Smits puts his foot down, and retires

Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Rik Smits never lost his love for basketball, but his aching size-21 feet told him it was time to get out.

The 7-foot-4 center, who played more games for the Indiana Pacers than any player except Reggie Miller, retired on Wednesday, less than a week before training camp opens.

He said he made his decision several weeks ago, but at the urging of team president Donnie Walsh took more time to think things over.

``I always felt like I would retire at or near the top,'' Smits said during a news conference at Conseco Fieldhouse. ``This past year, I felt I went a little over the top. I said from the beginning as soon as I'm going downhill or I'm over the hill, I'd like to call it quits.''

Smits, one of NBA's best shooting big men, wouldn't rule out a comeback with the Pacers, provided his legs feel better.

``I'll leave the door open,'' he said. ``These years have flown by so fast, it's going to be interesting to see how fast this year is going to go. It's going to be different sitting at home watching the guys on TV every night. I'm not sure I'm going to like it or not.

``If for some reason I get real energized over this winter and get feeling healthy again, we'll see what happens next summer.''

His retirement means the Pacers will be without three starters and four players from the team that reached the NBA Finals last season.

``Rik is a guy we couldn't replace,'' Walsh said. ``With some of the other departures, we knew would could replace their positions. ... But Rik was the mainstay of the team in a lot of ways.''

The 34-year-old Smits said he wants to spend more time with his wife, Candice, and their 7-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and 4-year-old son, Derrik. He plans to stay in Indianapolis at least two more years while his wife takes classes at Butler University.

Smits, the second pick in the 1988 draft, spent his entire NBA career with the Pacers.

He had surgery to repair nerve damage in both feet in 1996 and missed 30 games during the 1996-97 season and nine games in the 1997-98 season because of problems with his feet.

In recent years, Smits wrapped his feet with ice after games and received foot massages from the trainer. He occasionally skipped practice to rest his feet.

``I'll miss the competition,'' he said. ``I still love the game, but there are aspects I won't miss. So I'm both sad and happy. ... Sitting out practices, even when I was hurt, I felt guilty. If I can't go 100 percent, I'd rather not do it at all.''

Smits averaged 14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds a game for his career and was the team's all-time leader in blocks. His only All-Star appearance was in 1998, and he reached the NBA Finals for the first time last season when the Pacers lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.

``Last year, I was ready to retire but I worked out during the summer and my feet felt good, he said. ``This time, I worked out and the aches and pains were coming back and my knees started hurting.''

On Tuesday, Smits met with coach Isiah Thomas and several players, including Jalen Rose, Austin Croshere and Derrick McKey. They couldn't persuade him to stay, either.

``This changes the way we approach the season,'' Thomas said. ``Our expectations are drastically different now. He was a key to the Pacers' winning. A lot of positions you can replace, but when you lose a Rik Smits, you can't replace guys like that.''

The Pacers have two other centers, 39-year-old Sam Perkins and Zan Tabak. Another possibility is 6-10 Jermaine O'Neal, acquired in a recent trade with Portland for forward Dale Davis.

When the Pacers open camp in Orlando, Fla., they'll also be missing point guard Mark Jackson, who signed with the Toronto Raptors, and veteran Chris Mullin, who was released at his request.