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Nearly quarter-century after leaving Maryland as NBA's top pick, Joe Smith in different spotlight

As Joe Smith walked off the court at Cole Field House after Maryland’s final home basketball game of the 1994-95 season, the sophomore center stopped for a moment to survey the crowd, tearfully waved a couple of times, then disappeared in the tunnel leading to the locker room.

Despite the urging of “one more year … one more year” from the fans, Smith knew he would never suit up again for the Terps after the season ended. The NBA beckoned, and Smith was about to become the No. 1 plck in that June’s draft.

Less than two years after Smith arrived in College Park with a persona as nondescript as his name, his future — especially financially for him and his mother, Letha, a single parent who worked as a nurse’s aide in Norfolk, Va. — seemed assured.

As the 2018 NCAA tournament begins this week, Smith finds himself back in a different kind of spotlight. Seven years after retiring from a 16-year, 12-team NBA career, Smith will be the subject in Tuesday’s 10 p.m. premiere of the new CNBC series “Back in the Game.”

In it, the former baseball star Alex Rodriguez tries to helps onetime athletes become financially solvent. Smith told Rodriguez he lost nearly all the reported $61 million he earned and that he has only $3,000 left in the bank.

The revelation that Smith, 42, was broke saddens many of his former teammates.

“I had no idea until I saw that preview that anything was going on,” Matt Kovarik, an attorney who was Smith’s roommate during his two years in College Park, said Saturday. “I was shocked and surprised, and I feel bad for him, and hope that he can turn it around.”

Said Duane Simpkins, now an assistant coach at George Mason: “Anyone who has played sports knows that locker room is a brotherhood, and obviously to see one of your brothers go through a hardship like that is tough. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy or he’s not a smart guy. Some of the brightest minds in the world have gone through similar financial hardship.”

Smith is part of a significant number of former high-profile athletes who went into retirement with not much more to show for it than a closet filled with old jerseys and other mementos.

“It’s a shame,” his Hall of Fame coach, Gary Williams, said Friday. “There’s reasons just in general. I don’t know Joe’s specific situation. If you live a lifestyle, you travel a lot, you do all those things. In the back of your mind, you’re young when you start, you don’t look at is ever ending.”

Former Maryland star Walt Williams, who was one of Smith’s favorite players growing up (and the reason he wore knee socks when he played), admittedly had to be reined in by his agents and financial advisers early in his own 13-year NBA career. He is now a financial adviser.

“You see that first check and you see all those zeros and you think you can do whatever and it’s never going to go away because you can’t fathom that amount of money,” Williams said Monday. “I made mistakes early in my career as far as my spending habits and it took a couple of years for me to pay attention to how it affects the future.”

Len Elmore, whose All-America career at Maryland predated Smith’s by two decades, was not shocked to hear the news. Elmore, who graduated from Harvard Law School after his own professional career ended, was Smith’s first agent.

The relationship lasted around a year before Smith’s mother fired Elmore, who was also representing Walt Williams at the time. It eventually soured Elmore on representing athletes, and devoted more time to his career as a college basketball analyst.

Smith wound up leaving Elmore for Eric Fleisher and his protege, Andy Miller, who is in the center of a scandal involving alleged payments to high school and college players, including former Terp Diamond Stone.

Fleisher and Miller persuaded Smith to turn down an extension from the Golden State Warriors and later agree to the under-the-table deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves that was voided by the NBA. Miller eventually split with Fleisher and took Smith with him.

“They told him they could make him the next Kevin Garnett,” Elmore said. “At the time, we had been renegotiating with Golden State and they had made him an offer — four or five years for very good money — and he could have signed another deal after that in the prime of his career. Instead, people just filled the family’s head with delusions of grandeur.”

After being named the NBA’s all-rookie team in 1996 and then averaging a career-high 18.7 points in his second season, Smith was traded in the middle of his third year in the NBA to the Philadelphia 76ers — where current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was the team’s video coordinator.

It marked the first of more than a dozen times Smith was traded, released or signed as a free agent. He wound up playing 1,030 games, averaging 10.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. Several NBA superstars, including Garnett, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, encouraged their respective teams to sign the unselfish, low-maintenance Smith.

Kovarik, who like most of his former teammates had lost touch with Smith, said he believes things would have turned out differently if Smith had not gone to Golden State in the first place.

The team was in the midst of a roster makeover that eventually left Latrell Sprewell as its leader. Many have blamed Sprewell for taking Smith under his wing off the court as well.

“I think if he had some consummate professionals as teammates, it might have turned out differently for him,” Kovarik said.

In 2015, Gary Williams introduced Smith at a luncheon in Atlanta celebrating the 20th anniversary of Smith’s winning the James Naismith Award for being the national player of the year. Williams had flashbacks of their two years together, when Smith led the Terps to Sweet 16 appearances.

“If you look at him today, he still looks like he’s a sophomore at Maryland, it’s incredible the way he looks,” Gary Williams said. “He’s very well-spoken, immaculate, takes care of himself. You would never know that he was in financial difficulty.”

When the Terps played Georgetown later that year at Xfinity Center, Smith returned to the Maryland campus for the first time since leaving in 1995. Some said Smith’s prolonged absence was a result of his being embarrassed about how his NBA career played out.

Smith said after being given a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd that he would have come back sooner had he realized how Maryland fans felt.

“That was pretty typical of Joe, just his modesty. You don’t have to apologize for a 16-year NBA career,” Gary Williams said. “You don’t have to apologize for being the first draft choice. You don’t have to apologize for being player of the year. He’s done so many things in basketball that’s just incredible.”

Said Kovarik: “Of course everybody there loves him, what he did for Maryland along with Gary, that was the turning point those couple of years and they never looked back.”

As surprising as it was to hear about Smith’s financial problems, his former teammates and coach believes there is hope.

“If he’s anything like — which he seems like he is based on the little bit I saw on the interview [with Rodriguez] — the person that he was when he was at Maryland, I have all the confidence in the world that he can [bounce back],” Kovarik said.

Said Gary Williams: “He’s still a young man. He can battle back. I’m sure everybody connected with Maryland hopes that can happen. … Hopefully people can help Joe get back on his feet and go from there.”

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