Nolan Smith's prized possessions is the NCAA championship ring his late father Derek won three decades ago with Louisville.INDIANAPOLIS – One of Duke guard
What better way to honor him, Smith wonders, than to win one himself?
"That's the motivation," Smith said. "That's what I'm going to carry with me."
Smith's journey has brought him to Indianapolis, the same city where his father led the Cardinals to the 1980 national title before beginning his NBA career.
Now it's Nolan's turn to chase a championship of his own.
"I see a very high level of focus," teammate Lance Thomas said Friday. "Nolan's very confident right now, and this is probably the most focused I've seen him since he's been here. He has the look of a winner right now, and I can't always say he had that look."
Called his team's "unsung hero" by coach Mike Krzyzewski, Smith will be asked to lead the Blue Devils (33-5) against West Virginia (31-6) in Saturday night's NCAA semifinal.
Before the game, he'll pause to look at the tattoo on his right arm, the one that bears his father's likeness and the words, "Forever Watching."
And he'll ask himself how his dad would handle the situation.
"I take a lot of his game, his passion and the way he approached every game," Smith said. "It makes me feel good, when I take the court, I look down at my tattoo. ... I know he's always with me, every game."
The younger Smith has done his part to keep his father's memory alive — especially in the South Regional championship against Baylor. He watched a television feature on Derek Smith early that day and sent out a pregame tweet: "This one is for you Dad!! I love you! 43..... Let's go Duke!"
Then, he went out and had the game of his life, scoring a career-high 29 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 78-71 win that gave them their 11th Final Four appearance under Krzyzewski and first since 2004.
"I didn't let it over-emotionalize me, but I used it to my advantage, and I'll do the same thing" in the Final Four, Smith said.
Then, for an extra jolt of inspiration, he said he plans to glance at his dad's championship ring, which he brought with him to Indianapolis. The diamond-laden gold ring has Smith's name and uniform No. 43 on it.
"I look at it before I do anything, really," he said.
At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Nolan Smith is about four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than his father, who as a sophomore forward won an NCAA title here before a nine-year NBA career with the Clippers in both San Diego and Los Angeles, plus Sacramento, Philadelphia and Boston.
"We watch the YouTube clip where his dad dunks on Michael Jordan," Duke's Jon Scheyer said. "The thing that stands out to me is how much bigger Nolan's dad is than Nolan. I never let him hear the end of that."
Nolan Smith had just turned 8 when he went on a cruise with his parents. While on the ship, Derek Smith died of an apparent heart attack at age 34.
It wasn't until last year when a television network produced a tribute to Derek Smith that his son took some significant steps forward, allowing him to open up and discuss some of his feelings without having to go over every painful detail.
The special "was a great cleansing thing for Nolan — it lifted a big burden from Nolan, because it told the story in a very good way, and he didn't have to tell the story," Krzyzewski said. "He never wanted to tell the story. ... I called (Smith) up, I met with him. I didn't know what it would do to him.
"And then, as soon as I sat down with him, I said, 'Holy mackerel, this is good.' He said, 'Coach, it was great.' ... It conjured up good feelings, strength. And whether he said 'I'm doing this for my dad' or whatever, it was the feelings that it prompted and evoked," he said. "I think (playing in Indianapolis is) a very special thing. It shouldn't be his only motivation, but the fact that it is a motivation, that's great. That is a positive thing."