Smoothing Out the Road Otis Smith is steering the Warriors' three rookies through their transition to the NBA

October 07, 2001

Otis Smith's office isn't much different from most of the others
in the Golden State Warriors' headquarters. His fifth-floor
window looks out on an unremarkable section of downtown Oakland,
and except for a framed picture of Smith dunking over Larry
Bird, nothing is eye-catching on the walls. Yet the room exerts
a powerful pull on the Warriors' three rookies--guards Jason
Richardson and Gilbert Arenas and forward Troy Murphy--all of
whom invade Smith's office regularly, whether he is there or
not. It's not unusual for Smith, Golden State's executive
director of community relations, to return to his work space and
find at least one of the newcomers making himself at home,
chatting on the phone or reading e-mail. "Otis is begging for a
players' lounge," says Travis Stanley, the Warriors' vice
president of public relations, "just so that he can sit at his
own desk once in a while."

In truth Smith, 37, couldn't be happier to see his three office
mates. Their frequent visits indicate how successful he has been
in implementing the Warriors' new rookie mentoring program. As
NBA rookies become younger and younger, acclimating them to life
in the league is increasingly important, and the Warriors, who
rarely lead the league in anything, are trying to get ahead of
the curve. "There's always been this debate about who should be
responsible for helping young players find their way," Smith
says. "Is it the league? Is it the team? Is it the agent? Is it
the union? We drafted these players, and as an organization we
have an obligation to help them."

The league operates a five-day rookie orientation program
(although this year's was canceled in the wake of the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks), and several teams provide less formal
support systems for their young players, but none of those
efforts is as wide-ranging as Golden State's program. Smith, who
spent six years in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors
and the Orlando Magic, should have his title changed to director
of rookie relations. "The first goal was for the guys to feel
comfortable around me, to feel free to come to me with the
simple questions and the hard questions," he says. "Every time
they come in here and put their feet up on the desk, it tells me
that our bond is getting stronger."

A few words of gentle persuasion from Smith carry significant
weight among the three rookies. That was evident when Arenas
popped in for a recent visit. "We need to get you a suit," Smith
told him. "Remember that clothing guy I told you about? I'm
bringing him in." Mindful of the fashion plates who sit at the
end of the bench in designer clothes instead of uniforms, Arenas
shook his head.

"Suits mean injured reserve," replied Arena, only half joking.
"Tell them I don't need a suit."

Smith laughed. "It doesn't have to be a suit--just a jacket and
a nice pair of pants," he said. "You're going to be doing
appearances, meeting season-ticket holders. Some of these people
are movers and shakers, and you'll need to wear something you
didn't get at Niketown." Arenas sighed and smiled. By the end of
the day he was meeting with a tailor in Smith's office.

It quickly became apparent to the rookies that Smith would do
more than check in with them occasionally. By the time they
arrived in Oakland two days after the June 27 draft--the
Warriors took Richardson, a Michigan State sophomore, with the
fifth pick; Murphy, a Notre Dame junior, with the 14th; and
Arenas, an Arizona sophomore, with the 31st--Smith had scheduled
meetings with all of them. He gave each player a two-way pager
and outlined the kind of help he hoped to provide. Smith has
notebooks full of the telephone numbers of bankers, real estate
agents, carpet cleaners and providers of every other imaginable
service. In addition he keeps a calendar with reminders to take
each rookie out for a meal during the season as a means of
staying in touch, though with their almost constant contact,
that hardly seems necessary. When Smith went three days not long
ago without having spoken to Arenas, the 19-year-old felt the
need to check with his mentor. "I asked him if something was
wrong," Arenas says, "and he said, 'Can't we go a couple of days
without talking?' I said, 'No, as a matter of fact we can't.'"

"Otis has been a friend, a big brother, a teacher, a counselor,
a father figure," says Richardson, 20, who was raised by a
single mother in Saginaw, Mich. "It's a big help to have
somebody to turn to when you don't know where to go shopping or
go out to eat, or if you're just feeling a little bit homesick."
Adds Murphy, "It's been great to have Otis helping us get our
feet on the ground before the season starts and things get
overwhelming."

However, Richardson, Arenas and the 21-year-old Murphy are far
more likely to tease Smith than to praise him. That dunk over
Bird, circa 1990? "Probably the only two points he ever scored,"
says Arenas.

"Nice dunk," says Richardson, "but what's up with those
booty-hugging shorts?"

The new Warriors admit that they were unaware of Smith's NBA
stint as an acrobatic 6'5" swingman whose career ended in 1992
after a series of right knee injuries. His low profile as a
player works to his advantage in building relationships with the
rookies. "It's hard for stars to do what I'm doing," Smith says.
"When I was with Orlando, they tried to have Dr. J do the same
kind of thing, and players were too much in awe of him. One
thing these guys definitely are not is in awe of me."

When Smith retired, he decided against taking the traditional
coaching or scouting path. "I had seen guys come into the league
and leave kind of lost, with no real life skills," he says. "I
knew I wanted to help guys have productive lives after
basketball."

He joined the Warriors two years ago in community relations, but
the team always had planned for him to work with players as
well. "I was an assistant coach when Otis played here," says
Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean, "and I saw the way
he took Mitch Richmond under his wing when Mitch joined the club
[in 1988-89]. When we had a chance to bring in Otis [in '99],
that was what I remembered."

Smith's work with this year's rookies is made easier by the fact
that they're as close to one another as they are to him. All
three have the same agent, Dan Fegan, and they spent several
weeks working out together in Los Angeles before the draft.
Still, each player faces a distinct challenge as he begins his
first training camp.

Richardson, who left Michigan State after his sophomore year, is
a 6'6" aerialist who is under pressure to boost attendance by
electrifying fans in a way that Antawn Jamison, Golden State's
high-scoring star forward, cannot. Murphy is a sharpshooting big
man from Notre Dame who will have an opportunity to play
significant minutes with the Warriors, but he has to prove that
he can do more than shoot. The speedy 6'3" Arenas, who slipped
to the second round because he's inexperienced at the point and
undersized at the two, must battle for a spot in a crowded
backcourt. "The great thing about Otis is that he treats each
guy as an individual," says St. Jean. "He's not working from
some manual."

Even before training camp opened last Saturday, the rookies had
already impressed the Warriors' brass with their work habits.
"[Arizona coach] Lute Olson told me that Gilbert was the kind of
guy who wouldn't stop working out unless you threw him out of
the gym, and he was right," says St. Jean. "Troy comes in to
work out on his own with a written list of drills. Jason will
come in at 10 or 11 at night and work out for a couple of hours.
The encouraging thing about them besides their talent is that
they're all motivated." They are also motivated by the knowledge
that there is playing time to be had with the woeful Warriors,
who were 17-65 last season.

The rookies know that Smith's opinion isn't always what they
want to hear, but they value it nonetheless. He persuaded
Arenas, who has a one-bedroom apartment, that buying three
big-screen TVs would be excessive. (Arenas wound up getting
one.) When Murphy signed his guaranteed three-year, $3.5 million
contract, he had one purchase in mind: "A Humvee," says Murphy,
referring to the huge vehicle. "It's something I've wanted for a
long time." Smith pointed out the behemoth's
impracticality--it's too wide for the ramp of the parking garage
at the team's practice facility--and even visited a Humvee
dealer and found that the rookie would have a hard time folding
his 6'11" frame into the vehicle. (Murphy settled for a GMC
Yukon Denali.)

Although Smith helps his charges in countless areas, he stops
short of acting as their private secretary. "I will not call the
electric company or the real estate agent for them," he says.
"What we're trying to do is not to take care of them but to
teach them to take care of themselves." Toward that end, for
instance, he is arranging for the players to meet with a
chef--not to hire him to cook for them but to have him teach
them proper nutrition and how to prepare their own meals.

The rooks can clearly use the culinary guidance. After enjoying
a barbecue at Smith's house recently, Arenas tried his hand at
grilling. "I was wondering why it didn't taste as good as it did
at his house," says the guard, who called Smith. Arenas learned
that he shouldn't bathe the charcoal in lighter fluid or let the
meat become engulfed by flames. "I'm learning and getting
better," Arenas says. "When I get really good, I'm going to
invite Otis and his family over. It's one way to say thanks for
everything he's done."

Smith insists that all he wants in the way of thanks is to see
Arenas, Murphy and Richardson become successful, self-sufficient
players and people. That, and a bigger office.

COLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI Road manager Smith aims to help (from left) Murphy, Arenas and Richardson prepare themselves for the long haul. COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Freshman courses Murphy (left) must prove he can play inside, while Arenas will battle for a spot in the Warriors' backcourt.

"We drafted these players," Smith says, "and as an organization
we have an obligation to help them."

"The encouraging thing about [these rookies]," says St. Jean,
"is that they're all motivated."

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