Still the 1

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Norfolk, Va. -- "Get your shoes on," Letha Smith told her son.

Joe Smith frowned.

"My feet won't be in the picture," he said.

The photographer concurred, and Letha relented, grudgingly.

Finally, the photo session could begin.

Joe Smith wrapped his long arms around his mother, once, twice, a dozen times. His mood was light, relaxed, comfortable. Every so often, laughter filled the room.

The photographer snapped away, then asked to stand on a chair for a better angle.

"You're going to do something I used to get in trouble for doing," Joe said.

The photographer offered to take his shoes off.

Letha nodded her approval.

And the session resumed, Joe Smith pulling his mother close, as naturally as if he were grabbing a rebound.

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Can't find the Smith house?

Just look for the air conditioner that says "Joe."

Seems Smith got bored one day as a kid, and used his thumb to imprint his name on the grills of the air conditioner -- outside the house, and inside, too.

Seeing where he grew up in Norfolk, listening to his mother describe her struggles, the question is not why Smith decided to leave Maryland after his sophomore year.

The question is why there was even a debate.

"You have to stand in a guy's moccasins before you can pass judgment," said Smith's agent, Len Elmore.

Letha Smith's home is compact -- one story, with three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths. In this working-class neighborhood in the shadows of Old Dominion University, there are houses even smaller.

"Jo-Jo," that's what they call him here -- even now, with Smith expected to be one of the top three players selected in Wednesday's NBA draft.

When Smith is home, the phone never stops ringing. Last weekend, his relatives kept calling to coordinate travel plans. Seventeen of them plan to attend the draft in Toronto.

Jay Johnson, the 7-year-old cousin of one of Smith's best friends, came over to play video games in Joe's room.

"He calls his name a hundred times a day," Letha said, laughing.

Inside, two large photographs Smith signed for his mother are displayed prominently in the living room, one wishing her happy birthday, the other merry Christmas.

And next to the dining room table, dozens of plaques honoring Smith are piled up on the floor.

"When we get a new house, there's going to be a Joe Smith room," Letha said.

A new house.

It won't be long now.

Smith's first contract will be worth millions, even though the new NBA labor agreement is expected to include a rookie salary cap.

He plans to buy his mother a new home.

"It's time for her to sit back and relax," he said.

Letha bought this house when Joe was 2, bought it to escape the Norfolk projects. She raised seven children as a single parent. Joe, 19, is the youngest by 12 years, and the only one fathered by Joseph McFarland, with whom he is not close.

"It's been tough for me," Letha said. "After I was first separated [in the late 1960s], there were times when there was food for the kids, but there wasn't any for me. I never told anyone. No one ever knew about it. We just went on."

And by the time Joe was born in 1975, the worst was over.

"It wasn't really a big struggle for me," Joe said. "Whenever I tell people I'm the youngest of seven, they say, 'That's why you're so thin, you couldn't get no food from the table.' But it wasn't that way at all."

Letha has worked the past 25 years at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital -- the range of salaries for her clerical position is between $19,400 and $25,233. In leaner times, she often took on a second job, waiting tables or serving as a housekeeper.

"I did anything honest to take care of my family," she said. "They never knew it was hard. They had the same things other kids had. I never was a welfare person, a food-stamp person. I just worked and took care of my family."

Smith didn't enter the NBA draft simply to provide a better life for his mother -- he believed there was little left for him to accomplish at Maryland, and feared the possibility of injury after falling on his hip against Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.

Still, Smith and his mother are unusually close -- his siblings were out of the house by the time he was in junior high school, and he was raised almost as an only child.

Joe plans to complete his degree at Maryland to fulfill a promise to his mother. And Letha plans to live with Joe during his rookie season, even if it means moving to California.

"They're very, very close," said Jack Baker, Smith's coach at Maury High School. "She's raised Joe for 19 years. I'm sure he wanted to pay her back the best way he could, as soon as he could.

"This [entering the draft] was his way of doing it."

And still, he almost stayed at Maryland.

Deciding moment

The fall against Connecticut, that was the watershed moment. The fall against Connecticut, it scared everyone.

Smith landed hard on his hip after blocking a shot in the first half. He lay on the floor for several minutes. And right then, the risk of injury if he remained at Maryland became clear.

"I thought about it," Smith said. "That injury could have been a lot worse than it was. All that added up. That finalized my decision."

"I thought about it, too," Letha said. "I said, 'Hey, he's going to lose his future right there.' It scared me to death."

It proved to be his final collegiate game. Connecticut bounced Maryland from the NCAA Sweet 16, and three weeks later, Smith announced he would enter the NBA draft.

"It was something I was dying to let loose," Smith said. "Once I let it loose, it felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders."

Yet, even after his tearful announcement, Smith had second thoughts.

The debate had raged inside his head all season, the player agents shouting "Go!" in one ear, his Maryland classmates shouting "Stay!" in the other.

Smith said he didn't start weighing his decision until the season ended. He'd think out loud with his roommate, Maryland guard Matt Kovarik. And he kept changing his mind.

"One day I'd wake up, I'd say, 'Matt, this is it for me, I'm gone,' " Smith said. "The next day, I'd wake up and say, 'I'm staying.' "

It was like that until the announcement.

"He was real nervous," said Greg Johnson, Smith's boyhood friend and former high school teammate. "The night before he announced, that's all he kept saying: 'I'm nervous, I'm nervous.' "

Smith said he loved Maryland, his teammates, the fans, the electric atmosphere. He'd walk past Cole Field House, see fans sleeping out for tickets and get excited to play.

The NBA, though, was never far from his mind.

Smith heard all season that he needed to add bulk to his 6-foot-10, 225-pound frame to succeed as a pro. But he also heard that he was projected as one of the top picks in the draft.

"It made the season really tough," Smith said. "There was a point during the season where that's all I was thinking about. There were days when I was in my room just going crazy, saying, 'What am I going to do?' "

Reporters, students, agents, even professors -- they all wanted to know what Smith was thinking.

Only on the court did Smith find peace.

On the court, he led Maryland to its second straight Sweet 16 appearance and emerged as the consensus college Player of the Year.

Off the court?

Maryland coach Gary Williams banned agents from the tunnel leading to the team's dressing room at Cole. Still, he couldn't prevent them from making contact with Smith.

Williams said there are three levels of agents -- the high-powered attorneys, their energetic assistants and young, independent types who befriend players and deliver them, for a price, to the larger firms.

"I must have met them all," Smith said.

Three of the most prominent agents -- Elmore, Donald Dell and David Falk -- are based in the Baltimore-Washington region.

And three of the top four projected picks -- Smith and North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace -- played in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"When we played Carolina here this year, it was like an agents' convention," Williams said.

But it wasn't just the agents.

It was everyone.

"I was worried to death about him," Letha said. "Everyone was pressuring him, wanting to know, 'When? Where? How? What are you going to do?' And he had to face this daily.

"It got to the point where I wish I could have gotten him home and let him commute. Then I started getting him home on weekends so he could get away. It was bad for a young guy."

Few were trusted

Whom did Smith trust?

He said Williams was supportive, but that he spoke more with Maryland assistant Art Perry, the coach who recruited him.

He also spoke with Walt Williams of the Sacramento Kings, a former Maryland star represented by Elmore.

And he spoke with his mother.

"She helped him a lot," Kovarik said. "When things were bothering him, he could talk to his mom. She would make him feel a lot better."

"He uses her as a sounding board," Elmore said. "He seeks her affirmation."

Letha Smith told the agents to mail information to her, not Joe. Elmore recalls her presiding quietly over his recruitment, "soaking everything in."

But the decision, she insisted, would be Joe's -- just as it was when he chose to attend Maryland over her preference, Wake Forest.

"He'd say, 'Mom, I'm going to get you a car and a house,' " Letha recalled. "I always told him that I had a car and a house. I said, 'Don't base this decision on me.' "

Smith also spoke with Baker, his high school coach. Baker recalled how Smith handled college recruiters. Looking back, he had an inkling of what Smith might do.

Smith wasn't heavily recruited in high school, but Baker said he so disliked the process, he never made a recruiting visit, though five are permitted under NCAA rules.

Smith chose Maryland without ever seeing the school.

"Knowing the way he is, he was just tired of the whole business," Baker said. "He probably realized that if he came back, he'd have to go through that all over again. He wanted to make a decision and -- boom! -- that would be it."

He did it once, didn't he?

He could do it again.

"After a while, it just dawned on me," Smith said. "There was nothing else for me to do except win a national championship, and that's not guaranteed. And it was not guaranteed I would come back for my junior and senior years and be as successful as I was as a freshman and sophomore."

Now, with the draft approaching, Smith is comfortable with his decision.

The other day, he sat at his dining-room table with his brother Mark, recalling his tumultuous season, his doubts, his confusion.

What did Mark want him to do?

Mark, 33, nodded furiously, as if still reluctant to offer his opinion.

"Go!" he said.

The brothers laughed, and slapped each other five.

Gary Williams understands.

"If anybody faults what Joe did, they're wrong," he said. "One of the things you want your players to do besides basketball is develop a strong feeling about their family and themselves as people.

"Joe has a lot of pride. He has a lot of pride in his family. This is a way for Joe to be very successful financially. Why do you go to college? To put yourself in a situation where you can be successful down the road for yourself, for your family. That's what Joe did.

"My only regret," Williams said, "is we'll never know how good we could have been."

An odd couple

Yes, they're actually going to live together, the million-dollar rookie and his mom.

At first, Letha vowed to stay with Joe until he was 24. But that, she came to realize, would be pushing it.

"Joe would be putting me out," she said, laughing. "We'd be out there fighting. There'd be one every day -- 'Mom, when are you going home?' "

One year, that's how long the arrangement will last.

"It will be great," Joe said. "We'll have money to have a lot more food, and she can cook a lot more."

He can joke with his mother now, but she was so tough on him as a child, he'd stomp back to his room, thinking, "I don't want to be here." In high school, she'd threaten to keep him off the basketball team if he misbehaved.

Now, Smith understands.

"Quite frankly, he's not as experienced in life as a 28-year-old," Elmore said. "He's going to need a transition period. And that's her youngest son. He's still a teen-ager. She feels an obligation to provide guidance."

Letha said she wants to help Joe adjust to his new life, but that's not her only motivation. She once threatened to sue Joe if he failed to earn his college degree. Now, she wants to make sure it happens.

She was delighted to learn that the Washington Bullets' Juwan Howard recently graduated from Michigan, despite leaving as a junior. Howard took correspondence courses to earn his communications degree, fulfilling a promise he made to his late grandmother.

"As soon as I read it in the paper, I jumped on the telephone. I said, 'Joe, look what Juwan did. You can do the same thing,' " Letha said. "I'll be with him. I'll make sure he's studying."

Letha was just as demanding of her six other children.

Two of her daughters, Lynn and Roxanne, are certified nursing assistants. A third, Sharon, is an Army sergeant. And a fourth, Celeste, is a bank manager.

One son, William, works in data input. The other, Mark, is an assistant manager at a convenience store.

"Everyone's got a good job, a good position," Letha said.

And Joe?

He not only promised his mother he'd graduate, he also promised Elmore.

"That's what I went to college for," Smith said. "I never knew I'd be leaving school after my sophomore season. I was expecting to stay four years, get my degree and hopefully make it to the NBA."

Now, that day is upon him.

Letha said, "It'd be nice not to have to worry about working, about how am I going to pay this bill, mortgage payments," Letha said. "Just to go out and shop one time without adding up, multiplying, subtracting and dividing, and seeing I've got enough to pay for it."

The new house?

Letha has yet to draw up blueprints. It still seems so so unreal.

"I don't spend money before I get it," Letha said. "I know one day it's coming. The other night my girlfriend was down, and we were talking. I said, 'You know, if I get another house, one thing I want is a porch, so I could sit out on my porch.' But if I don't have it, I don't spend it.

"It's been so long that I've been counting pennies."

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