Last year Charles Smith spent many sleepless nights in his two-bedroom apartment in Udine, Italy, watching NBA games by way of a satellite dish. Smith, a 6'4" swingman, was scoring 24.2 points a game for Snaidero Udine in the Italian Al league, yet each evening he stayed up until dawn, glued to the league that had turned him out. "I would watch the NBA games and think, Man, I want to be back there," Smith says.
Cut to the white easel in the visitors' locker room at Washington's MCI Center on Jan. 15, where the starting matchups for that night's nationally televised game between the Wizards and the Spurs had been written in black marker. There it was, third from the top: M. JORDAN-C. SMITH. In his first NBA start in three seasons Smith harassed Jordan into a 5-of-21 shooting night while scoring a career-high 21 points in a 96-91 San Antonio win. "Coming from where I have," Smith said after the game, "it's a dream come true."
If Smith's name is already familial" to NBA fans, that's not primarily his doing. He is the fourth Charles Smith to play in the league, malting it the most common name in NBA history. The Spurs' Charles Smith says he was excited when he got to play in Italy against the former Celtics guard who shares his name. "I rooted for him at Georgetown because I liked to hear my name on TV," says Smith, who prefers the tag Spider, the nickname his high school coach at Fort Worth ( Texas) Dunbar gave him for his preternaturally long arms.
After leaving New Mexico in 1997 as the Lobos' alltime leading scorer, Smith was drafted by the Heat with the 26th pick but shipped to the Clippers midway through his rookie season. He lasted a season and a half in LA, starting 10 games before the Clippers waived him in October 1999. After a year with the Rockford Lightning of the CBA Smith headed to Italy. Finally, after a 35-point explosion for a Spurs summer-league squad in July, he signed a guaranteed two-year deal worth $1.1 million.
Smith had logged only 16 minutes through the first 15 games when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called his name with 1:15 to go in the first quarter against Washington on Dec. 4. "I thought 1:15 was left in the half and someone must be in foul trouble," Smith says. "When I saw on the scoreboard it was still the first quarter, I was like, Damn!"
Smith scored 10 points in 26 minutes, the first of five straight games in double figures. At week's end he was averaging 8.8 points thanks to his long-range shooting and his ability to get to the rim. Popovich prizes him even more for his defensive prowess, which Smith displayed last week in his matchup with Jordan. His Airness had a shot blocked by Smith, tossed up an air ball and was even whistled for traveling. "That's the first time I was guarded by a Charles Smith," Jordan said. "This one is young and definitely getting better. He helps the Spurs tremendously."
That's crucial because Spurs point guard Tony Parker is nursing a sprained ankle and defensive stopper Bruce Bowen could miss six weeks with a broken right middle finger. Those injuries mean Smith will get a lot more minutes, which is fine with Popovich. "I have an affinity for guys with something to prove," Popovich says. "Now that Charles is a little older and more mature, it's his turn."