Joe, family savor Golden moment

June 29, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TORONTO -- Joe Smith bumped into Rasheed Wallace in between television interviews.

"The No. 1 pick!" Wallace cried as he slapped Smith's hand. "I told you, 'You're the man!' "

Smith was the man, all right, in a way he never was before, in a way he never will be again, even if he's an NBA All-Star for 15 years.

His mother, Letha, signed autographs, "Joe's mom." His sister, Sharon, signed autographs, "Joe's sister."

The tears started flowing in the green room the instant NBA commissioner David Stern called Smith's name at SkyDome.

"I lost it," Letha said. "I was so busy praising the Lord, I didn't know what happened."

Did she know Joe was No. 1?

"I got that far," Letha said, laughing.

Golden State milked the moment, using almost all of its allotted time before making its pick. Smith called it "the longest five minutes of my life."

Two years ago, he was an unknown high school kid out of Norfolk, Va., Maryland's second most highly touted recruit, after Keith Booth.

Last night, he became only the third college sophomore to be selected first in the NBA draft, after Magic Johnson and Chris Webber.

Smith immediately put on a white Golden State cap to go with his brown suit. His new status was readily apparent in the interview area.

Jerry Stackhouse pushed through a curtain to embrace Smith. Wallace leaned over and whispered in his ear.

Maryland fans would have loved it, seeing the two former North Carolina stars all but bow to Smith.

And it wasn't just Stackhouse and Wallace.

"Is that Kevin Garnett back there?" Smith asked.

"What's up, Super Joe?" Garnett replied.

It was the perfect climax to Smith's storybook college career, and the perfect start to his NBA future.

Smith, 19, isn't going to some sorry team like the Los Angeles Clippers. He's going to a team that fell into the lottery only because of injuries and dissension.

The Warriors lost 325 man-games to injuries last year, traded Webber, forced out coach Don Nelson. That's all behind them now. Their new coach, Rick Adelman, twice led Portland to the NBA Finals.

They've still got Tim Hardaway at the point, Latrell Sprewell at shooting guard, Rony Seikaly at center and Chris Mullin and Donyell Marshall at small forward.

The 6-foot-10 Smith won't have the impact of Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon or any of the other great centers who have gone No. 1. But he's an ideal fit for the Warriors, the power forward they need.

"We think there's still a tremendous amount of growth to him. He brings us size and mobility," general manager Dave Twardzik said. "He can defend and he can score. He has a great presence on the floor."

Smith first met Twardzik when he was at Maury High School -- Twardzik was a college teammate of his high school coach, Jack Baker, at Old Dominion.

It wasn't so long ago.

It seems like forever.

This being the interactive age, Twardzik and Adelman appeared on a computer screen to offer Smith congratulations. Reporters gathered around, watching the video conference call.

Almost immediately, the talk turned to Smith's mother, who plans to live with him in northern California next season.

"Tell your mother you'll be in good hands out here," Adelman said.

"That's not going to change her mind," Smith replied, smiling.

"Is she still coming?" Adelman asked.

"Oh yeah," Smith said. "She'll be there, right beside me."

She was right beside him last night, sitting in the green room, waiting for Stern to call his name. Smith said his palms grew sweaty. All day, Letha knew he was nervous, though he exuded his usual cool.

"I'm his mother," she said. "Mothers can tell."

When Smith was at Maryland, Letha would pray, "Wings on his feet, strength in his arms, let him do what he has to do." She started praying again yesterday morning, then spent the rest of the day waiting.

The NBA kept the top picks and their families busy, taking them on a tour of Toronto, taking them to the CN Tower, taking them to a mall. Smith's sister, Sharon, said he was "nervous, but playful."

Smith's agent, Len Elmore, said he heard from an NBA source that the No. 1 pick was "a done deal." But he didn't dare tell the family, fearing things could still change.

So they all left for SkyDome and took their places in the green room, still waiting. The stadium announcer asked the crowd who should go No. 1, Smith or Stackhouse.

Smith got the louder cheers.

It meant nothing.

"I didn't think they were ever going to say yes or no," Letha said, referring to the Warriors. "It was frightening. It was just frightening."

"I was going, 'It hasn't hit me, it hasn't hit me,' " Sharon said. "Then, when they said, 'Joe Smith,' I was like, 'You're No. 1! You're No. 1! You're No. 1!' "

Smith embraced Letha and other relatives, then began the long walk to the podium. He pounded his chest in excitement. He waved to the crowd. He shook Stern's hand.

"My heart was still beating fast," Smith said. "Basically, what was going through my mind was that it was finally over -- it's here, said and done."

No longer was he Joe Smith, sophomore sensation.

He was Joe Smith, No. 1 pick.

Joe Smith, the man.

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