Longform

The Quiet Man

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"Rodman had just seen Commissioner Stern that day--that's what got me to go," recalls Smith. "I'm in the hallway of McNichols--Rodman wasn't talking to the press. He came out to use the phone and I figured, 'What the hell?' I went up to Rodman and asked for a couple comments." Rodman agreed, and after he got off the phone, the two began to talk. Immediately, other reporters crowded around. "'Get away,'" Smith recalls Rodman saying. "I'm only talking to him.'"

After the interview was finished, Smith tried to play the tape of the interview back for the other reporters, only to discover he had forgotten to release the pause button on his tape recorder. It was too embarrassing to tell the truth about what happened, he says, "so I walked into the locker room and blamed it on my machine: 'Dennis, my recorder fucked up--would you do that again with me?' And Rodman said it'd be no problem. I felt maybe it was the handicap."

An interview with another star--Magic Johnson, who had recently announced he was HIV-positive--allowed Smith to gain perspective on his own disease. "From that point on," Scott says, "Thierry figured his problem wasn't anywhere as big as it could be. We went out that night, and there was no thought of disadvantage or pessimism."

Smith's scooter fits neatly into the back of his Mitsubishi station wagon, but getting it there can be an ordeal. First he must move himself off the scooter and onto the front seat of the car, which is equipped with metal control rods so that Smith can drive with his hands. Then someone else has to lift the scooter into the car using a winch. Today the detachable seat won't come off the scooter without a fight, and the winch inexplicably moves up when it's supposed to move down, and vice versa. It takes three people to figure out what's wrong. Smith, meanwhile, sits helpless though unfazed in the front seat.

"I can see the joke going around the office now," says KFAN sales manager Larry Nettingham, who has just pulled into the station parking lot. "How many brothers does it take to get a scooter in the back of this car?"

Even as a young boy who loved riding his bicycle and playing ball in the alleys of north Denver, Thierry had to battle growing health problems. Asthma gave way to back problems, which forced him off the basketball court and onto the sidelines after his sophomore year at East, where he managed and worked as a trainer and equipment manager for several of the school's athletic teams. "I was the man," he says. "I had the keys to everything."

On the eve of East's 1971 title run in boys' basketball, Smith's senior year in high school, he almost lost everything. He and two buddies were driving west on Thirteenth Avenue when their car was hit on the passenger side by a car heading south. Smith was riding shotgun, and he doesn't remember much about what happened. Neither he nor his mother can recall exactly how long he was in the hospital, but they say three to four weeks sounds right. Smith suffered double vision, a broken nose, a broken cheekbone and a severe concussion.

All he remembers is the other driver: "She was really upset about a cake or something." Shortly after he recovered, his beloved basketball team was upset in the state finals.

These days Smith wonders whether the crash led to his MS. "Colorado has a real high incidence of multiple sclerosis," he explains matter-of-factly, "and folks who've sustained prior head damage are also more susceptible."

In the years between the accident and the onset of the disease in the mid-1970s, Smith began seeing Diana. The couple met for the first time at an East football game his freshman year at DU, while she was still in high school. But Diana remembers seeing him a few years earlier at a Homecoming-like assembly called Color Day. Smith was one of the candidates for Color Day King, and she says she knew then that "that was the person I would end up marrying. I didn't know his name; I didn't know anything about him." They finally did marry in 1977, after Damon was born.

After graduating from DU with a degree in communications, Smith set his sites on a job in the media. He worked for a brief time at a youth-services center in northeast Denver. Then in 1981, after an internship at Channel 7, he was offered the job of sports director at KDKO, the black-owned station that struggles to survive against the big boys of local radio.

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T.R. Witcher