Still the 1

June 25, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Sun Staff Writer

Norfolk, Va. -- "Get your shoes on," Letha Smith told her son.

Joe Smith frowned.

"My feet won't be in the picture," he said.

The photographer concurred, and Letha relented, grudgingly.

Finally, the photo session could begin.

Joe Smith wrapped his long arms around his mother, once, twice, a dozen times. His mood was light, relaxed, comfortable. Every so often, laughter filled the room.

The photographer snapped away, then asked to stand on a chair for a better angle.

"You're going to do something I used to get in trouble for doing," Joe said.

The photographer offered to take his shoes off.

Letha nodded her approval.

And the session resumed, Joe Smith pulling his mother close, as naturally as if he were grabbing a rebound.

*

Can't find the Smith house?

Just look for the air conditioner that says "Joe."

Seems Smith got bored one day as a kid, and used his thumb to imprint his name on the grills of the air conditioner -- outside the house, and inside, too.

Seeing where he grew up in Norfolk, listening to his mother describe her struggles, the question is not why Smith decided to leave Maryland after his sophomore year.

The question is why there was even a debate.

"You have to stand in a guy's moccasins before you can pass judgment," said Smith's agent, Len Elmore.

Letha Smith's home is compact -- one story, with three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths. In this working-class neighborhood in the shadows of Old Dominion University, there are houses even smaller.

"Jo-Jo," that's what they call him here -- even now, with Smith expected to be one of the top three players selected in Wednesday's NBA draft.

When Smith is home, the phone never stops ringing. Last weekend, his relatives kept calling to coordinate travel plans. Seventeen of them plan to attend the draft in Toronto.

Jay Johnson, the 7-year-old cousin of one of Smith's best friends, came over to play video games in Joe's room.

"He calls his name a hundred times a day," Letha said, laughing.

Inside, two large photographs Smith signed for his mother are displayed prominently in the living room, one wishing her happy birthday, the other merry Christmas.

And next to the dining room table, dozens of plaques honoring Smith are piled up on the floor.

"When we get a new house, there's going to be a Joe Smith room," Letha said.

A new house.

It won't be long now.

Smith's first contract will be worth millions, even though the new NBA labor agreement is expected to include a rookie salary cap.

He plans to buy his mother a new home.

"It's time for her to sit back and relax," he said.

Letha bought this house when Joe was 2, bought it to escape the Norfolk projects. She raised seven children as a single parent. Joe, 19, is the youngest by 12 years, and the only one fathered by Joseph McFarland, with whom he is not close.

"It's been tough for me," Letha said. "After I was first separated [in the late 1960s], there were times when there was food for the kids, but there wasn't any for me. I never told anyone. No one ever knew about it. We just went on."

And by the time Joe was born in 1975, the worst was over.

"It wasn't really a big struggle for me," Joe said. "Whenever I tell people I'm the youngest of seven, they say, 'That's why you're so thin, you couldn't get no food from the table.' But it wasn't that way at all."

Letha has worked the past 25 years at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital -- the range of salaries for her clerical position is between $19,400 and $25,233. In leaner times, she often took on a second job, waiting tables or serving as a housekeeper.

"I did anything honest to take care of my family," she said. "They never knew it was hard. They had the same things other kids had. I never was a welfare person, a food-stamp person. I just worked and took care of my family."

Smith didn't enter the NBA draft simply to provide a better life for his mother -- he believed there was little left for him to accomplish at Maryland, and feared the possibility of injury after falling on his hip against Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.

Still, Smith and his mother are unusually close -- his siblings were out of the house by the time he was in junior high school, and he was raised almost as an only child.

Joe plans to complete his degree at Maryland to fulfill a promise to his mother. And Letha plans to live with Joe during his rookie season, even if it means moving to California.

"They're very, very close," said Jack Baker, Smith's coach at Maury High School. "She's raised Joe for 19 years. I'm sure he wanted to pay her back the best way he could, as soon as he could.

"This [entering the draft] was his way of doing it."

And still, he almost stayed at Maryland.

Deciding moment

The fall against Connecticut, that was the watershed moment. The fall against Connecticut, it scared everyone.

Smith landed hard on his hip after blocking a shot in the first half. He lay on the floor for several minutes. And right then, the risk of injury if he remained at Maryland became clear.

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