A letter to Joe Smith:
The wise guys are saying that no one in his right mind would advise you to stay at Maryland for another year, jeopardizing your chances of signing an NBA contract worth $50 million.
I guess that means I'm not in my right mind.
I think you should stay, Joe. Spend one more year with the Terps. Get stronger. Hang around with your friends. Be a kid for just a little longer. Have fun. Jump to the pros only when you're physically and mentally ready for the grind.
You aren't ready yet, Joe. As brilliant as you are, you're not strong enough yet to make a serious dent. You know it's true. You saw David Robinson at the Maryland-Cincinnati game in San Antonio a few weeks ago. He was sitting courtside, his huge muscles bulging. After the game, you told your coach, "Man, I better start hitting the weight room."
Indeed, you better start hitting it hard if you're planning on banging bodies with Robinson and his pro brothers next season.
Heed history's lesson, Joe. Bad things happen to players who leave college too soon, before they're completely ready. They get injured, lost, forgotten. Their stock plummets. Look at Jerrod Mustaf. Look at Shawn Bradley, the second pick in the draft two years ago. The 76ers knew he was too thin, not ready physically, but they gave him a ton of money, anyway, because they saw potential. Sound familiar?
Two years later, the fans in Philly are booing him and the Sixers are trying to unload him. His career is in tatters. He has suffered one injury after another. His knees are a mess. Why? Because he was way behind when he started. Not ready physically.
Yes, you're a much better player than Bradley ever will be, Joe. But understand the lesson of his story: Your coach and GM aren't going to have patience if you're not ready to be a star right away. Their jobs are on the line. It won't matter that you're a high pick. They'll sit you down in a heartbeat if you can't help them. You'd be yesterday's news faster than you'd believe.
Yes, it is true Bradley will always have 44 million reasons not to get too depressed, no matter how low he sinks. He is set for life. You could be, too.
And yes, there are plenty of examples of sophomores who left school and excelled in the NBA. Chris Webber. Isiah Thomas. Magic Johnson. But Magic and Isiah were special, and Webber, who plays your position, was more of a banger than you. You need the extra year, Joe, like Kenny Anderson needed the extra year.
Obviously, I can't possibly say you'd be wrong for leaving. There's too much money involved. But you have to ask yourself what your goals are, Joe. If all you want is the contract, your decision is a no-brainer. But if you want to become a big-time star, a Dream Teamer, a shoe-company icon -- and I think you want all that -- you should wait until you're ready to hit the pros at your peak. You won't run the risk of getting lost, as Donyell Marshall is getting lost now. The risk is very real.
It's not as if your money will evaporate if you don't take it now. You'll still get millions in your first contract even if there is a rookie salary cap next year, and mega-millions in a few years if you're any good at all, which you are. And remember, the NBA players' association is opposed to the rookie cap. Who knows if it will become a reality?
(Just between you and me, NBA GMs are already thinking up ways to structure contracts to get rookies big money even if there is a cap. But don't tell anyone.)
And in the very unlikely event that the worst happened, that you broke your leg and couldn't ever play again, you'd still get your insurance money, which could be as much as $2 million. But that's like worrying about dying in a plane crash. The chances are minimal.
But Joe, there is one reason that stands above all others as an argument for staying in school.
It is what you want to do.
We know, Joe, we know. It's easy to tell. That's why you cried at the last game at Cole Field House the other day. Of course you want to stay. Anyone who watches you can tell you're having a blast. You're playing ball with your friends, you're winning, you're a hero, you're under no pressure, everything is great. Who would want to give that up?
You don't have to, Joe. You're just 19. There's no crime in wanting to stay young a little longer. Ralph Sampson was in your position, stayed all four years, and said later that keeping his youth was the best thing he ever did. Remember his quote: "How many people would give up a million dollars to be 21 again?" Talk to Ralph, Joe. He still made more than enough money to live like a king for the rest of his life. Most ballplayers do.
Leaving school won't be fun, Joe. You should understand what the pro life is going to be like. You're going to live in airplanes and hotel rooms. You'll be by yourself most the time, no friends around, nothing to do in a strange city. It's a lonely existence, nothing like college. You'll get depressed. Your phone bill will be enormous.
Grant Hill said recently that he hates the isolated pro life, that he wishes he were still in school. He's not turning down the money or the fame, of course. And maybe it's true that he would have left school earlier if he'd been threatened by a rookie salary cap. But he wants his youth back.
Hill had no choice; he was a senior. You're different, Joe. You have a choice. You can let yourself be a teen-ager for a little longer before your life gets so cold-cash serious. You can grow up, get stronger, give yourself a better chance to succeed in the NBA. And have fun.
Sure, I know, it's easy for someone from Baltimore to advise you to stay. Every fan in Maryland wants you to stay. The Terps are a Final Four contender with you, just another good team without you. It's self-serving for me or anyone else to tell you not to go.
But you should stay, Joe.
Leaving is the smart choice, the obvious choice, but staying is the choice that would make you happy. Listen to what your heart is telling you, Joe. You won't be sorry.
IT'S YOUR CALL
Should Maryland sophomore center Joe Smith declare himself eligible for the NBA draft after this season, or should he return to Maryland next season? To register your opinion, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 5005. For other Sundial numbers, see the SunSource directory on Page A2.