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Mother Knows Best
Tim Crothers
October 16, 1995
Top NBA pick Joe Smith enters the league with a home court advantage: his mom, Letha
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October 16, 1995

Mother Knows Best

Top NBA pick Joe Smith enters the league with a home court advantage: his mom, Letha

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He scribbled his name on a blank sheet of spiral notebook paper. J-o-e S-m-i-t-h. He examined the letters closely and then wrote the name in script, fiddling with the loop in the J and the curves in the S, repeating the exercise 20, 30 times before turning the page to try some more. Joe Smith. Joe Smith. Such a simple autograph. It looked like a practice signature in some grade school penmanship class. Joe Smith. Joe Smith. Joe Smith.

Meanwhile Miss Watts, his 10th-grade English teacher at Maury High School in Norfolk, Va., lectured about people whose autographs really meant something: Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger. Joe Smith's mind would occasionally wander, and he would set about etching his name again and again. "I had this crazy idea that someday my signature would be worth a little something," Smith says.

During those dreamy adolescent days, Smith passed many an afternoon with his nephew Damian Smith, who by a quirk of genealogy happens to be two years older than Joe. One day Joe pulled out from beneath his bed about a dozen notebooks filled with that familiar signature. Damian laughed at his crazy 13-year-old uncle Joe before pausing to reconsider what Joe was implying about the future. Finally the nephew said, "Hey, pass me about 20 of those Joe Smiths...just in case."

On Oct. 3, three days before the opening of NBA training camps, Joe Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft, wrote his name on a fairly important piece of paper, a three-year contract to play forward for the Golden State Warriors. The deal is worth $8.53 million. A little something.

"Once upon a time, there was a child born to all of us," Joe's sister Roxanne was saying at her brother's 20th birthday party in July. If it can ever be congruous to refer to a man standing 6'10" as a "baby brother," Joe possesses all of the other qualifications. He is the youngest of seven children, a full dozen years younger than his closest sibling, and the first thing that each of his four sisters tells you about him is that he's so cuuuuute.

At his birthday bash Joe drifted across the dance floor as smoothly as he glides through the lane. Each time he began to dance with a woman, one of his sisters rushed to cut in. Despite his best efforts to thwart them, his sisters held their ground, insisting that their kid brother dance only with someone they believe is good enough for him, which is to say nobody. "In this family Joe has always been well protected," said eldest brother William, 36. "He basically had six bodyguards around the baby crib."

Joe was large from birth (22 inches long). Throughout grade school his shoe size advanced in lockstep with his age. By the time he met Miss Watts, Joe had already formulated his career path. One afternoon he informed his mother, Letha, that he expected to play college basketball for two years and then join the NBA to make some money to take care of her.

Alas, though Smith wore a Carolina blue Tar Heel jacket to high school almost every day, his body and his game were both considered underdeveloped, and he never got a nibble from Chapel Hill. Upon his unceremonious arrival at Maryland in '93 he was thought to be only the second-best Terp recruit, behind forward Keith Booth. "Joe wasn't the kind of guy who you saw in 10th grade and said he's the next Michael Jordan," says Maryland coach Gary Williams. "He came such a long way because he loved the game. He worked like a demon. In two years he never missed a single practice."

After he became the first ACC player in the last 30 years (since Billy Cunningham) to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in his career and won the Naismith Award as the collegiate player of the year as a sophomore, Smith stuck to his plan and declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. He was still the consummate teenager, spending draft day—June 28—dressed in a T-shirt featuring Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoon. After his selection he announced, during a videoconference with Warrior brass, that he had already chosen a roommate for his rookie season. The roommate, Letha, sat beaming a few feet away from her son, signing dozens of autographs "Joe's Mom."

Letha Smith dropped out of high school in 1953 to get married, had six babies over the next nine years and found herself divorced three years after that. Joe arrived almost a decade later, the offspring of another father, which helps explain why Joe is eight inches taller than any of his siblings. (Letha never married Joe's dad, 6'5" Joe McFarland.)

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