When Rik Smits first arrived in Indiana, it was just like being
back on the playground in Eindhoven, Holland: Everyone was
picking on him. The fans booed him because he wasn't Danny
Manning. The referees treated him as if he had hand-checked
their wives. The reporters pleaded with the Pacers to ship him
out of town.
One writer called him Reek Smits. And they all wanted to know,
What good is this long, tall Dutch import? He was 7'4", with
soft hands, quick feet and a fat contract, a big guy from tiny
Marist College who just couldn't seem to step up into the small
class of elite NBA centers. Never would, they said.
He was compared to Chuck Nevitt and Uwe Blab and considered a
waste of the second overall pick in the 1988 draft (Manning was
the first). And Smits gave everyone in Indianapolis an easy
target because he refused to fight back. He was making great
money, enjoying his hobby of collecting old cars and just having
a good time. Complain? What did he have to complain about? Life
was too good to let a few hecklers ruin it. He tuned out the
boos and shrugged off the cheap shots and further annoyed his
detractors, who took this to mean he just didn't care.
But last season something unexpected happened: Smits emerged as
a bona fide NBA star, posting career highs in scoring (17.9
points per game) and rebounding (7.7), and holding his own
against the league's best centers. Even Pacer president Donnie
Walsh, who gambled the No. 2 pick on a rail-thin kid who hadn't
touched a basketball until he was 15 years old, admits he is
surprised that Smits survived the mental and emotional grind of
his first few seasons. "He is more than I ever expected, in one
sense," Walsh says. "I have never seen one player take so much
abuse. Never. The fans killed him, the press killed him,
different coaches killed him. Writers were saying, 'He can't
play. Get rid of him.' This was going on for four or five years,
but Rik never got discouraged."
David Benner, the writer who dreamed up the name Reek, is now
the Pacers' p.r. director. Benner and Smits often dine together
on the road, and Benner recently owned up to coining the
disparaging nickname. Smits laughed at the jab. "If I was as
sensitive as some guys," he says, smiling and pointing at
Benner, "I probably wouldn't even talk to him."
When you are 6'10" at age 15, you get used to standing out in a
crowd. Smits is pretty sure of one thing: On their most ornery
days, the fans in Market Square Arena can't be any crueler than
the kids back home in Eindhoven who routinely ragged the
mild-mannered Smits because of his height. "I never really let
it get to me," he says. "I know that's the way life goes. You've
got to learn to take the ups and downs. I went through a lot in
Holland, so this was nothing new to me."
The only thing new to Smits these days is all the supporters.
He's got a million of them. It took a while, but no one is
talking about his potential anymore. Smits helped the Pacers
into the Eastern Conference finals last spring, with his
crowning moment coming in Game 1 of Indiana's second-round
series with the Knicks. The soft-spoken center displayed a vast
offensive arsenal that day, outscoring Patrick Ewing 34-11 in
front of a carnivorous Madison Square Garden crowd. The Pacers
won the game when Reggie Miller buried two dramatic
three-pointers in the span of 3.1 seconds, but Smits had made it
As a college student in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about 90 miles north
of Manhattan, Smits had heard a lot about Ewing. He watched
Knicks games on TV. His Marist team even played in the Garden a
couple of times. David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon were, for
the most part, strangers to him; Ewing was everything he wanted
to be. "Early on, I don't think Rik felt like he could play with
Ewing," says Walsh. "It's only in the last couple of years that
Rik realized it. And I think Ewing knows it."
And Ewing isn't the only one. While the Orlando Magic waited to
take on the winner of the Pacer-Knick series, an Orlando
Sentinel headline proclaimed: smits poses tougher matchup for
shaq. In the end, the Pacers couldn't handle the Magic, but
Smits's per-game averages of 18.3 points and 6.1 rebounds proved
he could hold his own against O'Neal.
Smits was just 17 when he met Marist coach Mike Perry in
Holland. He was also 7'3", so Perry offered him a scholarship
before the Dutchman had even set foot in the United States. His
first visit was his trip to school to begin his freshman year,
which, as it turned out, was a violation of NCAA rules. The
school was allowed to pay for a recruiting visit, which Smits
had never taken, but not for his one-way trip to begin classes
in the fall. The infraction was one of the reasons the school
ended up on probation, and Perry resigned before ever coaching a
game at Marist. Smits could have transferred to another school
without sitting out a season, but he chose to stay and thus
became something of a folk hero in Poughkeepsie. He eventually
settled in Walton, N.Y., where he still lives in the off-season
on 70 acres with his girlfriend, Candace Foxworthy, and their
two-year-old daughter, Jasmine.
Smits says he has "a little, tiny house and a big, big garage."
He needs the room for his many toys, including his fleet of
reconditioned cars that he enters in auto shows all over upstate
New York. Smits's favorite set of wheels is his 1970 Plymouth
Roadrunner Superbird, which also explains his other obsession:
collecting anything that has to do with the Roadrunner cartoon
character. He says his house in New York is brimming with
assorted stuffed, puffed and painted Roadrunners, and that his
winter home in Indiana features similar decor. But he refuses to
let a photographer snap a picture of his prized collection. He
won't even allow reporters to take a look. "I just don't want
the publicity," says Smits, who shares a certain elusiveness
with his favorite cartoon character.
He also politely declines to show off his beloved cars or his
diploma from auto-mechanics school; he took a correspondence
course last season, doing much of his studying on team flights.
Smits is in the midst of a five-year, $17.5 million contract,
yet he still insists on climbing under the hood. "I guess you
could say it relaxes me," he says.
His family and friends from Holland visit his New York home in
the summer, Smits says, as if it were Disney World, and share
his many motorized toys. But it's not always all fun and games.
On Aug. 8, while riding with a cousin on his property in Walton,
Smits flew over the handlebars of his all-terrain vehicle and
suffered a slight concussion. He was wearing a helmet, but he
told police he couldn't remember the accident.
Smits says he will someday dedicate himself to the car business,
but he hopes to play basketball "until my body gives out." A lot
of NBA stars these days are more notorious for whining than for
winning, but Smits is different. He can talk all day without
boasting or complaining. He is humble and down-to-earth, with
thick skin and dirty fingernails. He even changes his own oil.
Looking back, it's hard to believe they ever booed him in the
COLOR PHOTO; MANNY MILLAN After Smits's breakthrough season, Pacer fans are no longer fingering him as a flop. [Rik Smits]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In their postseason confrontation, Smits rose to the occasion against Ewing. [Rik Smits and Patrick Ewing]