His mom died of cancer during his rookie year with Miami, before he had the chance to move her to Florida and buy her a new car, and that always bothered Atlanta guard Steve Smith. He couldn't totally enjoy his money or his fame because he hadn't been able to pay her back for being, as he says, "more than a mother. She was my best friend." He racked his brain, trying to think of some way to honor her memory, something far bigger and more lasting than the bell tattoo—her name was Clara Bell Smith—he had put on his right biceps so that he could touch it during games, for luck, when the going got tough.
As Smith searched for just the right tribute, the other pieces of his life were falling into place. After marrying last summer, he signed a seven-year, $45 million deal with Atlanta, which had acquired him from the Heat in a November 1994 trade. Then the 6'8", 215-pound Smith helped the Hawks soar to their surprising 28-12 start, which includes a league-high 19-game winning streak at home. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds in his sixth, and happiest, NBA season. "Steve's been terrific," Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens says. "Even when he's having an off shooting night, he'll get us 10 assists or do something else to help us."
"He's a marvelous player," said Charlotte assistant coach Lee Rose after watching Smith torch the Hornets for 31, his season high, in a 106-97 Hawks' win on Jan. 20. "He can play the 1, the 2 or the 3, and there are not many players in the league who can do that effectively."
On Jan. 6 the 26-year-old Smith revealed what he had chosen to do to honor his mom. At a news conference in Atlanta he announced that he was donating $2.5 million to Michigan State, where he played from 1987 to '91, to help build a $6 million learning center that will be named in Clara Bell's honor. It was the largest single gift that a professional athlete has ever made to a university.
Smith has always had a philanthropic side. He distributes 40 tickets for every Hawks home game to youth groups and senior citizens—they sit in a section known as Smitty's City—and donates $50 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every three-pointer he nails. (He has contributed $2,550 so far this season.) But the enormousness of his gift to Michigan State made a household name out of a guy named Smith. "I've always had a great deal of respect for Steve," says Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo, "but what he did by giving all that money to his school makes me see him in a totally different light."
From the time he was big enough to dribble, Smith played on the outdoor court behind his family's one-story house in downtown Detroit. It became the neighborhood gathering place, with Clara Bell not only supervising but also providing some chicken or rice or cookies. Her one rule was that the court would be shut down for a week if a fight broke out, a draconian measure she had to resort to only twice. "She wasn't just a mother to me," Smith says, "but to everyone in the neighborhood." She taught him to share. If there were more kids than cookies, she made them break the treats up so that everybody got some. Steve never forgot that.
Clara Bell and her husband, Donald, had worked out a deal. He would take care of the money, often working 10-hour days during his 37 years as a Detroit bus driver, and she would take care of their children. Their older boy, Dennis, 41, works for Pepsi-Cola in Detroit. But the family was devastated in 1984, when daughter Janice, an innocent bystander at a robbery, was killed at age 28. At the time of Janice's death, Steve was 15, but the two were close. The bell tattoo has JANICE at the bottom and CLARA at the top.
During his career at Pershing High, then at Michigan State, Clara Bell was his most loyal cheerleader. But in June 1991 she found out that she had cancer. She died eight months later. "It was very difficult for me," Smith says, "and I'm still not taking it very well."
In the years since he left school, Steve has collected antique cars (his favorite is a yellow 1957 Chevy) and tapes of Sanford & Son (Fred Sanford reminds him of his dad). But his newest avocation, the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, is a far different and more serious undertaking. Scheduled to open in 1998, it will provide students with tutoring, career guidance and computer training. Besides the $2.5 million for the learning center, Smith will fund an academic scholarship to Michigan State for a deserving graduate of Pershing High. The tab for that will be about $10,000 a year.
Michigan State had approached Smith last fall with the idea of his making a gift to the center, but he kept his decision secret until the official announcement. "I wanted it to be a surprise," Smith said. "I didn't even tell my dad. I just called him one day and said, 'You better come down to Atlanta. There's going to be a press conference, and I'm going to do something for Mom.' It really made me feel good."