OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's an off-day public appearance, and Golden State Warriors forward Joe Smith is able to fulfill most requests: an autograph that an older woman wants for her grandson, a family portrait with a couple and their two children, and the promise to get back to a woman who would like him to make an appearance at her church.
When the crowd thins, a woman in her 20s, who had been standing on the fringes, approaches with a wrapped lollipop. Extending her hand she says, softly, "I'll trade you my sucker for yours."
She repeats her request again and again for the sucker Smith has had planted in his mouth for the better part of a half-hour. Politely, and with a smile, he refuses.
"That's too weird," he says, laughing, once she gets out of earshot.
But, clearly, not as weird as the circumstances that have surrounded the Warriors this season with Latrell Sprewell's attack on coach P. J. Carlesimo and the suspension of the former Golden State guard. But these days things are nearly back to normal with the team, where the focus now is whether Smith's future in the NBA will be in the Bay area.
Come the summer of 1998 -- when his three-year rookie contract of $8.53 million comes to an end -- the 6-foot-10 Smith will be in a position to negotiate a deal with any team. And just how well Smith, the top pick of the 1995 NBA draft, plays over the remainder of this season will determine whether he puts himself in position to negotiate deals like fellow 1995 picks Kevin Garnett ($125 million contract extension), Rasheed Wallace ($80 million extension), or Bryant Reeves ($65 million extension).
There is a chance that the Warriors, if they feel Smith will not re-sign, will trade him. Smith refused to sign a contract extension with the team last summer.
In any event, he grins widely when asked about the contract numbers some members of the class of 1995 already have received. He knows his big payday is close. "Wheeeww," Smith says, his eyes rolling. "They have definitely set the market. I've said this before, I'm just like a little kid on Christmas. I just want to prove to people that I was worthy of being the first pick."
Filling Sprewell void
Smith, in recent weeks, has showed some signs of why he was the first pick in the draft after being named the college Player of the Year at Maryland. In the 10 games since Dec. 10, Smith has averaged 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 46.9 percent (86-for-183).
His numbers and his aggressiveness started to pick up after Sprewell, who was Smith's best friend on the team, was suspended. Prior to Sprewell's suspension, Smith had scored more than 20 points in just three of 14 games. After the suspension, Smith has scored at least 20 points seven times in 13 games. He had a season-high 27 in a Dec. 10 upset over the Los Angeles Lakers, which he topped three games later with 28 points in a win over Dallas.
After shying away from contact for much of his first two seasons, Smith is mixing up his improved perimeter game with some of the low-post power moves that made him successful in college. His play is a big reason why the Warriors, who had won just one game with Sprewell in the lineup, are 6-7 since his suspension.
"No one looked at it as a good situation, what happened to Spree," said Carlesimo. "But in reality what has happened is it was an opportunity for other people like Joe to step up.
"It's taken us awhile to utilize his talent," Carlesimo added. "But right now Joe is playing the best he's played all year."
What Smith wants to be careful to do is not let statistics -- which often come into play during contract years -- get in the way of the team goals.
"You know, when I was a rookie I used to look at the box scores [of other first-round picks] to see how they did," Smith said. "But when you get in a habit of worrying about what other people are doing or other things, it can mess up your game.
"I don't want to make this a money thing, not at all," Smith said. "I just want to go out and play basketball and try to get as many wins as possible. I don't want to go out and say 'I need to score 30 points to get $100 million.' I don't want to get into that frame of mind."
That unselfishness impresses the Warriors' organization. And they are doing everything they can to impress Smith, who did not sign an extension over the summer because he first wanted to see the team's commitment to winning.
"We can't do anything right now and we'll just have to see where time takes us," said Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean. "But we want to keep him here -- you don't want people like that to go. Obviously, I'm going to keep hugging him."
Said Smith, of his chances of coming back: "Just because I didn't sign here didn't mean I didn't want to be here. We'll just have to wait and see what happens over the summer."
Blocking media shots