Class-conscious Smith moving up

August 21, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The rumor began spreading last May, shortly after the University of Maryland basketball team finished its amazing run to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 and Joe Smith completed one of the most startling freshman seasons in Atlantic Coast Conference history.

It heated up in June, shortly after Smith disclosed that he had signed a one-year, $1 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London to protect himself against career-ending injury during his sophomore year with the Terrapins.

The rumor -- that the 6-foot-10 center had either become academically ineligible for the first month of the 1994-95 season, or was about to -- made coach Gary Williams more than a little hot.

"The same things have been said about Johnny Rhodes for three years," Williams said last week. "These guys are well-known on campus. Everything they do is going to get noticed. When they don't show up for a class, people are going to know that."

According to Williams, the rumor concerning Smith was just that. Smith, who turned down an invitation to play in the recently concluded Goodwill Games in Russia because he was attending summer classes at Maryland, apparently has straightened out whatever academic problem he was facing.

"It happened around the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament," Smith said in an interview last week, before he left with the team for a nine-day, six-game trip to France. "It got tough because of all the traveling. The classes and the work didn't stop because we were on the road. I could've done better. For me to get behind like that, [being on the road] was a bad excuse."

For Smith, it's the latest example of how his life has changed dramatically in the past year. As one of the country's best college basketball players, he doesn't exist in a fishbowl anymore; it's an aquarium.

Smith knew things were different when he was forced to change telephone numbers last winter after too many of his fellow students would call late at night to congratulate him for a particular game -- or just thank him for coming to Maryland.

One day last spring, Smith was walking past Cole Field House when he noticed some guys in a Jeep. "I heard them applauding and I looked around to see what was going on," Smith recalled a few weeks later. "They were applauding me. Sometimes it's still overwhelming."

But Smith is slowly getting used to his celebrity status. During a trip last weekend to San Francisco as part of the Playboy preseason All-America team, Smith was stopped for his autograph several times at the airport and during a photo shoot at -- what else -- a local aquarium.

"Things are going great," said Smith. "I've worked hard to get this. I didn't get the publicity in high school, so this was all new to me when I got here."

Even the rumors about his academic performance -- which the university considers confidential and declines to comment on -- hasn't adversely affected him. "I think it proved that I'm human and that I can make mistakes," Smith said.

"Joe's potentially a very good student," Williams said. "He just has to learn, like most freshmen do, how to budget his time better."

There were jokes last season that Smith didn't merely change in a locker room, but a telephone booth. Mild-mannered and able to leap tall opponents in a single bound, Smith was Maryland's Superman. Except for a stretch in late January and early February when he seemed to tire both mentally and physically, Smith was the most dominant freshman in the country. He became only the third freshman in ACC history to be named first-team all-league, and was an honorable mention All-American.

He knows what's coming: His selection as the only sophomore on the Playboy All-America team is the first of many honors expected to be bestowed upon Smith before the Terrapins open the season in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21. Smith likely will be either a first- or second-team preseason All-American and a candidate for ACC Player of the Year. He is one of two sophomores (North Carolina center Rasheed Wallace is the other) who have been nominated for the John Wooden Award, given to the national player of the year.

"I'm dealing with it the way I did last season," said Smith, who averaged 19.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. "I don't get a big head. I just do what I have to do. I can't live up to other people's expectations."

Said former Dunbar star and fellow sophomore Keith Booth: "That's the way Joe is. He's staying himself. He and the team got a lot of notice last year for making the final 16, but we've got a

long way to go to be a better team."

Williams has coached other freshmen who became college stars, but their growth period was measured over years, not months. Asked if he ever had a player handle this kind of notice any better than Smith, Williams said, "I don't know, because I've never had a player have so much attention so soon. But Joe's handled it as well as anybody I've ever seen.

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