One school of thought has it that Steve Smith, Michigan State's versatile and dynamic guard, has had to endure a curious lack of attention throughout his basketball career because he has the kind of name that people use when checking into motels incognito—a plain brown wrapper of a name. There may be some validity to this theory, but it's not the complete explanation for Smith's anonymity.
It doesn't explain, for instance, the recruiters. Whatever else they may be, college basketball talent scouts are extremely thorough. If there's a 10-year-old kid out there with a modicum of basketball talent, someone has a file on him. Smith was a star at Pershing High in Detroit; he averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists as a senior. Yet Michigan's staff took little notice of him, and Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote freely admits, almost embarrassed now, that he had never seen or heard of Smith until he stumbled upon the player while scouting someone else. Greater anonymity hath no man than to be a Detroit high school star unknown to the Wolverines and the Spartans.
Another school of thought: Smith's relative obscurity might be due to the fact that he repels attention. Throughout high school he didn't attend any of the major summer camps or join any of the AAU teams that provide top players with coveted national exposure. "The hoop in my backyard was my camp," Smith says.
When the ABA/USA, amateur basketball's governing body, was putting together a team for the Goodwill Games and world championships last summer, coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted Smith badly enough that the player was allowed to skip the first round of tryouts. This is an option given to only a handful of elite players, such as Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon of Nevada-Las Vegas. Smith declined, citing a previous commitment. "Summer school," he says.
November 19, 1990
Final school of thought: Smith, as you may have gathered, is stingy with talk. The story goes that, after scoring 39 points, including the game-winner in overtime, against Big Ten rival Minnesota last March, Smith participated in an interview with a breathless radio announcer in which his responses pretty much consisted of "thank you," "thanks very much" and "yes." Smith insists the story is somewhat exaggerated, but you get the idea. He is the reserved type, the kind of guy who, instead of going to a party after a game, would rather return to his room, tidy up the place a bit, sort through his vast collection of basketball sneakers and put on his stereo headphones.
None of this, though, has kept Smith, now a senior at Michigan State, from being anything less than a major presence, even off the basketball court. "Steve always seems to have things under control in a quiet kind of way," says Spartan guard Mark Montgomery, Smith's former roommate. "His room is always neat, everything always in its place. He has his T-shirts on hangers, and his bed is always made. He's the kind of guy other guys' moms look at and say, 'Why can't you be like that?' "
Smith, 21, thinks the tales concerning his retiring nature are overblown and explains his reticence more as a natural distrust for the Johnny-come-latelies who are only now discovering him. "I guess I'm pretty quiet, but I'm not as reserved as most people probably think I am," Smith says. "I'm just not someone who can act like I'm your best friend the minute after I meet you. My friends know I can get loud and rowdy around people I feel comfortable with."
Of course, Smith's idea of loud and rowdy behavior probably wouldn't ruffle a librarian. "He can get pretty wild when he's around his old friends from Detroit, like [New Jersey Nets forward] Derrick Coleman and some other guys," Montgomery says. "But we're talking about what's wild for Steve Smith. We're talking about maybe turning up his music really loud. That's about it."
There you have it. Smith's dark side revealed isn't exactly as juicy as Laura Palmer's diary, which maybe the real reason you've never heard of him—something he's not happy about. Traces of resentment creep into Smith's voice when he talks about it, but only traces. He won't try to convince anyone that he doesn't care about publicity, but he also won't dwell on it. "I always thought I was pretty good, but until this year I kind of felt ignored," he said. "I guess it's good and bad—bad that people couldn't really see it before, and good that they're starting to see it now. It's not like there's anyone to blame, but you wonder why it took this long to be really noticed. I don't think the name has anything to do with it—at least I hope not."
Smith wants the kind of attention received by the country's other top players, such as Johnson and Augmon or Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, Syracuse's Billy Owens and Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown. He no doubt deserves it, considering his all-around talents: Last season he led Michigan State in scoring (20.2), rebounding (7.0) and assists (4.7).
Indiana coach Bob Knight rated Smith the best NBA prospect in the Big Ten last season, when the conference included Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Kendall Gill and Willie Burton, all of whom went on to become NBA first-round draft picks. Smith, meanwhile, was voted the Big Ten's most valuable player after leading Michigan State to its first conference title since 1978-79, the season in which the Spartans also won their only national title. Michigan State's drive to the championship 11 years ago was orchestrated by a player whose considerable shadow will invariably haunt Smith throughout 1990-91—despite Heathcote's protests.
"I don't compare anyone to Magic," said Heathcote, referring, of course, to Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who played two seasons for the Spartans. "It's unfair to compare a college senior to the greatest guard that ever played. But I can see why the tendency to compare them is there. They are both tremendously versatile and multidimensional. Steve's not perfect, by any means, but I don't think there's any aspect of his game that you could look at and say, 'Well, Steve's really not very good at that.' "
The truth is that Smith belongs to the emerging generation of basketball stars whose unselfish play and all-around skills can be directly traced to Johnson. "Earvin was one of my heroes," Smith says. "I guess in the back of my mind I always hoped I'd end up playing here because of him. Now people ask me if I get tired of being compared to him. Why would anybody get tired of a compliment like that? But I'll never be Magic Smith or anything. I'm just Steve."
Smith isn't nearly as restrained on the court as he is away from it. His game, like Magic's, is full of flourishes, from the no-look passes to the odd way he drags his gangly 6'7", 200-pound body, a bag of loosely connected bones, around the floor. There's also a touch of arrogance about him that is completely absent when he is away from the court. Smith has been known to taunt opponents—the only characteristic that Heathcote would like to suppress—and Montgomery calls him "the only guy I know who can strut while he's backpedaling.
"He'll bring the ball upcourt and talk to you the whole time," Montgomery said. "He'll say, 'I got the ball on a string, so don't bother reaching.' Or he'll have the ball and say to the guy checking him, 'How do you want it? Dunk or a jumper?' That gets to some guys. They probably want to kill him, but then they find out he's a completely different guy once the game's over."
Smith's on-court persona is a direct reflection of his experiences at the Hawthorne Recreation Center in Detroit, where he competed against the likes of Coleman, Doug Smith of Missouri and UNLV's Anderson Hunt; he quickly learned that the ability to talk a good game is almost as important as the ability to play one.
"It's the Detroit in me," Smith says. "The way I learned to play, you had to show that you just weren't going to be intimidated, and to do that you had to be the one doing the intimidating. I try to tone it down in games a little, but if I didn't do at least little of it, I wouldn't be the same player. I wouldn't feel natural."
Smith's parents, Donald, a retired bus driver, and Clara, a housewife, are mainly responsible for keeping the neighborhood's negative influences from affecting anything more than their son's playing style. "There were drugs and gangs when I was growing up, the same as in a lot of places," Steve says. "There were a lot of guys who could have made it in sports but who went down the wrong road. I had both my mother and father to guide me. There were a lot of kids who didn't have that."
Steve remains unfailingly loyal to his childhood friends. "They are so important to him," Clara says. "When he's home he sees every one of them. He was like an only child, because his brother [Dennis, 36] was much older than he was. So his old friends are like family to him."
Smith was loyal enough to dedicate his sophomore season to his girlfriend at the time, Carletta Jones, after she was paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident. They are no longer dating, but they are still friends. "He flew down for two weeks to be with her after the accident," Montgomery says. "He didn't talk much about it when he got back. He would take long drives to be by himself."
Most of Smith's closest friends are veterans of the daily pickup games that took place at the basket in the Smiths' backyard. They were legendary affairs that often stretched late into the night. The backyard opened at noon in the summer, and the neighborhood kids would flow in and out all day. The one constant was Steve.
"There must have been at least 50 or 60 kids every day, all ages," says Clara. "The only real rule I had was that if there was a fight, the yard would be closed for a week. In all the years they played, we had to close it only twice. Steve did a lot to make sure things didn't get out of hand. There were times I put him out there to control the yard when he was only about 10 years old. There were 18- and 19-year-olds back there playing, but Steve controlled that yard. Sometimes people are surprised that Steve can be so forceful out on the court when he's so quiet the rest of the time. He probably learned that in our backyard."
Another reason Smith didn't catch the attention of most recruiters was that he was a late bloomer. He was only 5'8", 150 pounds as a high school freshman, and until a growth spurt before his junior year brought him to 6'5", he didn't look much like big-time college material. Missouri, which has a recruiting blanket over Detroit, was the only major school besides Michigan State that showed any interest in him.
Still, Smith's athletic talent was always evident, so much so that when the golf coach at Pershing needed to fill out his roster, he went to Smith, who had never played the sport. Smith gamely gave it a try, and by the end of the season he was one of the team's best, shooting in the low 90s.
But don't get the idea that Smith was always a coach's dream. Pershing basketball coach Johnny Goston remembers when Smith got a D on a test during his sophomore year. Goston requires any player who gets a grade below a C to run laps until Goston tells him to stop.
"He couldn't deal with the discipline at the time," Goston says of Smith. "He told me he wasn't going to run, and I told him that it was my way or the highway. So he told me he was going to quit, and this was just the day before we had a state tournament game."
Smith quit the team and planned to transfer to another school. His parents told him to forget it. He could quit the team if he wanted, they said, but he was at Pershing to get an education, not simply to play basketball, and that was where he would stay. The next day, Smith sat in the stands and watched as his teammates were eliminated from the state tournament. A few weeks later he crawled into Goston's office and asked to rejoin the team.
"That was the moment of truth for Steve," Goston says. "Every kid in the city has to face it. It's that moment when each kid decides whether he's going to take the good road or the bad road. I was gambling that with Steve's parents, he would pick the right road, and he did."
Smith's path should lead to the first round of the 1991 NBA draft, which will prove that he's no longer the secret of a knowledgeable few. "When he wasn't getting recruited by most of the big schools, I used to tell him not to worry, because sooner or later the light was going to shine on him," Goston says. "It's shining on him now, and it keeps getting brighter."