The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, May 12, 1996                   TAG: 9605120277
SECTION: SPORTS                   PAGE: C5   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: NORFOLK                            LENGTH: Medium:   75 lines


Letha Smith had to be the most-quoted mother in the NBA this season.

She was featured along with her son Joe in Sports Illustrated with the headline ``Mother Knows Best.'' Her picture was splashed across newspaper pages on both coasts. She was on TV countless times.

Letha Smith came home last week, and what was awaiting her but another interview.

The thrill is gone.

``She did like it in the beginning, but it seemed every other day she was doing one and eventually she was like, `I'm not doing any more interviews,' '' Joe says.

Joe Smith's life in the NBA has just begun, but Letha Smith's is essentially over. After living with her son during his inaugural season with the Golden State Warriors, Letha is back in Norfolk in the spacious house with the high ceilings and captivating views of Lake Whitehurst. She moved in a little over a week ago - call it an early Mother's Day gift from an appreciative son.

``It seems like these people who lived here built this house for me, and the Lord fixed it so that when I got ready to come back home they moved out,'' Letha says.

Joe is home for the summer, but when he returns to work in Oakland this fall, he will go on his own.

``You're going to think at times, ``It would be nice to have mom here,'' Joe says. ``But there comes a time when I have to experience different things. That's the only way I'm going to learn. If she's always there for me, when I'm 30 I'm still going to be looking for my mom.''

This was never intended to be more than a one-year arrangement. Letha just didn't want to send her 20-year-old off to the other side of the country to face the unknown rigors of life as a professional athlete by himself.

``It was a new adventure for him,'' Letha says. ``I think it gave him comfort to know I was there and he could come home and talk to me.''

She did more than talk. She rousted him out of bed and made sure he had breakfast, and prior to home games whipped up Joe's pregame meal. After games, she waited for him outside the locker room.

One night, she cooked for a host of Joe Smiths. The Warriors had a promotion called ``No Ordinary Joe Night'' in which 10 Bay Area residents named Joe Smith were treated to Letha's meat loaf - Joe's favorite dish - collard greens and cornbread. The Warriors also handed out 8,000 posters of Joe and his ``namesakes.''

``That cracked me up,'' Letha says. ``It was my meat loaf, I made it from scratch.''

Joe says it was ``cool'' having his mother around for his rookie season.

``Having her there for me my first year was very important,'' Joe says. ``I didn't know what to expect and what the behind-the-scenes things would be like in the NBA.

``She gave me a lot of space, but when I needed her she was there. She was being a mother, still doing what mothers do and watching out for her son and making sure I'm all right.''

They've been watching out for each other most of Joe's life. He's 12 years younger than the closest of his six siblings, and Joe's father wasn't around when he was growing up.

``We've always had a good relationship,'' Letha says. ``Everyone else was gone, so it was just the two of us there and we had each other to depend on.''

Letha, 59, knows it's time to let him go. She prays Joe will keep his paths straight and be wise about where he goes and who he associates with. But her 6-foot-10 baby is a man, and she believes he is mature enough to handle life on his own.

``I feel like I can leave him,'' Letha says. ``He knows the rules.''

Besides, Letha adds, ``He knows I'm just a phone call away.''