You are here

2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner: Steve Smith

The NBA star never forgot his college roots

Although Steve Smith made the basketball team at Detroit’s Pershing High School, he was a self-described “late bloomer” who didn’t garner much interest from college coaches. The ones who showed interest didn’t want to play the 6-foot-8-inch Smith as a guard. But Smith grew up watching his idol, Magic Johnson, play the position for Michigan State University and was certain he could succeed.

Michigan State eventually showed interest and Smith was eager to follow in Johnson’s  footsteps. In 1987, he accepted a scholarship offer and made the short drive west. “I was a mama’s boy, so I didn’t want to go too far from home,” he said.

Smith relished his time as a student-athlete, and the experience paved the way for a 14-year NBA career and nearly a decade working in broadcasting. Despite those successes, he never forgot his roots and has since donated time and money to the college he remembers fondly. “It was fantastic – the friendships gained, the camaraderie from being a student-athlete,” Smith said. “It was the best time of my life.”

Welcome to the show

In the 1991 NBA Draft, Smith was selected fifth overall by the Miami Heat. He would go on to play for six teams over 14 seasons. None of Smith’s accomplishments as an NBA player – from the All-Star Game in 1998 to league champion in 2003 – make him as proud as when he received the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 2002. The trophy, named for Joe Dumars, is especially meaningful to Smith. Not only did he grow up watching Dumars, but befriended him later in life. “Knowing Joe and all of the legwork that he did … to be able to win that award put it into perspective and made it a little more meaningful,” Smith said.

A second act

“I did not see broadcasting as a career path at all,” Smith said. Early in his NBA career, Smith assumed he would pursue a real estate position after basketball and began investing in real estate projects – mostly student housing in East Lansing, Michigan. However, after a dinner meeting with TNT executives in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, someone asked if he had ever thought about a career in broadcasting. “I immediately said ‘no’ because I didn’t go to school for that, but they convinced me to come to the studio and make a tape,” Smith said. Now, he has a successful career, serving both as an in-studio analyst and announcer for NBA and NCAA games. Smith is glad his new profession enables him to maintain a connection with the sport he loves. “It doesn’t even feel like a job,” he said.

Coming full circle

In 1997, Smith donated $2.5 million to Michigan State to build the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, named in honor of his mother, who, among others, he credits for his success. “I still go back to the old saying that it takes a village,” he said. “We all need the kind of support system I had.”

Additionally, he provided $800,000 to fund a scholarship that covers more than 90 percent of tuition for select Pershing High School students who attend Michigan State. Just recently, Smith heard from a former scholarship recipient who now has a family and successful career. “Right there,” Smith said, “is everything I wanted the scholarship to do.”   

When Smith left school for the NBA in 1991, he was 11 credits shy of graduating. He took classes online, but with only six credits remaining, his career and family kept him away from the classroom. He officially earned his degree in 2013. “When my kids started asking, I knew I needed to finish,” Smith said, “to show them how important graduating was.”