Indiana coach Bob Knight rated Smith the best NBA prospect in the Big Ten last season, when the conference included Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Kendall Gill and Willie Burton, all of whom went on to become NBA first-round draft picks. Smith, meanwhile, was voted the Big Ten's most valuable player after leading Michigan State to its first conference title since 1978-79, the season in which the Spartans also won their only national title. Michigan State's drive to the championship 11 years ago was orchestrated by a player whose considerable shadow will invariably haunt Smith throughout 1990-91—despite Heathcote's protests.
"I don't compare anyone to Magic," said Heathcote, referring, of course, to Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who played two seasons for the Spartans. "It's unfair to compare a college senior to the greatest guard that ever played. But I can see why the tendency to compare them is there. They are both tremendously versatile and multidimensional. Steve's not perfect, by any means, but I don't think there's any aspect of his game that you could look at and say, 'Well, Steve's really not very good at that.' "
The truth is that Smith belongs to the emerging generation of basketball stars whose unselfish play and all-around skills can be directly traced to Johnson. "Earvin was one of my heroes," Smith says. "I guess in the back of my mind I always hoped I'd end up playing here because of him. Now people ask me if I get tired of being compared to him. Why would anybody get tired of a compliment like that? But I'll never be Magic Smith or anything. I'm just Steve."
Smith isn't nearly as restrained on the court as he is away from it. His game, like Magic's, is full of flourishes, from the no-look passes to the odd way he drags his gangly 6'7", 200-pound body, a bag of loosely connected bones, around the floor. There's also a touch of arrogance about him that is completely absent when he is away from the court. Smith has been known to taunt opponents—the only characteristic that Heathcote would like to suppress—and Montgomery calls him "the only guy I know who can strut while he's backpedaling.
"He'll bring the ball upcourt and talk to you the whole time," Montgomery said. "He'll say, 'I got the ball on a string, so don't bother reaching.' Or he'll have the ball and say to the guy checking him, 'How do you want it? Dunk or a jumper?' That gets to some guys. They probably want to kill him, but then they find out he's a completely different guy once the game's over."
Smith's on-court persona is a direct reflection of his experiences at the Hawthorne Recreation Center in Detroit, where he competed against the likes of Coleman, Doug Smith of Missouri and UNLV's Anderson Hunt; he quickly learned that the ability to talk a good game is almost as important as the ability to play one.
"It's the Detroit in me," Smith says. "The way I learned to play, you had to show that you just weren't going to be intimidated, and to do that you had to be the one doing the intimidating. I try to tone it down in games a little, but if I didn't do at least little of it, I wouldn't be the same player. I wouldn't feel natural."
Smith's parents, Donald, a retired bus driver, and Clara, a housewife, are mainly responsible for keeping the neighborhood's negative influences from affecting anything more than their son's playing style. "There were drugs and gangs when I was growing up, the same as in a lot of places," Steve says. "There were a lot of guys who could have made it in sports but who went down the wrong road. I had both my mother and father to guide me. There were a lot of kids who didn't have that."
Steve remains unfailingly loyal to his childhood friends. "They are so important to him," Clara says. "When he's home he sees every one of them. He was like an only child, because his brother [Dennis, 36] was much older than he was. So his old friends are like family to him."
Smith was loyal enough to dedicate his sophomore season to his girlfriend at the time, Carletta Jones, after she was paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident. They are no longer dating, but they are still friends. "He flew down for two weeks to be with her after the accident," Montgomery says. "He didn't talk much about it when he got back. He would take long drives to be by himself."