Rik Smits: All-Star Athlete
By Dan Pietrafesa '88

Basketball took Rik Smits '88 from his Holland homeland to the NCAA Tournament with the Red Foxes and then to the NBA with the Indiana Pacers. Now retired, he reflects on his memorable journey.

Rik Smits always considered himself to be an adventurer. But even the man nicknamed the "Dunking Dutchman" never thought his adventure to the United States would take him to the places he's been.

"I came over here to enjoy myself and do something different," the 1988 graduate of Marist said. "It never crossed my mind to make the NBA at that time."

Smits was the integral part of the four most exciting years in the history of Marist athletics which culminated in his selection by the Indiana Pacers as the No. 2 pick overall in the 1988 NBA draft. Only National Player of the Year Danny Manning of the 1988 NCAA Championship Kansas Jayhawks was selected higher in a talent-laden year that included: No. 5 Mitch Richmond of Kansas State; No. 6 Hersey Hawkins of Bradley; No. 8 Rex Chapman of Kentucky; No. 9 Rony Seikaly of Syracuse; No. 14 Dan Majerle of Central Michigan; and No. 19 Rod Strickland of DePaul. Through his immense talent, Rik Smits defied the odds in breaking into the NBA from a small school and relatively young Division I program. The native of Eindhoven, Holland, would go on to play 12 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers before announcing his retirement this past September.

During his NBA career, Smits would extend Marist's name nationally in an unprecedented way. Each time a starting lineup was announced, Smits was introduced as a 7-foot-4 center out of Marist College. Even the back of his NBA trading cards mentioned his alma mater.

"He has been a great ambassador for the college," Marist President Dennis Murray said. "He has been exceptionally loyal to Marist. Above all, he has earned respect on and off the court. The legacy of Rik Smits will endure at Marist as well as in the record books of the NBA."

And this was somewhat unexpected. Smits came to Marist's Town of Poughkeepsie campus in 1984 expecting to be a backup to fellow classmate Miro Pecarski, considered by some to be Europe's top 17-year-old player. But Pecarski was injured in preseason, opening up an opportunity for Smits. By mid-season, Smits earned a spot in the starting lineup and helped Marist capture its first conference title.

"Rik was like a sponge," said Marist head men's coach Dave Magarity, who coached Smits in his junior and senior seasons at Marist. "He absorbed everything and was a quick study. He was such a pleasure to be around."

It was during the 1985-86 season, Smits s sophomore year, that Marist basketball began earning national recognition. Television crews and journalists were coming to the college on the banks of the Hudson River to learn more about the program labeled by legendary broadcaster Marv Albert as the "United Nations of College Basketball." The men's basketball team had five foreigners-Smits, the 6-foot-11 Pecarski, the 7-foot Rudy Bougarel of Guadeloupe, Alain Forestier of France and Peter Krasovec of Hungary-that season, the first of back-to-back years the program went to the NCAA Division I Tournament.

Marist would lose both times in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. For Smits, it was an opportunity to bring prestige to the college and to showcase his skills to pro scouts against two of college basketball's top centers in Georgia Tech's John Sally and the University of Pittsburgh's Charles Smith. Smith was later selected as the No. 3 overall pick (one behind Smits) in the 1988 NBA draft. Smits was a combined 17-for-23 from the floor on his way to 38 points in those two NCAA games, 22 of which came against the 7-foot Sally and Georgia Tech.

"It was the first time I realized there might be a chance to make it (in the NBA)," Smits said of the game against Georgia Tech. "I thought I did pretty reasonable. We really hadn't seen much competition until then and I held my own against him. Until then, I had no real measuring stick. When he and Mark Price went to the NBA (in 1987), I thought it might be a possibility for me, too."

The success of the program and Smits also enabled the Red Foxes to play on a few occasions each season in big arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Marist was playing formidable opponents like St. John's, Cleveland State, Memphis State, Villanova, Miami and Providence.

Even though the program was barred from the 1988 NCAA Tournament for NCAA infractions, Smits and the Red Foxes were not done. Marist captured a third conference title in four years.

As for Smits, he would end his collegiate career with a then-school record 45-point night against St. Francis (Pa.). It was his final collegiate game and the same night his No. 45 jersey was retired and displayed on the north wall of the James J. McCann Recreation Center.

The two-time conference player of the year concluded his Marist career as the school's all-time leader in blocked shots with 345. Smits, who established 25 school records in his collegiate playing days, is second on Marist's all-time list in scoring points (1,945) and rebounding (811).

"It was pretty exciting, not only playing basketball at Marist but the whole college experience," said Smits, who declined the opportunity to turn pro following his junior season. "For me, it was something new and something I enjoyed very much."

In the NBA, Smits averaged 14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game in his career with the Indiana Pacers and is currently second on the team's all-time list in seasons (12), games (867), minutes (23,100), field goals made (5,301), field goals attempted (10,461) and defensive rebounds (3,746). He is Indiana's all-time leader in blocked shots with 1,111. In 1999 he was named one of Indiana's 50 Greatest Players, selected by a blue-ribbon panel of basketball experts sought out by the Pacers to identify the best players ever to play in the state of Indiana. The Pacers played in five Eastern Conference finals and one NBA final during Smits' 12 seasons. He also played in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden.

"He's been one of the most well-known alumni because of what he did every night," said Marist Athletics Director Tim Murray, who was an assistant men's basketball coach during Smits' years at Marist. "In the NBA, you see many times how dollars can change one's personality. The most impressive thing about Rik is to this day he's the same Rik Smits who played here at Marist College."

Smits considered retiring after the 1998-99 season but returned after then Indiana coach Larry Bird found him an effective physical therapist to help with his ailing feet. By the middle of the 1999-2000 season, other injuries were catching up to Smits and he pretty much knew it would be his last campaign.

Smits waited to announce his retirement until last September because Pacers president Donnie Walsh was hoping Smits would reconsider his decision and make a return.

"After 12 years it became a job," Smits said. "My feet didn't hurt last year. My knees started to hurt. I used to have back spasms once a year and they started to come two or three times a year. If I kept going, I may have needed back surgery.

"The time was just right and it was a combination of everything. Not only were the injuries bothering me but the hours of treatment, and being away from my family was tough. I always said I wanted to stop at the top of my game."

Since his retirement, Smits has played three games for the Dutch National Team, leading the team to victories in all three contests. And there was even talk of an NBA return to a championship contender for the second half of the regular season and the playoffs.

"I said I'd consider it at that point," Smits said. "I don't think I'm going to come back. I'm having a pretty good time in retirement. Once a week, I play basketball at the local high school and I'm still sore the next day. If I do it every day, the pain will come back."

Smits is enjoying his retirement and the time he's spending with his wife, Candice, and children, Jasmine and Derrik. He's also able to enjoy his hobbies like rebuilding old cars and riding his motorbikes. Owning a motorsports team and/or coaching high school or collegiate post players are in Smits' thoughts for the future.

But other things are taking a priority right now. "This year, I'm spending a lot of time being a dad."

Dan Pietrafesa is a 1988 graduate of Marist College where he covered the men's basketball team for The Circle. He currently covers the Marist men's basketball team for the Poughkeepsie Journal. This feature was originally published in the Marist Magazine in 2001.

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