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MOTHER KNOWS BEST TOP NBA PICK JOE SMITH ENTERS THE LEAGUE WITH A HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: HIS MOM, LETHA

Oct. 16, 1995
Oct. 16, 1995

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Oct. 16, 1995

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MOTHER KNOWS BEST TOP NBA PICK JOE SMITH ENTERS THE LEAGUE WITH A HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: HIS MOM, LETHA

He scribbled his name on a blank sheet of spiral notebook paper.
J-o-e S-m-i-t-h. He examined the letters closely and then wrote
the name in script, fiddling with the loop in the J and the
curves in the S, repeating the exercise 20, 30 times before
turning the page to try some more. Joe Smith. Joe Smith. Such a
simple autograph. It looked like a practice signature in some
grade school penmanship class. Joe Smith. Joe Smith. Joe Smith.

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 1995 issue Original Layout

Meanwhile Miss Watts, his 10th-grade English teacher at Maury
High School in Norfolk, Va., lectured about people whose
autographs really meant something: Ernest Hemingway, Toni
Morrison, J.D. Salinger. Joe Smith's mind would occasionally
wander, and he would set about etching his name again and again.
"I had this crazy idea that someday my signature would be worth
a little something," Smith says.

During those dreamy adolescent days, Smith passed many an
afternoon with his nephew Damian Smith, who by a quirk of
genealogy happens to be two years older than Joe. One day Joe
pulled out from beneath his bed about a dozen notebooks filled
with that familiar signature. Damian laughed at his crazy
13-year-old uncle Joe before pausing to reconsider what Joe was
implying about the future. Finally the nephew said, "Hey, pass
me about 20 of those Joe Smiths ... just in case."

On Oct. 3, three days before the opening of NBA training camps,
Joe Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft, wrote his name on a
fairly important piece of paper, a three-year contract to play
forward for the Golden State Warriors. The deal is worth $8.53
million. A little something.

"Once upon a time, there was a child born to all of us," Joe's
sister Roxanne was saying at her brother's 20th birthday party
in July. If it can ever be congruous to refer to a man standing
6'10" as a "baby brother," Joe possesses all of the other
qualifications. He is the youngest of seven children, a full
dozen years younger than his closest sibling, and the first
thing that each of his four sisters tells you about him is that
he's so cuuuuute.

At his birthday bash Joe drifted across the dance floor as
smoothly as he glides through the lane. Each time he began to
dance with a woman, one of his sisters rushed to cut in. Despite
his best efforts to thwart them, his sisters held their ground,
insisting that their kid brother dance only with someone they
believe is good enough for him, which is to say nobody. "In this
family Joe has always been well protected," said eldest brother
William, 36. "He basically had six bodyguards around the baby
crib."

Joe was large from birth (22 inches long). Throughout grade
school his shoe size advanced in lockstep with his age. By the
time he met Miss Watts, Joe had already formulated his career
path. One afternoon he informed his mother, Letha, that he
expected to play college basketball for two years and then join
the NBA to make some money to take care of her.

Alas, though Smith wore a Carolina blue Tar Heel jacket to high
school almost every day, his body and his game were both
considered underdeveloped, and he never got a nibble from Chapel
Hill. Upon his unceremonious arrival at Maryland in '93 he was
thought to be only the second-best Terp recruit, behind forward
Keith Booth. "Joe wasn't the kind of guy who you saw in 10th
grade and said he's the next Michael Jordan," says Maryland
coach Gary Williams. "He came such a long way because he loved
the game. He worked like a demon. In two years he never missed a
single practice."

After he became the first ACC player in the last 30 years (since
Billy Cunningham) to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in his
career and won the Naismith Award as the collegiate player of
the year as a sophomore, Smith stuck to his plan and declared
himself eligible for the NBA draft. He was still the consummate
teenager, spending draft day--June 28--dressed in a T-shirt
featuring Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoon. After his
selection he announced, during a videoconference with Warrior
brass, that he had already chosen a roommate for his rookie
season. The roommate, Letha, sat beaming a few feet away from
her son, signing dozens of autographs "Joe's Mom."

Letha Smith dropped out of high school in 1953 to get married,
had six babies over the next nine years and found herself
divorced three years after that. Joe arrived almost a decade
later, the offspring of another father, which helps explain why
Joe is eight inches taller than any of his siblings. (Letha
never married Joe's dad, 6'5" Joe McFarland.)

Letha raised her brood alone between shifts as a maid, until she
earned her high school equivalency diploma and accepted a job as
a medical clerk at Norfolk Naval Hospital. She insisted that all
her kids finish high school, and she displays all their diplomas
on what she calls her Proud Table in the living room of their
three-bedroom ranch house in Norfolk. There was never much room
for ego in the Smith home, and the rules for Joe were simple: no
bizarre haircuts, no foul language and no earrings. Says Letha,
"I told Joe that the two holes he had in his ears were enough."

Whenever Joe took the court at Maury High or at Maryland, his
mother uttered a prayer: Wings on his feet, strength in his
arms. Whenever Joe Smith's phone rang at 2 a.m. in his college
dorm room, it was certain to be Letha checking up on him. After
tearfully announcing during a press conference last spring that
he would enter the NBA draft, Joe sat down beside Letha, dropped
his head into her lap and sobbed like a child. Letha soon after
agreed to shepherd her son during his rookie season. "My father
wasn't around when I was growing up, and I grew so attached to
her," Joe says. "I guess you could say that I'm a mama's boy."

"Now that he's in the NBA, people will be trying to take
advantage of my boy," Letha says. "Joe can't say no, so his mama
will be around to say no for him."

In the days before training camp opened, the Smiths scoured the
Bay Area to find a place to live. Letha will clean house for her
son and cook his favorite meal, meatloaf, like she always has,
but Joe has outgrown his curfew. "Before the season's over I'm
sure somebody will get on him about living with his mommy," says
Warrior teammate Donyell Marshall. "But nobody on this team will
say anything, except to ask when we can come over for dinner."

In many ways Smith--the second-youngest No. 1 overall pick in
NBA history (Magic Johnson was one month younger)--is just
another regular Joe, entering the NBA with barely a ripple
compared with the most recent top draft choices: Glenn Robinson
('94), Chris Webber ('93), Shaquille O'Neal ('92) and Larry
Johnson ('91). Among the first "victims" of the league's new
rookie salary cap, Smith admits his $2.8 million per season
looks paltry compared with the deals of Robinson (10 years,
$68.1 million) or Webber (15 years, $74.4 million). "But it's
still a lot of money to me," says Smith, who has padded his
paycheck with the requisite Nike deal. And Smith may have the
lowest Q rating for a top pick since the Portland Trail Blazers
plucked LaRue Martin out of Loyola (Ill.) in '72. While walking
around Los Angeles and Oakland last week before heading to the
Warrior camp at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Smith was mistaken for
Kevin Garnett (the 19-year-old who went straight from high
school to the NBA as the Minnesota Timberwolves' No. 1 pick
last June) and veteran John Salley, now with the Toronto
Raptors. If anything, he is recognized for being unrecognized.
"I just let my game do the talking," Smith says. "If I score
enough points, block enough shots and get enough rebounds, I
don't have to get up in somebody's face. That's the way my
mother raised me."

If there is a question mark beside Smith's name, it's there
because of his weight. He's a mere 220 pounds and hasn't gained
an ounce since the middle of his freshman year in college. After
watching the Philadelphia 76ers try unsuccessfully to force-feed
Shawn Bradley, Golden State plans to let Smith's body fill out
naturally. So how will a guy who has trouble blocking out his
overprotective sisters survive in the NBA paint?

"His size is going to be a detriment against some big guys,"
says new Golden State coach Rick Adelman. "We have to realize
that right now Joe's a forward, not a power forward. He still
needs to add some of the power."

During the lockout this summer, Smith shared his anxieties with
his agent, Len Elmore, a fellow Maryland alum and former NBA
player. "Joe and I have talked about not pressing the down
button on the elevator," Elmore says. "He's going to have a bad
night or two, and he can't fall into a funk, drop into the
basement and never be seen again."

"There's some uncertainty," Smith admits. "I want to prove that
I deserve to be the Number 1 pick. But I've had to prove myself
before, first as a freshman at Maryland and then as a sophomore,
when I had to prove my freshman year wasn't a fluke. For years
I've snuck up on people, but there's no more sneaking now."

"Joe stood out from the first day of training camp when he
dunked an alley-oop pass, and I thought to myself, I can't wait
to see that against the Lakers," says Warrior forward Chris
Mullin. "He's lucky because unlike most first picks, he's not on
a team that needs him to score 50 points, sell pretzels and
clean the gym every night."

The Warriors are not your typical top-draft-choice weaklings.
They are a talent-rich team that finished 26-56 a year ago after
imploding under injuries and feuds. Smith's primary task will be
to rebound and block shots, steadying a defense that yielded
111.1 points a game, worst in the league last season. Though
Smith can score with either hand down low and can stick a
15-footer, he won't be asked for heavy offense in a lineup
boasting All-Stars Mullin and guards Tim Hardaway and Latrell
Sprewell.

Next summer, when Letha moves back east, Joe will buy his
mother her dream house on the Virginia coast, and then he will
further fulfill her wishes by taking classes toward his college
degree in criminal justice. "She's been working all her life for
me, so now it's my turn to work for her," Smith says. "She's
threatening to sue me, so I guess I'll go to summer school and
get my diploma."

Yet another item for the Proud Table.

Joe Smith is writing that name again. He is in a sporting goods
store at a Baltimore mall signing autographs just weeks before
he begins his new career. A teenage boy steps up to the table,
and Smith inscribes his signature on a shard of paper. The J and
the S have been simplified to allow for as many autographs as
possible in the shortest time. "You're in the NBA now, Joe," the
kid says. "You better watch out for Barkley and Kemp and Webber
and...." The kid finally runs short of breath.

"Anybody else?" asks Smith in mock terror.

When the signing ends, Smith has scrawled his name a couple of
hundred more times. "It's great to finally be in the NBA and to
have all these people asking for my autograph," says Smith. "But
sometimes I wonder, What do people do with it? Do they put it in
a scrapbook? Do they hang it on the wall? To me it has become
just a name on a piece of paper, but I realize that it means a
whole lot to a kid in the same position where I once was. It
takes me back to when I was in school writing my name over and
over, a one-in-a-million nobody. Now I'm Joe Smith."

So many Joe Smiths. Only one Joe Smith.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN The first woman to put the squeeze on Smith this season will be his roomie, a.k.a. Mom. [Letha Smith pinching Joe Smith's cheek]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In the Warrior camp the 220-pound Smith held his own against burlier teammate Donyell Marshall. [Joe Smith and Donyell Marshall]COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN Although Smith powered his way to the hoop in the ACC, he will have to bulk up to become an NBA force. [Joe Smith shooting basketball over North Carolina defender]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH "For years I've been sneaking up on people," says Smith. "But there's no more sneaking now." [Joe Smith]
"Joe can't say no, so his mama will be around to say no for
him," says Letha.