Most of Smith's closest friends are veterans of the daily pickup games that took place at the basket in the Smiths' backyard. They were legendary affairs that often stretched late into the night. The backyard opened at noon in the summer, and the neighborhood kids would flow in and out all day. The one constant was Steve.
"There must have been at least 50 or 60 kids every day, all ages," says Clara. "The only real rule I had was that if there was a fight, the yard would be closed for a week. In all the years they played, we had to close it only twice. Steve did a lot to make sure things didn't get out of hand. There were times I put him out there to control the yard when he was only about 10 years old. There were 18- and 19-year-olds back there playing, but Steve controlled that yard. Sometimes people are surprised that Steve can be so forceful out on the court when he's so quiet the rest of the time. He probably learned that in our backyard."
Another reason Smith didn't catch the attention of most recruiters was that he was a late bloomer. He was only 5'8", 150 pounds as a high school freshman, and until a growth spurt before his junior year brought him to 6'5", he didn't look much like big-time college material. Missouri, which has a recruiting blanket over Detroit, was the only major school besides Michigan State that showed any interest in him.
Still, Smith's athletic talent was always evident, so much so that when the golf coach at Pershing needed to fill out his roster, he went to Smith, who had never played the sport. Smith gamely gave it a try, and by the end of the season he was one of the team's best, shooting in the low 90s.
But don't get the idea that Smith was always a coach's dream. Pershing basketball coach Johnny Goston remembers when Smith got a D on a test during his sophomore year. Goston requires any player who gets a grade below a C to run laps until Goston tells him to stop.
"He couldn't deal with the discipline at the time," Goston says of Smith. "He told me he wasn't going to run, and I told him that it was my way or the highway. So he told me he was going to quit, and this was just the day before we had a state tournament game."
Smith quit the team and planned to transfer to another school. His parents told him to forget it. He could quit the team if he wanted, they said, but he was at Pershing to get an education, not simply to play basketball, and that was where he would stay. The next day, Smith sat in the stands and watched as his teammates were eliminated from the state tournament. A few weeks later he crawled into Goston's office and asked to rejoin the team.
"That was the moment of truth for Steve," Goston says. "Every kid in the city has to face it. It's that moment when each kid decides whether he's going to take the good road or the bad road. I was gambling that with Steve's parents, he would pick the right road, and he did."
Smith's path should lead to the first round of the 1991 NBA draft, which will prove that he's no longer the secret of a knowledgeable few. "When he wasn't getting recruited by most of the big schools, I used to tell him not to worry, because sooner or later the light was going to shine on him," Goston says. "It's shining on him now, and it keeps getting brighter."