THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, January 10, 1996 TAG: 9601100779 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY DAVID NAKAMURA, THE WASHINGTON POST DATELINE: OAKLAND, CALIF. LENGTH: Long : 249 lines
Letha Smith's glasses slip farther down her nose and she peers over the rims like a schoolteacher making a point to her class. She's working up the passion to match. Letha is talking about her youngest child, the one with the exceptionally long limbs and the disarming smile, the one with the taste for her meatloaf and the penchant for leaving a mess in every room he enters, the one who never ceases to amaze her with his need for pampering.
Joe Smith is 20 years old, almost a full-grown man, yet nearly every morning, Letha finds herself at his bedroom door, trying to wake him up.
``I knock on the door several times,'' Letha says. ``He says, `Mama, I'm getting up!' ''
The things her son puts her through! If she's not careful, he's liable to neglect himself.
``I have a hard time getting him to eat breakfast,'' she says. ``So this week, we made a decision: ``Breakfast is your main meal of the day, and you are going to eat breakfast.' ''
No, it doesn't seem to matter that Joe Smith is one of the most famous 20-year-olds in America, that he has signed a three-year, $8.3 million contract to play basketball for the Golden State Warriors. It doesn't matter that he has moved across the country from his boyhood home in Norfolk - Joe still needs the attention only a mother could give. Which is why even though Joe bought an elegant house in Danville, Calif. - a neighborhood so exclusive that it's known as the ``Gated Community'' because everywhere you go, you have to pass through a gate with a security guard - Joe asked his mother to move in with him during his rookie season.
``The things I do to keep his life running keep me busy all day!'' Letha declares. ``He thinks it's easy because Mama has always handled things, so it's just that Mama's got it and he doesn't worry about it.''
This, then, is a story of mother and son, about how their lives have changed since Joe, a 1993 graduate of Norfolk's Maury High School, left the University of Maryland after his sophomore season last spring. But before the Joe and Letha Smith manuscript goes to the printer, one would be well-advised to include one more character. Because every now and then, when Joe has dressed up for the 40-minute drive to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena for a game, after he's put on his chocolate-colored trousers and lemon-yellow shirt and he's standing there looking as tall and handsome as the Golden Gate Bridge, Letha is reminded of someone from long ago.
``She always tells me that I look just like my father,'' Joe Smith says. He pauses and shakes his head. He hardly knows his father, and he doesn't know what to make of Letha's words.
``I don't know how to react to it,'' he says. ``I don't know if that's good or bad.''
The noise inside the Coliseum Arena is deafening. The Warriors are playing the Orlando Magic in early December, the replacement officials are working, and the fans are screaming: Joe Smith has just drawn his first NBA technical foul.
It happened after he received an alley-oop pass from forward Chris Mullin and dunked to give the Warriors an 81-80 lead with 1:29 left in the third period. But an official gave Smith the ``T'' for hanging on the rim, and the fans are going bonkers because they know that Smith is the most polite, well-mannered No. 1 draft pick in a long time and would never showboat.
``You're not going to see him on ESPN with a lot of highlights,'' Warriors general manager Dave Twardzik says.
The fans adore the fact that Smith lives with his mother. So does the media. Before the game against the Magic, one writer from Sports Illustrated For Kids hounded Letha for her meatloaf recipe - ``I was going to give it out,'' she tells him, ``but Joe says that's his recipe'' - before settling for her recipe for homemade fudge.
Unlike his two seasons at Maryland, where he was named college basketball's player of the year last season, Smith - who averages 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 30.0 minutes per game - is not the go-to guy on the Warriors. Then again, maybe he should be. Guards Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell are the featured players, but they have bickered publicly and don't coexist well. Golden State (14-18) is a game and a half out of the cellar in the Western Division.
Coach Rick Adelman says the Warriors drafted Smith to become a tougher team, and he loves Smith's can-do attitude when it comes to the NBA's dirty work: rebounding and defense. Still, the NBA has taken its toll on Smith, whose weight dropped to 213 pounds at one point. (Only Letha's home-cooking and a gooey, chocolate-colored weight-gaining shake he drinks have put him back up to his current 220.) The general consensus in the NBA is that Smith trails Philadelphia 76ers guard Jerry Stackhouse and Toronto Raptors guard Damon Stoudamire in rookie of the year consideration.
Smith doesn't regret his decision to leave school after his sophomore year, but he does concede that the change has been drastic. He misses friends such as Terrapins senior forward Exree Hipp
``It's tough,'' Smith says. ``My two years at Maryland, those were the best two years of my life. We had the starting five for two years in a row. If I had come back this year, it would be three in a row. We had fun times at Maryland. We were winning. I mean, we basically turned the program around. Then, to leave school and just replace all that with different players and a different coach and a whole different lifestyle-it's a big turnaround.''
Against the Magic, Smith leads a late comeback by scoring six points in a five-minute stretch that helps tie the game at 107 with less than a minute left. But then Smith fouls Anfernee Hardaway and Hardaway makes two free throws for a 109-107 Orlando lead. Adelman calls timeout with 22.2 seconds left.
When play resumes, Smith and Tim Hardaway set up a pick-and-roll on the right side. But Hardaway instead throws the ball to Sprewell on the left, and Sprewell loses it as he attempts to drive into the lane. Time runs out and the Warriors lose again.
In the somber locker room, Smith-dressing at his locker between Mullin and guard B.J. Armstrong-is asked whether he was supposed to get the ball on the final play.
``You mean the pick-and-roll?'' Smith says. ``No. I was the decoy.''
Smith is reminded that he never was the decoy at Maryland.
``No,'' Smith says, ``but this is the NBA.''
The Revolution will be led by Joe Smith!'' screams the Nike television commercial featuring Smith and four other young NBA players. The commercial was Smith's first foray into the lucrative field of endorsements, which will supplement his $8.3 million salary. Because of the new rookie salary cap, Smith will make far less money than did 1994 No. 1 pick Glenn ``Big Dog'' Robinson, who has a $70 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Although Smith's contracts are handled by Washington-based agent Len Elmore, his endorsements and public appearances are handled by a brand-new, Norfolk-based company called MSB Marketing and Consulting Ltd. If you wonder why Smith would trust his image to a fledgling firm, it's because the company was founded by his uncle, Willie L. Brown, and two of Brown's sisters, Celestine McFarland and Sharon Smith. The company has one client - Joe Smith.
``We are going to make sure the image of Joe Smith lives up to the image that has been portrayed by him and his mother over the years,'' Brown says, handing out his business card. ``Our objective is to make him bigger than life.''
The idea of the Nike commercial was that with all the bad-boy attitude and trash-talking in the game, a ``revolution'' will be led by the new, young players who want to return the game to its more humble roots.
``It's about trying to just go out and let your game do the talking,'' Smith says.
``Someone asked me that with Joe being quiet and well-mannered, do I, as a marketing person, want to change his image so that he'll be aggressive,'' Brown says. ``My answer to that is, `No.' We feel Joe's image can help sell any company-a nice, wholesome, young man from a strong family background. We would never compare him to (Charles) Barkley or (Dennis) Rodman. That's not the image we want.''
So Smith is careful about what he does in public to the point that he has yet to throw any ruckus get-togethers at his house that might serve as tabloid fodder.
``No, not with Mom there!'' he gasps. ``It's kind of odd, you know. Because you hear some of these guys around the NBA talk about what they like to do, and you're like, `Wow!' ''
Smith's eyes grow dreamy, but then he says: ``But my mother's with me, so, you know. . . . ''
Ever since Joe was a child, Letha has been attending his games. It was the same for all seven of her children.
``Whatever they participated in, I was always present,'' Letha says. ``I think it's important for a child to look and see his parents. It makes the child go out and want to do his best.''
Letha raised her brood while keeping a 9-to-5 job as a clerk at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. When Joe was 2, Letha moved from the projects to a neighborhood near Old Dominion University. Letha never married Joe's father, Joseph McFarland.
``I never went to his house to visit him,'' Joe says of his father, who is married and lives in Clinton. ``I only talked to him a couple of times when I was in school. We really don't have the typical father-son relationship where you grew up throwing the ball in the front yard.''
Smith pauses and cocks his arm in a throwing motion. He's not talking about basketball or football, but baseball. Throwing a baseball in the yard has become the American symbol for what fathers and sons are supposed to do; Joe Smith is using it as the symbol for what he and his father didn't do.
``It was basically the kind of relationship where he came around every once in a while because my grandmother - his mother-still lives in Norfolk,'' Smith says. ``So whenever he came to town, he'd stop by the house. Most of the time I wasn't there. He'd talk to my mother. She'd tell me that he stopped by, that he was in town. . . .
``It's tough because most of my friends, when I was growing up, their fathers were around. I'd go to their house and see a normal family. Then I'd go home and only my mother was there, and that's it. It was pretty tough. But now I've gotten over it. I'm living my life and he's living his.''
Joseph McFarland has a deep but pleasant voice. He sounds momentarily surprised when asked about his son in a telephone interview. He says that he works as a special police officer, is married and has twin 17-year-old daughters who attend Surrattsville High School.
McFarland says that he played basketball at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk a long time ago. But he left Norfolk ``about 17 to 18 years ago to come (to Clinton). It was kind of hard for me to go back and forth (to Norfolk).''
When Joe was playing at Maryland, his father showed up once - when the Terrapins played Virginia at Cole Field House during Joe's freshman season. McFarland says he would have liked to have seen Joe play at Maryland more often, but that his ``graveyard shift'' prevented it.
``I wished he could have come stay with us for a while when he was here'' playing at Maryland, McFarland says of Joe. ``Our relationship is not like what a father and son should be. But he's my son and I love him and I wish it could be different. I've always hoped we could get to be father and son, although it might be different because we're older now.''
McFarland says he has followed his son's career. When Joe was the No. 1 draft pick June 28 in Toronto and walked across the stage at SkyDome with Letha sitting in the front row, McFarland says he was watching it on television. When asked what his emotions were that day, McFarland says: ``It was total, total joy. I wish I could have been there to hug him.''
Joe Smith wonders whether he'll ever get to know his father. If their relationship was strained before, the $8.3 million that stands between them now makes it all the more difficult.
``If he were to call right now and try to get back in my life, I'd feel like it might be the money factor or the celebrity factor,'' Smith says. ``He'd want everybody to know that I'm his son now or something like that. It's tough to say why he'd want to talk to me now. . . . I don't even know if he's a basketball fan, so that goes to show how much we talk.''
Joe Smith is asked if he thinks he'll ever have a deeper relationship with his father.
``It would have to be something that both of us agree upon, that both of us would want to sit down and talk and get to know each other,'' he says. ``Because, I mean, I feel the only thing he really knows about me is that I play basketball. And, well, date of birth. I don't know that we'd be father and son. It would be more of a friendship thing.''
Then Joe cracks the acorn and comes to the nut: ``Actually, I kind of look at my mother as my father.''
In the Southland shopping mall about 30 minutes south of Oakland, a long line of children in baggy jeans and baseball caps are eagerly awaiting their chances to meet Joe Smith, and Oakland A's baseball player Rickey Henderson and former A's teammate Dave Stewart.
The athletes are in the food court to sign autographs in a fund-raiser for Toys For Tots, a charity organization that gives toys to needy children. Across from the table at which Smith, Stewart and Henderson are sitting is one of the corniest food-court stands imaginable. It's called ``Hotdog-on-a-Stick,'' and it features teenage cashiers with red, yellow and blue smocks serving up lemonade and, well, hotdogs on sticks. If there is any question whether Smith's saccharine-sweet image can sell, this is not the place where it will be the most severely tested. This place was made for Joe Smith.
``I figure that parents will be like, ``I want you to meet this guy. He's a great guy. You know, his mother's with him,' '' Smith says.
As Smith signs autograph after autograph, you can't help but notice that he isn't much older than the kids in line, even if he has been through a lot the past three years. And that's when you realize why Joe Smith still lives with his mother. A new town, new house, new car; new teammates, new coaches, new friends: The world around you changes, but the bond with your mother never does.
``I've been with Joe from one stage to the next stage to the next stage,'' Letha says, ``and to me this is just another stage. And we're doing it together.''
Joe Smith may indeed lead a revolution, as the Nike commercial says, but it will be one based on a concept that shouldn't be so revolutionary at all. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos
Joe Smith slams home a basket Friday night against Sacramento. At
one point this season his weight dropped to 213 pounds - home
cooking is another good reason to have Letha Smith around.