Otis Smith's office isn't much different from most of the others in the Golden State Warriors' headquarters. His fifth-floor window looks out on an unremarkable section of downtown Oakland, and except for a framed picture of Smith dunking over Larry Bird, nothing is eye-catching on the walls. Yet the room exerts a powerful pull on the Warriors' three rookies—guards Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas and forward Troy Murphy—all of whom invade Smith's office regularly, whether he is there or not. It's not unusual for Smith, Golden State's executive director of community relations, to return to his work space and find at least one of the newcomers making himself at home, chatting on the phone or reading e-mail. "Otis is begging for a players' lounge," says Travis Stanley, the Warriors' vice president of public relations, "just so that he can sit at his own desk once in a while."
In truth Smith, 37, couldn't be happier to see his three office mates. Their frequent visits indicate how successful he has been in implementing the Warriors' new rookie mentoring program. As NBA rookies become younger and younger, acclimating them to life in the league is increasingly important, and the Warriors, who rarely lead the league in anything, are trying to get ahead of the curve. "There's always been this debate about who should be responsible for helping young players find their way," Smith says. "Is it the league? Is it the team? Is it the agent? Is it the union? We drafted these players, and as an organization we have an obligation to help them."
The league operates a five-day rookie orientation program (although this year's was canceled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), and several teams provide less formal support systems for their young players, but none of those efforts is as wide-ranging as Golden State's program. Smith, who spent six years in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors and the Orlando Magic, should have his tide changed to director of rookie relations. "The first goal was for the guys to feel comfortable around me, to feel free to come to me with the simple questions and the hard questions," he says. "Every time they come in here and put their feet up on the desk, it tells me that our bond is getting stronger."
A few words of gentle persuasion from Smith carry significant weight among the three rookies. That was evident when Arenas popped in for a recent visit. "We need to get you a suit," Smith told him. "Remember that clothing guy I told you about? I'm bringing him in." Mindful of the fashion plates who sit at the end of the bench in designer clothes instead of uniforms, Arenas shook his head.
"Suits mean injured reserve," replied Arena, only half joking. "Tell them I don't need a suit."
Smith laughed. "It doesn't have to be a suit—just a jacket and a nice pair of pants," he said. "You're going to be doing appearances, meeting season-ticket holders. Some of these people are movers and shakers, and you'll need to wear something you didn't get at Niketown." Arenas sighed and smiled. By the end of the day he was meeting with a tailor in Smith's office.
It quickly became apparent to the rookies that Smith would do more than check in with them occasionally. By the time they arrived in Oakland two days after the June 27 draft—the Warriors took Richardson, a Michigan State sophomore, with the fifth pick; Murphy, a Notre Dame junior, with the 14th; and Arenas, an Arizona sophomore, with the 31st—Smith had scheduled meetings with all of them. He gave each player a two-way pager and outlined the kind of help he hoped to provide. Smith has notebooks full of the telephone numbers of bankers, real estate agents, carpet cleaners and providers of every other imaginable service. In addition he keeps a calendar with reminders to take each rookie out for a meal during the season as a means of staying in touch, though with their almost constant contact, that hardly seems necessary. When Smith went three days not long ago without having spoken to Arenas, the 19-year-old felt the need to check with his mentor. "I asked him if something was wrong," Arenas says, "and he said, 'Can't we go a couple of days without talking?' I said, 'No, as a matter of fact we can't.' "
"Otis has been a friend, a big brother, a teacher, a counselor, a father figure," says Richardson, 20, who was raised by a single mother in Saginaw, Mich. "It's a big help to have somebody to turn to when you don't know where to go shopping or go out to eat, or if you're just feeling a little bit homesick." Adds Murphy, "It's been great to have Otis helping us get our feet on the ground before the season starts and things get overwhelming."
However, Richardson, Arenas and the 21-year-old Murphy are far more likely to tease Smith than to praise him. That dunk over Bird, circa 1990? "Probably the only two points he ever scored," says Arenas.
"Nice dunk," says Richardson, "but what's up with those booty-hugging shorts?"