"I got to go to his gravesite in Louisville this summer, after his tournament,'' Smith said recently, "spent 45 minutes to an hour to talk to him, and I told him about everything that had happened. Told him I'd try my best to do him one better.''
Derek Smith, who played for Louisville's 1980 national title team before playing and coaching in the NBA, died in 1996, when Nolan was eight. The story of how the son has strived to follow in the father's footsteps has been well-chronicled over the years. The championship victory with Duke in his junior year was a major chapter, and so was the visit to his father's grave, when the younger Smith was in Louisville for the annual youth basketball tournament named for Derek Smith that has been played annually since his passing. Nolan Smith said it had been "eight or nine years'' since he had gone to where his father was buried.
By the time he did, of course, he already had decided to return for his senior year and try for that second NCAA title, passing up the NBA along with fellow incoming senior, and the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Kyle Singler. Later in the summer, he played for the select team that trained and played exhibitions against the U.S. national team that won the FIBA world championship earlier this month.
It made for an almost nonexistent offseason. "It feels like things are going really quick now,'' Smith said as he sat in an office in Cameron Indoor Stadium after an afternoon workout. "The summer was very, very packed with a lot of things. We're back here already.''
The start of practice is less than three weeks away now, and Duke will report as the favorite to win the 2011 title, largely because of the returning talent, partly because of the incoming recruits (including Smith's presumed heirs apparent, blue-chip point guards Kyrie Irving and Tyler Thornton) -- but mostly because Smith and, to a larger extent, Singler, passed on going to the NBA.
"The thing Kyle and I ultimately decided was that winning a championship was too much fun,'' Smith said. "The fun that we had last season with the team and the fun that we're gonna have this season with the team, you just can't beat it. Kyle and I just said we wanted to come back and do it again and have that fun.''
He didn't feel pangs of regret when Singler injured his knee later that summer; it just reminded him to get into the best physical shape possible this season, he said.
Going pro, Smith said, was "tempting'' -- and, he added, the decision Singler made would affect him. If Singler had gone, as a possible lottery pick, he would have considered following. "I didn't want to be the only senior captain,'' he said, not completely joking.
Plus, he said, Thornton and freshman forward Josh Hairston, longtime friends and teammates on Smith's former AAU team, nudged him all last spring about staying for his final year so they could be teammates. "Now I can see them growing. They're like my little brothers,'' he said.
Once he knew he was coming back, Smith had a better chance than most to keep in touch with coach Mike Krzyzewski during the latter's busy summer of his own. The two spoke constantly while the national and select teams trained and played, and the coach called him regularly, even from Turkey during the world championships. So while Krzyzewski returned to a crash course in reacquainting himself with his full-time job, he already was slightly ahead with one of his expected on-court leaders.
"We're both on the same page, on what he expects from me from a leadership standpoint and getting me in the right frame of mind to come back and lead,'' Smith said. That includes taking up much of the on-court and off-court mantle left by departing backcourt mate Jon Scheyer (one of three seniors from last season), having the ball in his hands in crunch time and making the critical decisions, and being more vocal in accordance to his senior status.
Smith, quiet by nature, still is perfectly at ease with that responsibility: "That just comes from the years I've been here and my personality. I'm ready for whatever comes to me, from coach, from life in general.''
That almost goes without saying, because of his growth as a player and person, largely in the public eye, because of the immense popularity of his father and his sudden, tragic death. Fans, teammates and colleagues of Derek Smith in Louisville and at all his NBA stops formed a cocoon around him and have offered guidance and friendship from middle school to this day. "My team, my family, my friends, they make such a strong backbone for me,'' he said.
Smith is doing the same for another longtime friend, elite high school point guard recruit Quinn Cook, who has spent a lot of time with Smith's stepfather, AAU coach Curtis Malone, since Cook's own father died unexpectedly two years ago.
"Fathers Day, birthday, all the events where you want your dad there, he'll call me or I'll call him,'' Smith said of Cook, who plays at Virginia high-school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy and is being heavily recruited by Duke, among many others. "Even if he doesn't call, I'll call him and tell him everything is all right. Even if I'm not really all right, I'll call him and let him know I'm not all right, because he might not let it out.''
Case in point: for better and worse, Smith's mind was going to go to his late father when the national championship was secure -- he was overjoyed that he succeeded on the same path Derek had taken, but heartbroken that he wasn't there to share it with him.
"There's never a time that I don't think about that,'' Smith said. Which is what drew him to his father's resting place this summer. "We shared some things we haven't had a chance to. I talked a little more trash to him,'' he said with a grin.
Could he feel his father communicating back to him, via trash talk or otherwise?
"I think he's pushing me to keep growing and keep getting better,'' he said. "That's why I took this summer very seriously, because there will be so much expected of me and my team this year.''