His mom died of cancer during his rookie year with Miami, before
he had the chance to move her to Florida and buy her a new car,
and that always bothered Atlanta guard Steve Smith. He couldn't
totally enjoy his money or his fame because he hadn't been able
to pay her back for being, as he says, "more than a mother. She
was my best friend." He racked his brain, trying to think of
some way to honor her memory, something far bigger and more
lasting than the bell tattoo--her name was Clara Bell Smith--he
had put on his right biceps so that he could touch it during
games, for luck, when the going got tough.
As Smith searched for just the right tribute, the other pieces
of his life were falling into place. After marrying last summer,
he signed a seven-year, $45 million deal with Atlanta, which had
acquired him from the Heat in a November 1994 trade. Then the
6'8", 215-pound Smith helped the Hawks soar to their surprising
28-12 start, which includes a league-high 19-game winning streak
at home. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.5 points, 4.3
assists and 3.5 rebounds in his sixth, and happiest, NBA season.
"Steve's been terrific," Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens says. "Even
when he's having an off shooting night, he'll get us 10 assists
or do something else to help us."
"He's a marvelous player," said Charlotte assistant coach Lee
Rose after watching Smith torch the Hornets for 31, his season
high, in a 106-97 Hawks' win on Jan. 20. "He can play the 1, the
2 or the 3, and there are not many players in the league who can
do that effectively."
On Jan. 6 the 26-year-old Smith revealed what he had chosen to
do to honor his mom. At a news conference in Atlanta he
announced that he was donating $2.5 million to Michigan State,
where he played from 1987 to '91, to help build a $6 million
learning center that will be named in Clara Bell's honor. It was
the largest single gift that a professional athlete has ever
made to a university.
Smith has always had a philanthropic side. He distributes 40
tickets for every Hawks home game to youth groups and senior
citizens--they sit in a section known as Smitty's City--and
donates $50 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every
three-pointer he nails. (He has contributed $2,550 so far this
season.) But the enormousness of his gift to Michigan State made
a household name out of a guy named Smith. "I've always had a
great deal of respect for Steve," says Hawks center Dikembe
Mutombo, "but what he did by giving all that money to his school
makes me see him in a totally different light."
From the time he was big enough to dribble, Smith played on the
outdoor court behind his family's one-story house in downtown
Detroit. It became the neighborhood gathering place, with Clara
Bell not only supervising but also providing some chicken or
rice or cookies. Her one rule was that the court would be shut
down for a week if a fight broke out, a draconian measure she
had to resort to only twice. "She wasn't just a mother to me,"
Smith says, "but to everyone in the neighborhood." She taught
him to share. If there were more kids than cookies, she made
them break the treats up so that everybody got some. Steve never
Clara Bell and her husband, Donald, had worked out a deal. He
would take care of the money, often working 10-hour days during
his 37 years as a Detroit bus driver, and she would take care of
their children. Their older boy, Dennis, 41, works for
Pepsi-Cola in Detroit. But the family was devastated in 1984,
when daughter Janice, an innocent bystander at a robbery, was
killed at age 28. At the time of Janice's death, Steve was 15,
but the two were close. The bell tattoo has JANICE at the bottom
and CLARA at the top.
During his career at Pershing High, then at Michigan State,
Clara Bell was his most loyal cheerleader. But in June 1991 she
found out that she had cancer. She died eight months later. "It
was very difficult for me," Smith says, "and I'm still not
taking it very well."
In the years since he left school, Steve has collected antique
cars (his favorite is a yellow 1957 Chevy) and tapes of Sanford
& Son (Fred Sanford reminds him of his dad). But his newest
avocation, the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center,
is a far different and more serious undertaking. Scheduled to
open in 1998, it will provide students with tutoring, career
guidance and computer training. Besides the $2.5 million for the
learning center, Smith will fund an academic scholarship to
Michigan State for a deserving graduate of Pershing High. The
tab for that will be about $10,000 a year.
Michigan State had approached Smith last fall with the idea of
his making a gift to the center, but he kept his decision secret
until the official announcement. "I wanted it to be a surprise,"
Smith said. "I didn't even tell my dad. I just called him one
day and said, 'You better come down to Atlanta. There's going to
be a press conference, and I'm going to do something for Mom.'
It really made me feel good."
The first NBA player to call Smith with congratulations was
forward Derrick Coleman of the 76ers. Nobody in the league has
been accused of selfishness more often than Coleman. But he was
also one of the kids who played on the Smiths' backyard court,
under the watchful eye of Clara Bell, and he remains one of
Smith's closest friends.
"That gift is so typical of Steve," Coleman says. "For as long
as I've known him, I've known I can count on him. He doesn't run
and hide--he's always there for you. That comes from his
parents. The door to their home was always open to Steve's
friends. It was always a place where you could go to hang out.
Steve knows his roots."
Smith's reputation during his three-plus seasons with the Heat
was not quite so positive. He had a penchant for trash talking
on the court and whining off it when he didn't get to play point
guard like his idol, Magic Johnson. That carping ceased under
Wilkens's firm hand in Atlanta. But even though Smith flourished
with the Hawks, he was frustrated by the team's inability to
land a top-notch center, and he considered leaving last summer
as a free agent.
Meanwhile Mutombo was weighing an offer from Atlanta, and he
called Smith, whom he had known since their days as college
all-stars. He learned not only that they had both just been
married on June 15, but also that they had honeymooned in Maui
at the same time. Mutombo, the NBA's top shot blocker in
1995-96, took that as an omen, and he accepted the Hawks' deal.
Smith re-signed a week later.
The pair may now have Atlanta leading the league in charitable
deeds: Mutombo is currently helping to finance a hospital in his
native Zaire and is an international spokesman for CARE. "What
Steve did makes me want to do something for my school
[Georgetown], too," he says.
The new light of Smith's life is his bride, Millie. He regrets
that she never got the chance to meet his mom, so he loves to
talk to her--or to anybody else, for that matter--about what
Clara Bell meant to him. When he does, his eyes light up, and he
speaks with an eagerness that indicates the gift has been
cathartic for him.
"I know it's a lot of money," Smith says, "but it's definitely
worth it. I think this would have brought more smiles from her
than even if I had bought her a house or a car. I've had great
coaches but none greater than my mom. I've had great role models
but none greater than my mom. I've had great teammates and fans
but none greater than Clara Bell Smith."
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Smith contributes heavily to the Hawks with his ability to play the 1, 2 or 3. [Steve Smith in game]
FOR THE WEEK OF JANUARY 20-26
Portland's acquisition of swingman Stacey Augmon from Detroit
for Aaron McKie, Randolph Childress and Reggie Jordan adds
another athletic body to an already imposing team. The deal also
keeps Augmon away from the Rockets, the Sonics and the Lakers,
who all desperately need bench help.
After bowing to the Sonics 112-96 on Jan. 20, the Grizzlies
reached 100 losses in their 123rd game. That's faster than any
franchise in NBA history.
Doesn't Hornets forward Anthony Mason ever tire? The NBA leader
in minutes played last season, he's averaging a league-high 43.6
minutes in '96-97. Mason's yeoman production: 16.2 points, 10.8
rebounds and 5.2 assists a game.
"His way is to befriend them, soften them up, try to make them
feel like he cares about them. Then he goes out there and tries
to destroy them." --Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, on Michael
Jordan's rapport with opposing players. Irked by the comments,
Jordan torched New York for 51 points in the Bulls' 88-87 win on