$50 million question: Is Joe coming back?

March 25, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Joe Smith climbed down from the interview podium carrying a plastic drink cup, still wearing his uniform, his legs stiff now after the game. A group of reporters seeking additional answers gathered around him by a drafty doorway. Goose bumps rose on his arms. He was cold.

He wanted to be anywhere else but here, no doubt about it. It was late Thursday night at the Oakland Coliseum, after the Maryland Terrapins had lost to Connecticut in the West Regional semifinals, and Smith wore his disappointment like a piece of clothing. He answered every question politely and completely, with thought given, but offered none of his bright, easy smiles. His face sagged.

"There's a lot of crying in the locker room," he said. "A lot of emotion."

At first, his decision about whether to turn pro was rendered an off-limits subject. "Let's talk about the game tonight and other things later," Terps coach Gary Williams had said a few minutes earlier on the podium, trying to protect his young star confronting a major life decision much too soon.

But with the Terps eliminated from the NCAA tournament and everyone's thoughts suddenly turning to next season, it was impossible for the conversation not to crash headlong into The Decision.

"Coach Williams told us after the game that we had a great season and that we should work hard in the off-season and come back and see what happens next year," Smith said.

One reporter couldn't resist the obvious opening: "Do you think you'll be here next year, Joe?"

L He paused briefly and said, "I really don't know right now."

But you haven't made up your mind?

"I haven't decided anything at all," he said.

His mother was waiting outside the locker room in the now-empty arena, talking about the decision coming maybe in May. His coach was standing a few feet away, talking to a different set of reporters.

"You guys know what the situation is," Williams said, his guard dropping as most of the journalistic horde drifted away. "There's a tremendous amount of money out there. If it wasn't there, there wouldn't be any doubt what his decision would be."

No doubt at all. If there was any before, there was none after a story in Thursday's Oakland Tribune, in which Hall of Fame former coach/big man guru Pete Newell -- regarded by many as the game's No. 1 authority on centers and forwards -- was quoted as saying Smith would be "making a mistake, absolutely," by leaving early, because he isn't physically ready.

But basketball matters aren't driving Smith's decision, of course. The possibility of signing a $50 million contract is doing the driving.

"Physically, there's no doubt he needs another year," Williams said. "But the money is so huge. Joe has to do what is right for him and his family."

Williams wants his star center back, obviously; with all five starters back, including Smith, the Terps could be the preseason No. 1 next fall. But Williams, to his credit, is loyal foremost to Smith, whose mother has raised seven children without a lot of money.

"What I want is what is right for Joe and his family," Williams said.

In other words: How can anyone pass up $50 million?

Williams shook his head. "When I was 19 the only thing I had to decide was whether or not to go to class," he said. "Joe is 19 and facing the biggest decision of his life. That's the most unfortunate thing."

How does Smith make the decision? To whom does he talk? Whose opinion should he trust? How long should he wait?

Smith was in no mood to consider such philosophical concerns late Thursday night, with goose bumps on his arms and a hard loss still ringing in his ears.

"I just don't know right now," he said. "I really don't know anything right now."

Said Williams: "I'm going to talk to some people I know in the NBA, try to be a source for him. That's all any of us can do. He has to make the decision. And he just needs to talk to people. Talk to his mother. Just . . . talk it out."

Talk, talk, talk. Smith had had enough of it late Thursday night. The circle of reporters around him was down to a few, and he was still standing in a drafty doorway with goose bumps on his arms, and his teammates were waiting for him in a dark bus in the parking lot.

Finally, a tournament official touched him gently on the elbow and began ushering him away. Smith had to take a drug test; randomly selected players from each team had to do so after every game.

Smith stopped and shook hands with the Baltimore/Washington reporters he knew, the familiar faces.

His grip was hard, firm.

"Good luck," he was told.

He nodded. Then he turned and walked slowly across the long room with the drug-test official, away from all the talk and the questions, away from the decision suddenly looming now.

Gary Williams and the few lingering reporters turned and watched him go in silence, no doubt wondering the same thought: Would we ever see him in a Maryland uniform again?

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