “My dad took Kenny under his wing when he came to Louisville, and Kenny did the same with me when my father passed away.”

Derek Smith was an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets when he died in August 1996 while on a team cruise with his family. He had just finished his second season as an assistant with the Bullets after a nine-year NBA career.

“I couldn’t handle it at 18, but at 33 years old I actually invite all the reminders. I love hearing the stories, being told I look like my dad and having his close friends tell me how proud they are.”

— Nolan Smith on returning to Louisville where his father, Derek Smith, won the NCAA title in 1980

Smith was 8 years old when his father died, and was on that cruise with his older sister, Sydney, and his mother, Monica. In his dad’s absence, mentors who were part of Derek Smith’s basketball world helped the young Smith emerge as one of the standout high school players in the nation, earning All-America honors.

After that standout career in high school, Smith wasn’t emotionally ready to play for Louisville. But, after a successful playing and coaching career at Duke, Smith is ready to embrace the connection with his father.

“I couldn’t handle it at 18, but at 33 years old I actually invite all the reminders,” Smith said. “I love hearing the stories, being told I look like my dad and having his close friends tell me how proud they are.

“I’m definitely at peace with having all the comparisons with my dad. It’s amazing to know that I am, as a man, a father and a coach, being seen as being just like him.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.