By Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson
I remember the first time I met Steve Smith. It was January 17, 1998, pre-game before the Hawks played the John Calipari, Sam Cassell, Keith Van Horn, Jayson Williams-led Nets at the then-Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. This was during my childhood days co-hosting Nets Slammin’ Planet with Lynn Wilson and former Net Albert King on the now defunct 620 AM One on One Sports.
While most kids spent a Saturday night with their friends at the mall, I was in the visitors locker room. Except, I actually hated the visitors locker room because it didn’t look like a locker room for NBA standards. It was a dump! It appeared more like a high school locker room built for a hockey team, than an NBA team, which would make sense because the New Jersey Devils were co-tenants at the time. The room had benches on the left and right side of the room and a television sat dead center, parting the Red Sea of the room, if you will, for players to watch tape before the game. To the far left of the room, there was a door that sometimes stayed open and led to a room where coaches and star players like Tim Duncan and Michael Jordan would often retreat to change their clothes. (As a kid I once chatted with Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan in that room; a story for a different day). The thing I remembered vividly about this locker room was that it had a squeaky door that could have used some WD 40. Everytime you opened and closed it you heard an annoying squeak. Poll any reporter who covered the NBA during that time and they’ll tell ya, the locker room was horrible, but you’d get some of the best quotes and have some of the best conversations while there.
Even as a twelve year old kid, I remember being enamored by the dynamics of that Hawks locker room, that January night. My assignment was to interview Steve Smith. To the left of the room sat Dikembe Mutombo, that year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year and the most outgoing in the Hawks locker room. To the right, sat Smith, an All Star that season and the quietest man in the locker room. Although some would argue that he was the most competitive and perhaps talkative. “It was awesome playing with him because he used to talk so much trash,” joked Smith’s former Hawks teammate Chucky Brown, now a scout for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.
As I was interviewing Smith, I can’t lie, in my mind I thought: ‘yo, he looks like Grant Hill.’ Now that he and Hill are both on television on TNT, NBA TV and CBS during the NCAA tournament, I still say the same thing!
But I digress.
Steve Smith Stopped By Brown and Scoop Back In March, listen below.
Smith and I chatted about life and character. I particularly remember him going into great lengths about his late mother, Clara Bell Smith. He was excited to have recently donated 2.5 million to his alma mater, Michigan State in 1997 to fund the Clara Bell Smith Student Athlete Academic Center. The academic center, named after his mother, is the largest single donation by a professional athlete to his former school in history. Part of his $2.5 million was dedicated to create the Steve Smith Scholarship for Academic Achievement. In 2001, Smith donated another $600,000 to fully endow the scholarship, which provides a four-year academic scholarship to one student per year from Smith’s former high school, Pershing High School in Detroit, Michigan.
“I think the leader of the pack was my mom,” Smith told me by phone recently. “I saw so much and how much she did for the neighborhood. I would tell you a story, and I didn’t understand it when I was younger, you know, six, seven, eight. You would see guys coming down the street, cause I had an older brother and sister, and not just because of that. But you would see a guy or a young lady or people that were growing up of all ages would go, ‘HEY MOM!’ And, you know, you get confused like, ‘why is this person calling my mom their mom?!’ But, she was mom to the neighborhood and that’s how much they looked up to her, and as I got older I understood it.
“But when you’re young; you’re six, seven and several people call your mom ‘mom,’ you say I only have two other siblings, but it was my mom’s commitment, my dad’s commitment, my recreation coach, my elementary teacher, there was so much they did. And it was always the neighbors, I know Mr. Tolbert next door to me, Ms. Gristle who was across the street, you know, the entire village, that was about 50-60 life coaches that basically raised me and still doing the same thing. I still have mentors that I look up to and bounce ideas off of and a lot of what they do is not something that I wanted to do or needed to, I just kind of follow the footsteps of what they were doing and still doing.”
On the court, Smith was an assassin. As much as folks rave about the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry getting just about any shot on the court, I’d place my hand on the Bible, Torah and the Quran and would testify that Steve Smith had the green light in his playing career too. He put up solid numbers during that 1997-98 season: 20 points and 4 assists to be exact. That 50-32 Atlanta Hawks team, led by head coach Lenny Wilkens was a force to be reckoned. The NBA’s Most Improved player that year, Alan Henderson along with Christian Laettner, Mookie Blaylock, Tyrone Corbin and Eldridge Recasner would lose 3-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Charlotte Hornets.
During his NBA career, Smith would win the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship would go on to win a championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. An NBA player respected in the highest regard and now on television, Smith is impressed with the NBA’s current stock of players, particularly, Curry and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. “My uncle use to say: ‘He gets it, those two get it,’” Smith said of Curry and James.
“And I think the reaction of their teammates; you’ll know, you can see body language when a guy doesn’t wanna play with this guy or doesn’t have his specific skill-set, teamwork level. And then obviously their work ethic and their attention to detail and their savviness on the floor. They’re the total package, both of those guys. And obviously you know LeBron’s a little older, but the league’s in good hands, you know, when you have a guy like Steph Curry. Some of these young guys are high character guys for the next wave of superstars.”
Smith is now the go-to for asking the tough questions of players of the past and present? Did you check out his one on one interview with Allen Iverson? It’s a must see. A 14 year vet, he’s now the guy asking the tough questions. His role has changed, as he’s now considered a member of the press. What about his perspective?
“For me it’s funny, because I considered myself to be old school,”he said. “And then now, I didn’t know, first coming in, how social media was going to have an impact on sports. You know, I knew it was coming, but i didn’t know. It first started with Facebook, and then it went to so many different other vehicles such as Twitter and Instagram and I think the new one is Periscope? I have no idea what Snapchat is! I didn’t know how much that has played a part in sports. You know, I’m watching all sports, and we’re living in a time where Instagram shots make your film, like they’re a part of the segment.”
Eighteen years ago, Smith and I first chatted in that squeaky Continental Airlines Arena locker room in East Rutherford, NJ. Smith has evolved but he’s still just plain old Steve Smith to me. Smith has just added more feathers to his cap through philanthropy, television and winning a ring.
“I think the charitable contributions that Steve Smith has made are admirable,” said record producer and publicist Jonathan Hay. “He’s not only made a huge impact in the NBA but off the court as well. It’s inspiring to see an athlete of his caliber take on such a responsibility as he has. I commend his efforts.”
By the way, the Hawks lost that game to the Nets 97-81 on January 17, 1998. Smith would finish with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 turnover on that game. I will not forget that game as long as I live. Former Net Jayson Williams grabbed 23 rebounds in that game and dunks on Dikembe Mutombo. After the dunk, Williams gave Mutombo a taste of his own medicine by waving his finger at the Hawks center, the same way Mutombo does after Williams’ fourth-quarter dunk.
Make sure to check out Stevesmithcharitablefund.org for more on what Steve does.
Brandon Robinson is a sports and entertainment writer and TV personality. You can catch him daily on CBS Radio’s Play.it Brown And Scoop Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SCOOPB and visit www.ScoopB.com.