Turning pro different game for Joe, Tiger

April 11, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

Joe Smith thinks he's ready to turn pro.

Tiger Woods says he's ready to go back to class.

They are both 19 years old, and are probably the best amateur American players in their respective sports. The nanosecond they lose that status, they will become at least $50 million conglomerates.

But the difference between Smith, Maryland's sophomore All-America basketball star, and Woods, a freshman at Stanford and the top golfer for his age in this galaxy, is as stark as the games they play and the longevity of those who play them for a living.

Smith has told his mother that he's seriously considering entering the NBA draft, which means the meter would start running on a career that, serious injuries aside, should go for another 10 to 12 years. Rookie salary cap or not, Smith will become rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Woods announced after finishing his first Masters on Sunday that he plans to complete his college career and pick up his degree in economics before he goes out and picks up a few green jackets. Woods, who might be more prepared to become an immediate force on the PGA Tour than Smith is ready to be a dominating player in the NBA, only has to look as far as the leader board at Augusta National to figure out why.

Ben Crenshaw, the winner, is 43 years old.

Have you seen many 43-year-olds leading their teams to NBA titles recently? How many 35-year-olds? Basketball is a young man's game. Golf has become a middle-aged man's game, even an old man's game when you consider the money being made on the Senior Tour.

Smith's decision to leave would be sound, whether you look at the dollars he'd sign for or the points and rebounds he'd produce the next couple of years. But consider how young Smith is, that he won't turn 20 until a month after the June draft.

How many 19-year-olds are ready for an adult working world? Smith is mature for his age, and is as levelheaded a college star as there is. But that doesn't mean a month playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn't make him regret his decision.

That's another difference between Woods and Smith. The only thing Woods has to choose is an agent, and hope that person helps him make sound financial decisions regarding his growing empire. Smith has to select an agent, but he can't have the same control over his future. In fact, until he becomes a restricted free agent, he won't have any.

Woods has been preparing for this moment since the age of 3. Everything in his life has been geared to balancing priorities, though the top priority is certainly being the best player ever to have swung a club.

Smith has been in the spotlight less than two years, and the priorities apparently have shifted with blinding speed. That happens when you take the Atlantic Coast Conference -- not to mention the rest of the country -- by storm.

When Smith's star began to rise in College Park as a freshman, his mother was asked how long the youngest of her six children would stay at Maryland. "Joe and I have a contract for four years, and if he doesn't get his degree, I'm going to sue," Letha Smith said.

By the end of that season, as her son was about to sign a million-dollar insurance policy, she said that the contract had become "year-to-year."

It looks as if it's going to be a two-year deal, which is what it was for Jason Kidd at California and for Chris Webber at Michigan and what it could turn out to be for a number of this year's sophomores, including Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse at North Carolina, Tim Duncan at Wake Forest and Marcus Camby at Massachusetts.

The news that Smith is leaning toward turning pro is certainly no surprise to those who've listened to him all season and those who saw him during that emotional radio interview after Maryland's final regular-season home game. With tears in his eyes, Smith all but said it was his last game in Cole Field House.

When Woods decides to turn pro -- and it could happen before his four years are up if this prodigy with the steel nerves and the 300-yard drives wins a regular tour event in the next couple of years -- there will be none of the second-guessing that accompanies the decisions of basketball players such as Smith.

They play different games.

They have different timetables.

For now, the only similarity is that they're 19 years old and are the best amateur players in their respective sports. Although, in Smith's case, his amateur career appears to be over. It wouldn't be a bad decision. In fact, given the economics involved, it's probably the most sound choice he can make.

It's just a shame that he's being forced to make the choice, while a fellow star named Tiger Woods still can enjoy being a kid.

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