Wednesday, November 3, 2004

NKU's Smith gains perspective

Former Highlands star returns to UK - as NKU basketball player

By Shannon Russell
Enquirer staff writer

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Derek Smith still remembers the kid, that 18-year-old Highlands prep star brimming with pride and potential as Division I basketball and football programs came courting.

Derek Smith as a prep hoops star at Highlands in the late 90s.
(Enquirer photo/Ernest Coleman)
The same kid who picked Kentucky football over UK basketball, earned All-Southeastern Conference honors as a sophomore tight end and left college early for the NFL. The kid who, undrafted, made a patchwork living on practice teams a lifetime after "assuming it would be easy to make a living in the NFL."

"You gain wisdom," Smith said, sitting at Regents Hall's press row after a Saturday basketball practice. "I wish I wouldn't have thought that way before, that things would be easy. I definitely became more mature."

He's 24 now, wizened, eager to pursue an education. The exact opposite of Derek Smith the Kid.

In an unexpected twist of fate he's on scholarship again, this time to play basketball for the Norse. Today his former life meets his present life as NKU travels to Kentucky for an inaugural exhibition game at Rupp Arena at 7 p.m. The pairing results from an NCAA amendment prohibiting Division I exhibitions against non-college opponents, to eliminate potential recruiting advantages.

Derek Smith said Wildcats coach Tubby Smith twice welcomed him to try out for the basketball team after the player committed to the school's football program in 1999. Derek Smith grew up in awe of Kentucky sports - including his first love, basketball - but said he wanted to explore a future in football.

"I have no regrets about not playing UK basketball. Sometimes I'd go to games and get caught up in the excitement, sitting there thinking, 'It would be neat to be a part of this.' But never did I think I made the wrong decision," Smith said.

Bengals' Derek Smith is tackled by teammate Khalid Abdullah during their intrasquad scrimmage August 1, 2003 at training camp in Georgetown, Kentucky.
(Enquirer photo/Jeff Swinger)
Smith signed with the St. Louis Rams in January after stints with the Bengals and Indianapolis Colts. He didn't report. He wanted an education, a way to parlay sports into a stable job. He began a sports business degree at NKU without plans to play college sports again.

When Norse coach Dave Bezold learned Smith still had more than two years of basketball eligibility, and was playing pickup ball up to four times a week, he brought him on board. Hard to ignore that kind of talent, Bezold said.

"We got lucky," Bezold said.

Senior guard Mike Kelsey was shocked. He and Smith played against each other as high schoolers in a summer basketball league, but he thought Smith was long removed from his career 2,299 points and 974 rebounds at Highlands.

"You'd think a guy who played at professional (football) camps before, and in college, would be a certain way," Kelsey said. "I was anxious to see how he would come around. But you know, he was just one of the guys. It's unbelievable how he molded into the team."

Playing organized ball for the first time in six years has been no cakewalk physically, Smith said. Recent back spasms, possibly tentially from years of gridiron pounding, have been the toughest to contend with.

You can still tell Smith was a football player, Bezold said, when he "instinctively throws football blocks instead of basketball screens." But he never talks about football, and downplays it when it's brought up. "He wants that part of his life," Kelsey said, "to be over."

Smith said he's ready to play in Rupp Arena as a collegian, with a different perspective than playing state tournament games there as a Bluebird. He's excited to talk to coaches and see players he still roots for. "I'm not going down there with revenge on my mind," he said.

This Smith, older and seasoned, sees his future with a peacefulness he lacked as the kid. "This guy is more mature than our seniors. He's seen more of the world than anyone in our locker room," Bezold said. "He's at a different phase of his life."

NKU at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. today.

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington.

TV: FSN Ohio, Insight Ch. 6.

Radio: WSAI-AM (1530), WIOK-FM (107.5).

Tickets: $22 and $29. Call (859) 257-1818.


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