Rik Smits

  • Pacers
  • You’re 14 years old. You’re living in Holland. You’re tall. Really tall. Kids make fun of you. Your parents are both athletic and so are you, but what can you do?

    Rik Smits had little choice but to turn to basketball once he was properly introduced to the sport. He took to it quickly and landed a scholarship to Marist College in upstate New York after he met one of its coaches in Europe. Four years later, the Pacers made him the second pick in the NBA draft in 1988.

    Smits had a very good NBA career, becoming the Pacers’ second all-time leading scorer, but he’s really one of those what-might-have been stories. Imagine how good he would have been if he had started playing as a young kid, as he would have done if he had been born in the U.S. In that scenario he probably would have been less self-conscious about his height, would have had more confidence as a player and would have played in a major college program. Then imagine if he hadn’t had all those issues with his feet that held him back for a few years late in his career.

    We’d be talking about a Hall of Fame player.

    Still, it all turned out well. I covered the last four years of Smits’ career with the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star, and he always was one of the more pleasant guys to deal with. It seems people for whom English is a second language are more honest, and that’s true for Smits. Listen in this episode for the impact Bob Hill and Larry Brown had on his career, and what nearly convinced him to come out of retirement.

    We don’t discuss it here, but I remember talking to Smits once about a fund-raiser he was having to help build a youth center in upstate New York, where he had a summer home. He casually threw out the name “Yoko” as a friend who was helping as well. He meant Yoko Ono, who also had a home in the area. If someone had asked me to name two well-known people who were least likely to know one another, Rik Smits and Yoko Ono would have been a good answer. You just never know, right?

    I talked with Smits in the living room of his home in Zionsville, where the décor was early American auto racing. He’s a gearhead and has a garage full of mini-bikes and other motorized equipment. He has since moved to Arizona, but now lives in the Indianapolis area again for part of the year. 

    First aired 2009

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