One school of thought has it that Steve Smith, Michigan State's versatile and dynamic guard, has had to endure a curious lack of attention throughout his basketball career because he has the kind of name that people use when checking into motels incognito—a plain brown wrapper of a name. There may be some validity to this theory, but it's not the complete explanation for Smith's anonymity.
It doesn't explain, for instance, the recruiters. Whatever else they may be, college basketball talent scouts are extremely thorough. If there's a 10-year-old kid out there with a modicum of basketball talent, someone has a file on him. Smith was a star at Pershing High in Detroit; he averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists as a senior. Yet Michigan's staff took little notice of him, and Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote freely admits, almost embarrassed now, that he had never seen or heard of Smith until he stumbled upon the player while scouting someone else. Greater anonymity hath no man than to be a Detroit high school star unknown to the Wolverines and the Spartans.
Another school of thought: Smith's relative obscurity might be due to the fact that he repels attention. Throughout high school he didn't attend any of the major summer camps or join any of the AAU teams that provide top players with coveted national exposure. "The hoop in my backyard was my camp," Smith says.
When the ABA/USA, amateur basketball's governing body, was putting together a team for the Goodwill Games and world championships last summer, coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted Smith badly enough that the player was allowed to skip the first round of tryouts. This is an option given to only a handful of elite players, such as Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon of Nevada-Las Vegas. Smith declined, citing a previous commitment. "Summer school," he says.
Final school of thought: Smith, as you may have gathered, is stingy with talk. The story goes that, after scoring 39 points, including the game-winner in overtime, against Big Ten rival Minnesota last March, Smith participated in an interview with a breathless radio announcer in which his responses pretty much consisted of "thank you," "thanks very much" and "yes." Smith insists the story is somewhat exaggerated, but you get the idea. He is the reserved type, the kind of guy who, instead of going to a party after a game, would rather return to his room, tidy up the place a bit, sort through his vast collection of basketball sneakers and put on his stereo headphones.
None of this, though, has kept Smith, now a senior at Michigan State, from being anything less than a major presence, even off the basketball court. "Steve always seems to have things under control in a quiet kind of way," says Spartan guard Mark Montgomery, Smith's former roommate. "His room is always neat, everything always in its place. He has his T-shirts on hangers, and his bed is always made. He's the kind of guy other guys' moms look at and say, 'Why can't you be like that?' "
Smith, 21, thinks the tales concerning his retiring nature are overblown and explains his reticence more as a natural distrust for the Johnny-come-latelies who are only now discovering him. "I guess I'm pretty quiet, but I'm not as reserved as most people probably think I am," Smith says. "I'm just not someone who can act like I'm your best friend the minute after I meet you. My friends know I can get loud and rowdy around people I feel comfortable with."
Of course, Smith's idea of loud and rowdy behavior probably wouldn't ruffle a librarian. "He can get pretty wild when he's around his old friends from Detroit, like [New Jersey Nets forward] Derrick Coleman and some other guys," Montgomery says. "But we're talking about what's wild for Steve Smith. We're talking about maybe turning up his music really loud. That's about it."
There you have it. Smith's dark side revealed isn't exactly as juicy as Laura Palmer's diary, which maybe the real reason you've never heard of him—something he's not happy about. Traces of resentment creep into Smith's voice when he talks about it, but only traces. He won't try to convince anyone that he doesn't care about publicity, but he also won't dwell on it. "I always thought I was pretty good, but until this year I kind of felt ignored," he said. "I guess it's good and bad—bad that people couldn't really see it before, and good that they're starting to see it now. It's not like there's anyone to blame, but you wonder why it took this long to be really noticed. I don't think the name has anything to do with it—at least I hope not."
Smith wants the kind of attention received by the country's other top players, such as Johnson and Augmon or Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, Syracuse's Billy Owens and Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown. He no doubt deserves it, considering his all-around talents: Last season he led Michigan State in scoring (20.2), rebounding (7.0) and assists (4.7).