THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, January 7, 1995 TAG: 9501070334 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY TOM ROBINSON, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: COLLEGE PARK, MD. LENGTH: Long : 243 lines
Joe Smith has left the building.
How and when the 19-year-old King of Cole Field House slipped into the College Park darkness is a secret. So they must wonder in disappointment, those people milling about the basketball floor, eyes on the tunnel leading to the Maryland locker room, hoping for a brief audience with their hero. Or their prospective meal ticket. Depends. You can't be sure these days.
Whatever their identities and motives, they have helped make Smith's 16-month college experience a rare joy, but also a grind, one he very well could ditch this spring for guaranteed NBA millions.
When navigating the postgame gantlet of fans, giddy frat boys, groupies and sports agents seems to be too much the chore, Smith, still backstage, seeks out assistant publicist Chuck Walsh, who knows his duty.
That is, Walsh knows plenty of ways to spirit a 6-foot-10 sophomore basketball star out of the arena, out of sight.
Quickly, then, the deed is done. This night Smith escapes to see his mother, Letha, in an office somewhere in the field house, and later he is free to stride to his dorm, the haven he shares with teammate Matt Kovarik. A room with an unlisted phone number, ever-operating answering machine, school books and video games, which Smith finds himself playing a lot more now that he draws such attention with each public appearance.
He wishes it didn't have to be this way. He's a genuine, happy guy. Ask anybody. Smith's instincts tell him to sign every autograph if it takes an hour, greet every well-wisher, smile at everyone.
To trust. But now he can't.
His internal compass tugs at him, reminds him that he likes it best when he's just regular Joe from the Lamberts Point neighborhood of Norfolk. Mama's boy, son of Maury High School, Spanky Johnson's best buddy.
``He liked (the attention) at first,'' says Greg ``Spanky'' Johnson, a sophomore at St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va. ``Now it gets on his nerves. He'd rather be alone to himself, rather than people calling all the time asking this or that.''
Honestly, Smith knows he hasn't been just anybody for a long time, especially since becoming the consensus choice as last season's best college freshman.
``I've finally realized that my life will never be the same as it was in high school,'' Smith says. ``A lot of things have changed.''
Could anything be more of an understatement?
A game has become a business, a casualty of the quick change that has Smith's future galloping toward him. Less than two years ago, Smith was a gangly, talented youth following his dream to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He turned to Maryland, though, when his boyhood favorite North Carolina never recruited him.
Now he has a million-dollar, NCAA-sanctioned insurance policy, rare for a sophomore. Because in a few months or a couple years - his choice - Joe Smith will be a wealthy man, in the most monetary sense. He need only say the words ``I'm coming out,'' this spring and an NBA team will make him one of the first players drafted and heap $30 million or more upon him.
This is because Smith can play an inside-outside basketball game better than most any collegian in the country. A preseason first-team All-American, Smith runs smoother, jumps quicker, works harder, shoots from the lane with both hands and can fire so well from 3-point range that, with some added bulk, professional stardom is his calling.
Making him all the more attractive is how much Smith enjoys it. How his sweat is honest, I-love-this-game sweat.
Naturally, plenty of people want to ride shotgun on Smith's fabulous adventure. No one wants it more than the agents, the slick suits who know that Smith's signature on a contract means 4 percent for them.
They started to gather last year, when Smith, relatively unheralded by the high school scouting mavens, shocked everybody by averaging 19.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots per game.
The anatomy of his surprise attack is this: Smith began to blossom as a Maury junior, attended only one big-time camp, Nike, that summer and signed with Maryland before his senior season, thanks in large part to the doggedness of former Old Dominion and current Maryland assistant coach Art Perry. Smith took off upon reaching College Park, where he leaped into celebrity-hood with a 26-point game against Georgetown in his debut.
Perry says he has an opinion as to whether Smith should remain at Maryland after this year, but he hasn't shared it with Smith, whom he regards with special fondness.
The agents know about this relationship, so they call Perry. They know how close Smith is to Maury coach Jack Baker, so Baker gets personal visits, phone calls and Christmas cards from them.
They call and drop in on Smith's mother in Norfolk. They wait for Smith after games, to wave or attempt small talk.
A couple dozen followed him and Maryland to a November tournament in Hawaii.
Some have tried to influence Smith with money or cars, Spanky Johnson says. Some have hired students to befriend Smith and make a pitch for them. They get famous clients to give him a call, lend him a hand.
Smith says he's met Alonzo Mourning, represented by mega-agent David Falk, once, last year. Mourning followed up by sending him two suits, Smith says, ``as a friend. I guess it was because he's from Virginia, too.''
It's that blasted recruiting process all over again, only with dramatically higher stakes. Smith says he didn't enjoy it when it was just coaches calling to offer scholarships. Now it can be oppressive.
Early in the season, Maryland coach Gary Williams noticed Smith not playing with his usual joie de vivre. He was performing to his usual standards - Smith leads the seventh-ranked Terps at 20.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots per game entering tonight's game at North Carolina - but something wasn't right.
``He forgot this can be an escape for him,'' Williams said. ``This should be fun. The first thing I saw when I saw Joe play was how much he loved the game, and he still has that. That shouldn't change.
``You only get to play college basketball a limited amount of time. Enjoy the moment, don't keep thinking about what it's going to be like in the pros. Just play.''
Williams says keeping agents at bay is a ``constant battle. Yeah, they can call me, but I don't want them to talk to Joe. He shouldn't be bothered. I don't want them to meet, but you can't stop them from waving at games.
``You can't keep them away. The money now, the fact that they'll give Glenn Robinson $60 million or $70 million, an agent gets that guy and he's set for life. That's how big it is now. That's why it's crazy.''
What Smith must remember, Williams says, ``is that the only time the agents are important is when it comes to the point where he's ready to go into the pros to negotiate his contract. Before that, they really don't matter.''
Sure, but if you're an agent, it is an important time. The nest must be feathered. One agent says his ``constant battle'' is to get close to Smith through his family, coaches and friends without applying so much pressure that he angers Smith and hurts his cause.
``The quandary is if his family and some of his people are unaware of who you are,'' says Robert Williams, ProServ's director of team sports who works out of Arlington. ``When he decides he wants to make a decision (on an agent), then it's the question of, `Who are you and where have you been?' It has to be played cautiously. You have to be careful not to do the wrong thing.''
Williams wants Smith badly but says he never tries to talk a prospect into leaving school early.
``If he decides to come out, he'll have an excellent opportunity in the NBA,'' Williams says. ``If he decides to stay and continues to play like he is, he'll have an excellent opportunity in the NBA.''
Former Maryland star and TV analyst Len Elmore has run Precept Sports and Entertainment in Columbia, Md., for three years. He, too, says getting a prospect's attention early is essential, but ``the distinguishing factor is the method that (agents) do it.
``I haven't asked him to meet. He should focus on basketball right now. Have others done it? Sure they have. I know of others who will send star clients down there to make an attempt. I know people who were going after him last year.
``I'm in a tough situation. Maryland basketball is close to my heart. While I have business to do, I'm not about to violate Joe Smith's opportunity to enjoy his college career by doing more than making him aware of the fact that we'll provide information to him.''
Perry has reminded Smith that he holds the hammer. If anything an agent does to position himself upsets him, Smith should use his power.
``Even the good ones can be obnoxious sometimes,'' Perry says. ``The bottom line is that Joe is in control. If he tells some guy who wants to represent him to go stand in the corner until he's ready to make a decision, he'd do it. If he said quit bugging me, they'd probably quit in an effort not to piss him off.''
There must be plenty of times Smith, who won't be 20 till July 26, doesn't know what to think. Smith is a business major, but whose brain wouldn't overload when considering the economic reality within Smith's reach?
``Anybody in my situation would think about that every once in a while,'' Smith admits. ``But I don't go on and daydream that I could buy a big house, or my mother a house, or a big fancy car. It hasn't gotten to that point.''
Spanky Johnson knows something different.
``He wants to get his mother out of the neighborhood, out of Norfolk,'' Johnson says. ``That's what we talk about every time.''
Smith didn't have much as a child. Says he never wanted much. But he had love and a home and a remarkable single mother who raised seven children, now ages 19 to 40. Joe is the baby, 12 years younger than his nearest sibling.
He lived in Tidewater Park with his mother until he was 2, when Letha bought her house in Lamberts Point after 17 years in public housing. An office automation specialist at Norfolk Naval Hospital, Letha Smith never married Joe's father, Joseph McFarland, who lives in Clinton, Md., and rarely talks to Joe.
She raised Joe in a strict, God-fearing environment. He played ball constantly, mostly at Old Dominion and Larchmont Recreation Center and was never much trouble. And it helped that Joe was less concerned with the latest styles and material trappings than in playing ball, because Letha Smith had her rules. No weird haircuts, no gold teeth, no huge egos. Which goes far to explain Smith's profile as the humble, friendly type, level-headed to a fault.
``I call him after a game and say, `You did it baby, you were great,' and he says, `Ah, I was all right,' '' Letha Smith says. ``Joe knows. I reared him to know that this talent is not yours, this is God's. Treat it bad and He'll take it away from you. He can take it away from you just like He gave it to you.''
Letha and Joe Smith are the best of friends, and in fact have a loose agreement that she will live with Joe until he's 24 to make sure he gets his feet on solid ground as a pro.
Admitting that Joe probably will be a pro is as far ahead as Letha Smith allows herself to look. She has lived her life, she says, on what she has, not on what might arrive down the line.
``Worrying about what's going to happen in the future, you might not even get there,'' she says. ``That's why I tell anybody who says anything about (the NBA), if God sees fit for it to happen, it'll happen. I can't live it till it happens.
``People in the neighborhood or at church, they say the same thing; `Oh, you're gonna be rich one day.' Well if it's there, that's when I'll get excited.''
When it happens, Joe Smith will have to be larger and tougher. NBA scouts say Smith's 220-pound frame could use 20 more. And his friends think the quiet, winning charm Smith exudes will need to be tempered in his NBA life.
Baker, the Maury coach, hates to think about that, but he knows it is a necessity. A wall is going to have to go up.
``Because there are too many people out there who I think don't have his best interests at heart,'' Baker says. ``I just hope he doesn't learn that the hard way, by being taken.''
Whom does he trust? How does he learn to say no? What about all those flirtatious females? How does he keep explaining them to his girlfriend, a senior at the University of the District of Columbia, pleading his innocence?
These are foreign elements that conflict with Smith's nature. Sure, he slips out of buildings once in a while. There are times he wants to slip out of his skin.
``Association draws assimilation,'' his mother tells him, and Smith's antennae remain up.
``It's very tough to guard against,'' Smith says. ``Because you never know, there might be someone out there who's true to you, who really wants to be my friend and might be able to help me out, but I wouldn't know that because I would think he might be one of those hangers-on. So it's very difficult.''
When it comes to deciding about the NBA draft, Baker wants Smith to know he's physically and emotionally ready to be an adult. Smith acknowledges that much, too, but talks mainly about helping the Terps to the Final Four this season.
And if he stays, he'll get to play outside more and showcase the power forward skills he'll need in the NBA because a 6-9, 265-pound Nigerian center named Obinna Ekezie has been recruited.
Baker's hunch is that Smith will stay. But Spanky Johnson says Smith is gone.
``He'll talk to his mother and coach, and if he feels he can take the pounding down low, he'll come out,'' Johnson says. ``If he (gains weight) by the end of the year, I think he'll try to come out.''
Yet there are times when just coming out after games is more than Smith can handle. It is an annoyance that makes this extraordinary Joe take cover and marks his unique, public passage from boy to man. ILLUSTRATION: CHISTOPHER REDDICK
Maryland's Joe Smith, who attended Maury High in Norfolk, is
averaging 20.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for the No. 7
Joe Smith's instinct is to sign every autograph, meet every person,
talk to everyone. But it's just not possible anymore.