Letha raised her brood alone between shifts as a maid, until she earned her high school equivalency diploma and accepted a job as a medical clerk at Norfolk Naval Hospital. She insisted that all her kids finish high school, and she displays all their diplomas on what she calls her Proud Table in the living room of their three-bedroom ranch house in Norfolk. There was never much room for ego in the Smith home, and the rules for Joe were simple: no bizarre haircuts, no foul language and no earrings. Says Letha, "I told Joe that the two holes he had in his ears were enough."
Whenever Joe took the court at Maury High or at Maryland, his mother uttered a prayer: Wings on his feet, strength in his arms. Whenever Joe Smith's phone rang at 2 a.m. in his college dorm room, it was certain to be Letha checking up on him. After tearfully announcing during a press conference last spring that he would enter the NBA draft, Joe sat down beside Letha, dropped his head into her lap and sobbed like a child. Letha soon after agreed to shepherd her son during his rookie season. "My lather wasn't around when I was growing up, and I grew so attached to her," Joe says. "I guess you could say that I'm a mama's boy."
"Now that he's in the NBA, people will be trying to take advantage of my boy," Letha says. "Joe can't say no, so his mama will be around to say no for him."
In the days before training camp opened, the Smiths scoured the Bay Area to find a place to live. Letha will clean house for her son and cook his favorite meal, meatloaf, like she always has, but Joe has outgrown his curfew. "Before the season's over I'm sure somebody will get on him about living with his mommy," says Warrior teammate Donyell Marshall. "But nobody on this team will say anything, except to ask when we can come over for dinner."
In many ways Smith—the second-youngest No. 1 overall pick in NBA history (Magic Johnson was one month younger)—is just another regular Joe, entering the NBA with barely a ripple compared with the most recent top draft choices: Glenn Robinson ('94), Chris Webber ('93), Shaquille O'Neal ('92) and Larry Johnson ('91). Among the first "victims" of the league's new rookie salary cap, Smith admits his $2.8 million per season looks paltry compared with the deals of Robinson (10 years, $68.1 million) or Webber (15 years, $74.4 million). "But it's still a lot of money to me," says Smith, who has padded his paycheck with the requisite Nike deal. And Smith may have the lowest Q rating for a top pick since the Portland Trail Blazers plucked LaRue Martin out of Loyola (Ill.) in '72. While walking around Los Angeles and Oakland last week before heading to the Warrior camp at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Smith was mistaken for Kevin Garnett (the 19-year-old who went straight from high school to the NBA as the Minnesota Timberwolves' No. 1 pick last June) and veteran John Salley, now with the Toronto Raptors. If anything, he is recognized for being unrecognized. "I just let my game do the talking," Smith says. "If I score enough points, block enough shots and get enough rebounds, I don't have to get up in somebody's face. That's the way my mother raised me."
If there is a question mark beside Smith's name, it's there because of his weight. He's a mere 220 pounds and hasn't gained an ounce since the middle of his freshman year in college. After watching the Philadelphia 76ers try unsuccessfully to force-feed Shawn Bradley, Golden State plans to let Smith's body fill out naturally. So how will a guy who has trouble blocking out his overprotective sisters survive in the NBA paint?
"His size is going to be a detriment against some big guys," says new Golden State coach Rick Adelman. "We have to realize that right now Joe's a forward, not a power forward. He still needs to add some of the power."
During the lockout this summer, Smith shared his anxieties with his agent, Len Elmore, a fellow Maryland alum and former NBA player. "Joe and I have talked about not pressing the down button on the elevator," Elmore says. "He's going to have a bad night or two, and he can't fall into a funk, drop into the basement and never be seen again."
"There's some uncertainty," Smith admits. "I want to prove that I deserve to be the Number 1 pick. But I've had to prove myself before, first as a freshman at Maryland and then as a sophomore, when I had to prove my freshman year wasn't a fluke. For years I've snuck up on people, but there's no more sneaking now."
"Joe stood out from the first day of training camp when he dunked an alley-oop pass, and I thought to myself, I can't wait to see that against the Lakers," says Warrior forward Chris Mullin. "He's lucky because unlike most first picks, he's not on a team that needs him to score 50 points, sell pretzels and clean the gym every night."