Thanks to his championship-winning college playing career, Nolan Smith is as synonymous with Duke basketball as any other player in the 21st century. But long before he was a Blue Devil, Smith was a Louisville Cardinal.
The former ACC player of the year and All-American was born in Louisville, and his father, Derek, starred for the Cardinals and won a national championship in 1980 before playing in the NBA. So when the opportunity presented itself for Smith to leave his position as an assistant coach at Duke to join new Louisville head coach Kenny Payne, the decision was easy.
All that was left was a conversation with his now former boss: Mike Krzyzewski.
“There’s no way I could leave that office without going up there and talking to him. I think he was finalizing his plans to go to Vegas and start his retirement, but he said this was a great business decision,” Smith said of his conversation with Krzyzewski, per Brad Crawford of 247Sports. “There was no pullback. Nothing where he felt like, ‘I need you here.’ No. He said it was a great business decision and (that) he was so happy for me and my family.”
Smith joined Duke’s staff in 2016 as a special assistant before being promoted to director of basketball operations and player development in 2018. He was elevated to an assistant coach in April 2021.
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Smith and Payne have a relationship that dates back to Smith’s childhood, when his father tragically passed away at 36. Payne, who also played at Louisville from 1985 to ’89, became a mentor for Smith, making the decision to accept the position on Payne’s staff an easy one.
“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of uncles. When my dad passed away, everyone of them sitting right here,” Smith said. “KP has been that for me since my dad passed away, even while he was alive, but especially when my dad passed away. KP was one of those people who came into my life and coached me in life, helped me become a man and coached me in basketball, as a player and even now as a coach. He was someone I could always call and be a mentor.”
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