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Joe Smith’s NBA career began with a sob. During an April 1995 press conference at his alma mater, Maury High School, Norfolk, Virginia, Joe announced he was leaving the University of Maryland Terrapins at the end of the semester to join the NBA; then he sat down beside his mother, Letha, leaned over into her lap and wept. Leaving after his sophomore year was not an easy decision. Wearing number 32, Joe:
- Had the best first two years of any Terrapin
- Was a freshman Natinal Player of the Year
- Was a sophomore Naismith award winner as Player of the Year
- Scored 26 points in his first game against Georgetown
- Had career high 40 points and the game winner at Duke
- Was one of only three sophomores to be named ACC Basketball Player of the Year (1995)
- Was the consensus first-team All-American in 1995 and third-team All-American in 1994
Here is a sampling of what he left behind: February 1995 – In a game against top-ranked North Carolina, the college teenaged-Joe dreamed about playing for only to wait for a phone call that never came, the Maryland students in the sellout crowd of 14,500, many of whom had waited in bitter cold for the best seats, celebrated the first Terrapin victory over a No. 1 team in nine years, made possible by Joe’s amazing 16 rebounds, by racing onto the floor.
"It was never that exciting when I was here," said Gary Williams, the Terrapin coach who led the return of the program from the disgrace of probation to the elite. "These students will talk about this 20 years from now. . . It has been a long time since February meant something here . . . That’s probably the most incredible situation at the end of a game that I’ve been involved in.". . . Joe Smith, who went over the 1,000-point mark earlier than any player in Maryland history, made a contribution as a rebounder that was more important than his scoring . . . his 16 rebounds doubled the total of Rasheed Wallace, the player North Carolina recruited instead of Joe, and gave the Terps a 40-27 advantage.
Joe was a revered Terrapin and the Terrapins were Joe’s love. After declaring himself eligible for the draft, much as he feared, his life was never the same. Agents, groupies, unlisted phone, sneaking in and out of the gym to avoid crowds. Some people crave this kind of attention, but Joe:
. . . he likes it best when he’s just regular Joe from the Lamberts Point neighborhood of Norfolk. Mama’s boy, son of Maury High School, Spanky Johnson’s best buddy.
Joe was sought after by the NBA for his "inside-outside basketball game":
"A preseason first-team All-American, Smith runs smoother, jumps quicker, works harder, shoots from the lane with both hands and can fire so well from 3-point range that, with some added bulk, professional stardom is his calling."
Joe sought the NBA for his own reasons:
"He wants to get his mother out of the neighborhood, out of Norfolk," Spanky Johnson says. "That’s what we talk about every time."
Joe told the press: " . . my mom raised seven kids and it’s time for me to give something back."Smith didn’t have much as a child . . . he lived in Tidewater Park with his mother until he was 2, when Letha bought her house in Lamberts Point after 17 years in public housing.
Smith, living his dream at Maryland and still a boy at heart, took on professional responsibilities reluctantly.Signed as the overall No. 1 draft pick that spring by the Golden State Warriors, Joe was still a young 19, not ready to leave home.Letha, a strong-minded, devoted single mother, allowed Joe to take "home" with him as she followed her son to the West Coast, not wanting him to face alone the "unknown rigors of life as a professional athlete" his rookie year. And rigors there were, as reported by the Virginian-Pilot:
. . . the NBA has taken its toll on Smith, whose weight dropped to 213 pounds at one point. (Only Letha’s home-cooking and a gooey, chocolate-colored weight-gaining shake he drinks have put him back up to his current 220.)
Letha got him up in the morning, made sure he ate breakfast, and prepared his favorite pregame meals when the team was at home. The Virginian-Pilot followed Joe’s story every step of the way:
The Warriors had a promotion called "No Ordinary Joe Night" in which 10 Bay Area residents named Joe Smith were treated to Letha’s meat loaf – Joe’s favorite dish – collard greens and cornbread. The Warriors also handed out 8,000 posters of Joe and his "namesakes."
The NBA brought national scrutiny and pressure, compounded by Nike’s campaign:The Revolution will be led by . . . Joe Smith!
The idea of the Nike commercial was that with all the bad-boy attitude and trash-talking in the game, a "revolution” will be led by the new, young players who want to return the game to its more humble roots.
Joe Smith, a boy in a man’s body making a public passage into adulthood, nicknamed "Sweet Pea" by his fellow students at Maryland, accepts the NBA’s offer to help his mom and finds himself offered up as a kinder, gentler baller; one who is expected, however, to fight to the death in every game.Playing solid basketball everywhere he went, bringing to the game what he always brought to the game, Joe Smith is still sought after 12 years into his career, in a sport where 3 seasons is a good average.
Landing in Cleveland recently to play for his 8th team, Joe has achieved his personal goals yet did not live up to the hype imposed upon him by the media.Even his beloved Terrapins, on their Joe Smith Stats page, state: Due to a somewhat disappointing NBA career people sometimes forget how good he was in college.
Charles Barkley once said "I am not a role model;" the resulting controversy re-ignited a dialogue which continues today. We ask our athletes to be celebrities and our celebrities to be role models. In the process, real role models are often overlooked. Joe may not be a celebrity but he, and his mom’s meatloaf, fuel the Revolution.