Growing up in the Netherlands, Rik Smits didn’t know anything about basketball.

As a child, he focused on soccer, rugby and judo. He wasn’t introduced to basketball until he was 14 years old, when his mother, Margje, joined a club team. One of the organizers spotted the tall teenager and asked if he wanted to join their new youth squad.

“Back then, basketball was so unknown in the Netherlands that it wasn’t like my height was automatically being related to [basketball] like it is here,” Smits told Legends Magazine. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you must be playing basketball!’ I had no idea about basketball until my mother started playing. Pretty quickly, I found that my height was being put to good use, which was [new]. Up to that time, my height had been kind of a disadvantage in some of the sports I did. It felt good to be able to use my height for something positive for the first time, and I stuck with it.”

Prior to playing basketball, the 7-foot-4 Smits hated that he was taller than everyone else.

“I was laughed at in the streets. I was pointed at,” Smits recalled. “I was a shy kid, and I didn't even want to go out in town because of all the stares and laughter. I was really insecure.”

However, the moment he arrived in the United States as a teenager, everything changed.

“As soon as I got to the United States, my first day there, somebody said, ‘Wow, man, I wish I was that tall!’ I had never heard that in my life! All of a sudden, I get this confidence boost,” Smits said. “I heard that several times over the years in college. I loved it. I wasn't homesick for a minute! Not that I didn't miss my family, but I knew that the United States was my country, that I belonged here.”

The coaches at Marist College offered Smits a scholarship sight unseen based on his size, and he made the most of every opportunity. As a freshman, just four years after he first picked up a basketball, he averaged 11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 56.7% from the field. He quickly earned the nickname “The Dunking Dutchman,” which stuck.

“I just loved college, I had a great time,” Smits said. “Everybody at Marist was very welcoming and wanted to help me any way they could. It was awesome. I worked hard in college. I had great coaches. We had three different head coaches, and a bunch of assistants. But they all were very positive and were willing to work with me. I wanted them to teach me. I wanted to soak up information. I wanted to get better. I was willing to work at it. I'd get up before school, and we'd be in the gym at 6 a.m. working hard and getting better. And things just progressed.”

During his sophomore year, he led Marist to the NCAA Tournament where they faced off against Georgia Tech. While Georgia Tech beat Marist thanks to strong performances from seniors Mark Price and John Salley, Smits put up 22 points (on 9-of-14 shooting) and 4 rebounds.

“[Price and Salley] got drafted after the season, and I did pretty good against those guys, so I was like, ‘Wow, I held my own. The NBA might be an opportunity for me as well if these guys can do it,’” Smits said. “That really motivated me to work even harder in college.”

By his senior year, Smits was averaging 24.7 points (on 62.3% shooting), 8.7 rebounds and 3.9 blocks and garnering a ton of interest from NBA teams. Entering the 1988 NBA Draft, Smits wanted to be selected by the Indiana Pacers, who had the No. 2 overall pick.

“I had gone on all of the visits – to Philly, to L.A. for the Clippers, then to Indiana – and I did feel best about Indiana. I really liked what I'd seen, and I really liked the people I met,” Smits said. “They promised they would pick me, and they did. I was excited! I was glad it was Indiana. … I was not a big-city guy. I never felt comfortable in L.A. or New York or Chicago. Indianapolis is almost like a small town, really. A small-town big city… Everyone in the front office was always very pleasant, very nice. They seem to care about everybody and they're sincere. You come into the gym and everybody’s greeting you. They made me feel at home right from the beginning.”

Over the course of his 12-year career with the Pacers, Smits averaged 14.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks across 867 games. He became an All-Star in 1997-98, and he helped lead the Pacers to the playoffs in 10 of his 12 seasons – including an NBA Finals run in 2000 and four other trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Smits became a fan favorite, and he's still beloved in Indy. When fans voted on the Pacers’ 40th Anniversary Team, Smits received the fourth-most votes behind only Reggie Miller, Mel Daniels and Jermaine O'Neal.

“It makes me feel good,” Smits said. “I don't live there anymore, but I visit quite a bit. My daughter still lives there; she actually works for the Pacers. When I'm in town, it feels great to be recognized. When I'm walking on the street or going to a restaurant, people honk their horns and yell my name, and it still feels good. I really appreciated all the support I got over the years. I had a great time in Indy. It was my town. … I felt comfortable there, in part due to all the fans that supported me over the years. They appreciated me.”

Smits spent his entire career with the Pacers – one of just three players to do so, along with Miller and Jeff Foster.

“It means a lot. Once I got settled there, I got comfortable there, I made friends there, I had homes there. I wouldn't have liked having to move. Going into it, it wasn't a goal. But looking back, I think it's something special,” Smits said. “You don't see it anymore. And I guess it shows what kind of person I was, that I was good to the franchise, I was easy, I didn't cause trouble. The front-office people liked me and the coaches liked me, I guess! It feels good.”

Smits will be back in Indiana next month for NBA All-Star Weekend – his first time attending the event since he played in the 1998 All-Star Game.

“I'm excited! I always said if it comes to Indiana, I'm gonna go,” Smits said. “And the Pacers actually invited me. They invited some of the old players to come and I think they're gonna have a little get-together on Thursday or something. I'm excited to see who shows up.”

While he’s thrilled to reunite with his former Pacers teammates, he’s also excited about the organization’s current stars like Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner. He has enjoyed Indiana's recent success and hopes they continue to climb the East standings.

“In recent years, I like the teams they've had. Of course, I’d love for them to finish a little better. But yeah, they've had a lot of talented guys and hopefully this is the team that will bring them some success again,” Smits said. “They definitely have the personnel for it. I’m very excited.”

While watching these Pacers, Smits can’t help but imagine how he’d fare in today’s NBA. As a big man who could shoot the ball and block shots, he’d be a perfect fit in the modern game.

“I would've loved to play in today’s NBA! Back then, they didn't want me shooting threes! There were very few big men shooting threes,” Smits said. “Toward the end of my career, Sam Perkins was a pretty good three-point shooter – he would step out and they would run some plays for him, but yeah. I mean, I never practiced threes, but I know I could've done it. I would've loved to! But I still would've been down low too, because I love playing on the block with my back to the basket. But to be able to do both and be a threat from both? That would’ve been awesome.”

When told that he and Miller would form a lethal one-two punch in the modern NBA, Smits agrees: “Yeah, we could really stretch out the defense. That would've been awesome.”

Smits was extremely difficult to guard in his era as well. Shaquille O’Neal once described Smits as one of four players he hated playing against.

“Just like in Greek mythology, there's always a guy that's equal or greater than you, and they go by the name of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Rik Smits,” O’Neal told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “Rik destroyed me every time. Oh my God. Pick-and-pop, jump hook in the post, I couldn't stop that kid. If it wasn't for his foot problems, I probably [never would] have been able to stop him.”

This compliment from O’Neal meant a lot to Smits.

“I was pleasantly surprised, it was a heck of a compliment,” Smits said. “He’s one of the best centers to ever play the game, so I was stoked. That was pretty cool to hear from him. I’d never heard that; I never realized it before. I mean, he's a heck of a player. He's almost impossible to guard. You can't take a charge on him because you're gonna get the foul call. You gotta try to stop him another way – you gotta get him away from the basket as far as you can, which was not an easy task. Heck of a player. I really appreciated that quote.”

Which centers were the toughest for Smits to match up against? Three legends come to mind.

“Hakeem Olajuwon. In the early years, they wanted me to guard him and he was just so quick,” Smits said. “He's got the speed of a forward and the moves of a center. I just didn't have the quickness to stay with him. I only played one game against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he was something else. Of course, that was my first year, so I was still pretty weak, but I didn't realize how strong he was. He could just do whatever he wanted against me, pretty much. And, of course, Shaq just because of the sheer size, strength and explosiveness. Once he got close to the basket, there wasn't much you could do.”

When Smits looks back on his playing days, he tends to think about the battles against the New York Knicks, whom the Pacers faced in the playoffs six times from 1993 through 2000.

“The Knicks [series] are what usually comes to mind. That rivalry was something else,” Smits said. “The year we finally beat New York (in 1999-00), that was a heck of a stepping stone to finally get past them.”

Smits decided to retire following the 1999-00 season. While the internet would have you believe that nerve damage in his feet caused him to walk away, Smits dispelled this myth.

“No, that never [factored in]; the feet were fine,” Smits said. “When Larry Bird came in [as head coach] my last three years, he had a great physical therapist out of Boston, Dan Dyrek, and he took care of those feet. Those were never a problem again. Early on in my career, I had that, and then the rumor got started that [my feet] are why I retired, but that wasn't true at all. I felt it was the right time. Bird was retiring and Isiah [Thomas] was coming in. There was gonna be some changes. It was just the right time. I considered coming back and gave it some thought, but I was ready to be home with my family and start enjoying life, so that’s what I did.

“Part of me regrets that I didn't keep going longer. But then part of me doesn't because I basically retired because my son was 3 years old and my daughter was 6 years old at the time. I had missed so much with my daughter when she was growing up and my son was 3, and he was just so much fun to be around. I was starting to slow down too. I was, what, 33? My goal was to never have to come off the bench. And at times, playing against some younger centers, I felt like, ‘Man, I’m having a tough time staying with this guy!’ I was definitely slowing down. My goal was always to retire at or near the top. I didn't want to come off the bench. It’d take me half an hour to warm up before the game and luckily, I'd be starting and I’d feel pretty good. But once I’d sit for a while, everything would stiffen up! So, I didn’t want to have to sit on the bench. But I would say: play as long as you can because, man, the time goes by so fast.”

After Smits retired from the NBA, he continued playing basketball several times a week in a rec league. He also began racing dirt bikes and vintage motocross motorcycles. In 2008, he won the AHRMA National Vintage Motocross Series in the Premier 500 Intermediate class.

"Being competitive [again], it was great,” Smits said of motocross racing. “It's not a team sport, but I worked hard to stay in shape, and I wanted to win at every level. I'm up to expert class; I got there when I was 40. That was cool, and I still enjoy that. I still do that a lot… I also restore motorcycles and cars.”

Smits also tried coaching, helping out during practices for his son’s teams in middle school and high school. However, he quickly realized that it wasn't for him.

“I'm not coaching material,” he said with a laugh. “When I’m on the bench, that shy Rik Smits comes back. I don’t want to talk and it's tough. I did some one-on-one stuff with guys and I enjoyed that. … I'm still too shy and insecure even now to do that in the NBA or even college.”

If Smits’ mother had never joined that club team back in the Netherlands, he believes he would have turned his love of cars and motorcycles into a career.

“I'd probably be a mechanic, kinda like Mark Eaton used to be,” Smits said with a laugh. “I always had a love of cars and motorcycles, and I still do. That's what I spend most of my time on now. But that probably would've been it. My grandpa gave me a small 50cc moped when I was 7 years old. … That's how my love of motorcycles started. Then, I started tinkering with engines and stuff, and it evolved into cars.”

If he was growing up in the Netherlands today, he likely would’ve found basketball much earlier. The NBA has prioritized globalization over the last 20 years, so it’s no surprise that many of the league’s biggest stars are international players these days.

“I think it's awesome. I think it's all positive,” Smits said. “The best players in the whole world are still coming over here. Europe's definitely got some awesome leagues, some awesome teams, some awesome players, but still, the best players are going to end up over here. America is really the showcase of worldwide basketball talent. I think it's awesome. Look at the success of the NBA because of it, you know? It's good for everybody, I think.”