Joe Smith tackles legal, image woes Ex-Terp's hearing on brawl next week

September 13, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Joe Smith's next significant court date was supposed to be Nov. 1, when the former University of Maryland All-American is scheduled to begin his second NBA season as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Instead, it will come Monday -- in a Chesapeake, Va., courtroom.

Smith is expected to appear there in General District Court for a preliminary hearing after being charged with malicious wounding, a Class 3 felony offense. The charge stems from a July 26 brawl allegedly involving Smith and a male dancer at a local club.

Carlton Coney has accused Smith of hitting him in the back with a beer bottle during a fight that began after Smith and a group of friends reportedly interrupted the exotic dancer's routine. Coney later told police that he received 22 stitches to close a wound between his shoulder blades.

Smith, who was celebrating his 21st birthday that night, faces charges that carry a maximum sentence of between five and 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

If a grand jury returns an indictment against Smith, the case could go to trial during the NBA season. Until it's resolved, and unless the charge is dropped or Smith is exonerated, a cloud will be hanging over an athlete with a heretofore squeaky-clean reputation.

'I want to get my image back'

"I know this is going to affect my image a little bit," Smith told the Oakland Tribune a few weeks after the incident. "But I want to get my image back to what it was before."

On the advice of his attorney, Smith declined to speak with The Sun. He has not talked publicly about the incident or the charge he is facing, but through the attorney, David Delpierre of Norfolk, has proclaimed his innocence.

Letha Smith, Joe's mother, also declined to be interviewed. She has spoken only briefly about the incident.

"It's quite upsetting," Letha Smith told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot two days after the incident. "Nothing like this has ever happened to our family. Joe did not do that. He's not that type of person."

Bad influences?

Jack Baker, Smith's coach at Maury High School in Norfolk, said Smith may have fallen under some questionable influences.

"The people I've talked with felt he could have made a better choice of where he went and who he hung out with," Baker said. "That was a major concern of mine when he came out [of Maryland] early. Joe's such a nice guy, and he has a hard time saying 'no' to people."

Said Delpierre, who has known Smith since his freshman year at Maryland: "Joe is a very trusting person, loyal to his friends. While his life has changed dramatically in the last three years, he is the same guy he was when he left here."

Warriors general manager Dave Twardzik, who is building the franchise around the 6-foot-10 forward, learned of the incident while working at the Warriors office on the afternoon of July 26. Twardzik took the first flight east the next morning to meet with Smith. Twardzik said the two spent 2 1/2 hours driving around Norfolk and talking about what had transpired.

"I felt good about our meeting," Twardzik said recently. "What Joe told me wasn't what I read in the newspaper. I don't think it's something that is not going to affect him. He realizes he has to be careful where he goes and who he hangs out with. Our industry can attract a strange type of person if you let that happen."

The incident

What Twardzik read was a newspaper account of what allegedly took place at Ridley's, a Chesapeake bar with a restaurant and lounge area. According to a report in the Virginian-Pilot, Smith and his friends arrived at the bar about 9: 30 p.m. on July 25. A few minutes later, Smith was brought up on stage and introduced. He told the crowd there for ladies night that he was "ready to dance."

The show of male exotic dancers was scheduled to go on until midnight. According to two women interviewed by the Norfolk newspaper, members of Smith's party began to drink from bottles of champagne. The women said the group became rowdy, first shaking the bottles and squirting their contents, then throwing everything from an ashtray to a beer bottle in the direction of the dancers.

"They were highly annoying and causing trouble all night, and should have been kicked out much earlier," said Jennifer Taff of Hampton.

Smith's friends began a countdown shortly before midnight, and, at midnight, the disc jockey reportedly wished the player a happy birthday. Janine Williams of Virginia Beach said that Smith paraded with his friends on stage, where they began dancing as the show continued.

Fight breaks out

After the group was led off stage by a security guard, things

appeared to quiet down. The show ended, and the dance floor was crowded with people. It was then that the fight broke out and, according to Williams, Coney was being beaten by "10 guys." Williams, who told police she was five feet away when the fight erupted, said that as Coney was being punched and kicked, he was hit with a large drink glass.

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