Oh, To Be A Regular Joe Again

January 22, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Joe Smith has an unlisted telephone number in his dorm and a roommate, fellow Maryland basketball player Matt Kovarik, to help screen his calls. Except for going to class, meals, practice and games, he doesn't venture out much, in part because of people he meets who want more than his autograph or a few minutes of his time.

Long removed from his quiet life as a mostly unknown high school player in Norfolk, Va., Smith is in many ways preparing for his next life -- as a millionaire rookie and potential NBA star. Nobody is quite sure when that will begin, not even the 6-foot-10 All-American himself.

But one thing is apparent midway through Smith's sophomore )) year: As he gets ready for the future, a part of him longs for the past.

"A lot of times, I just want to be regular old Joe again," Smith said one afternoon last week.

Smith also knows that is virtually impossible, now that he is considered one of the country's top college players and, if he chooses to leave Maryland after this season, among the top three to five players taken in this year's NBA draft.

It has made Smith, at least below the surface, a bit wary of taking on new friends or welcoming back those who haven't been part of his life for a while. Especially now that he is six months shy of his 20th birthday, seemingly on the verge of becoming very rich and even more famous.

"That's part of the reason I don't go out," said Smith. "A lot of people, a lot of agents, try to befriend you. You never know where you might be, they're trying to talk to you, trying to exchange phone numbers. I'm trying to stay away from that."

This is not something new. As he was making his splashy debut last season, there was talk of Smith turning pro. A number of NBA general managers mentioned Smith as a possible lottery pick. A number of agents saw Smith as a definite meal ticket.

It got to the point where Maryland coach Gary Williams banned agents from the tunnel leading to the team's dressing room at Cole Field House, among them Len Elmore. The former Terrapins All-American, now an attorney and agent, represents several NBA players, including former Maryland star Walt Williams.

"It's not the guys you know who you worry about," said Gary Williams, who this year had campus security block off the area entirely to all outsiders after games, "it's those you don't know."

While Elmore has kept a fairly low profile, other well-known agents have become regulars at Cole. David Falk, the Washington-based agent who rose to prominence with such clients as Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, can be seen at most home games sitting courtside. Two other heavyweight management companies, ProServ Inc. and IMG, are usually represented there, too.

Exactly what the agents and would-be agents do to entice players such as Smith -- as well as a number of other sophomores, including North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, and Marcus Camby of Massachusetts -- into turning pro isn't closely monitored.

"We're usually the last to know," said David Berst, assistant executive director of the NCAA for enforcement and eligibility.

Agents not monitored

Berst said that unless a player enters into a written or oral agreement with an agent, or accepts an inducement to sign a personal services contract, his eligibility is not compromised. In a recent interview with a Norfolk newspaper, Smith admitted to receiving two suits from one of Falk's clients, Alonzo Mourning. The Charlotte Hornets star grew up in the same Tidewater area as Smith.

"At first I didn't know Alonzo was David Falk's client," said Smith. "I met Alonzo up here last summer and I told him we needed to wear suits on game days. I only had a couple of shirts and sweaters, so he sent them."

Falk said that he has less contact with Mourning than nearly any of his top clients, because Nike is involved with the former Georgetown star on a day-to-day basis.

"I wasn't aware of this. I've never discussed Joe Smith with Alonzo," Falk said.

Nonetheless, Smith certainly has been a target of agents. There have been agent sightings in hotels where Maryland stays on the road, as far away as Hawaii. But many don't have to get on an airplane to watch Smith, and to monitor their competition.

"This is one of the worst areas to be from when it comes to dealing with agents, because so many are based here," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash. "Their job is to get close to Joe. The guy who thinks he has a chance to represent Joe is going to tell him to go now. If Joe waits, then someone else might be in the picture next year. There are also a lot of Maryland alums coming at him from the other side. Whatever he does is going to upset at least one group. I feel for the guy."

Stakes are high

Although it's difficult to feel too sorry for any college player who's about to hit the NBA lottery -- and in Smith's case, perhaps as the No. 1 pick in the draft -- many share Nash's concerns.

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