The Charitable Champion
Feb. 25, 2011
By Bob Healy
There is no denying the facts surrounding Michigan State's Steve Smith; he is a champion. Smith won a Big Ten Basketball Championship in 1990, an Olympic gold medal in 2000 and an NBA Championship in 2003, just to name a few. While these accomplishments solidify his career on the court as a tremendous success, Smith's work off the court may be even more inspiring.
Smith continues to contribute to his alma maters years after leaving campus as a student. Along with staying involved with several charity and outreach initiatives across the country, he founded the Steve Smith Charitable Fund, which awards scholarships to Detroit Pershing High School graduates who plan on attending Michigan State.
His most significant contribution came in 1997, when he helped fund the construction of an academic center for student-athletes, named in memory of his mother, on the school's campus. The $2.5 million Smith donated to the university for the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center was the largest contribution ever made by a professional athlete to his or her alma mater.
"From day one, something that I wanted to do was give back to Detroit and the state of Michigan," Smith says. "The way it was presented, it was just something that made sense for me, to be able to build a student academic center on Michigan State's campus and for me to have a scholarship fund for my neighborhood."
Day one for Smith was in his hometown of Detroit during the Magic Johnson era at Michigan State, which saw the Spartans win back-to-back Big Ten titles and the 1979 NCAA Championship. His basketball career had humble beginnings, including a modest set of goals for a player of his caliber.
"It kind of became a dream around 12 or 13 to play college basketball," Smith says. "The NBA was a dream but never a dream that I thought could be attainable. It was more thinking that I had a good chance to play in high school, and if I could play in college, it would be the icing on the cake."
While the primary reason for Smith's commitment to play for the Spartans was his interaction with head coach Jud Heathcote and then-assistant coach Tom Izzo, Johnson's legacy served as an attractive piece of the puzzle.
"Along with those two guys (Heathcote and Izzo), that was definitely one of the main reasons why I chose Michigan State," he says. "I also wanted to follow in Earvin's footsteps. I saw that Jud allowed a player who was six-foot-nine to play point guard and I was six-eight. I always wanted to play point guard and I knew that was a school that it had been done at before and done successfully."
Smith put together a record-setting career at Michigan State, which saw him amass 2,263 points to become the Spartans' all-time leading scorer and rack up 453 assists, good for fourth all-time. The three-time All-Big Ten selection also earned the Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball Award as the conference's Most Valuable Player after his junior season in 1989-90.
It was after that season, a season that saw Michigan State win its first Big Ten title since Magic Johnson's final season in 1978-79, that Smith had a decision to make. The highly coveted NBA prospect could leave East Lansing early to declare for the league's draft, forgoing his senior season, or he could stay for his final year. Smith says that he was in no rush to leave town.
"My mom was huge in saying, `You're staying. You started something, so you'll finish something,'" Smith says. "Also from a basketball standpoint, physically I think I would've been OK, but I don't think I was quite ready. Also, I wanted to come back. There was that thought that if I came back for my senior year, we could possibly win a national championship."
Smith was the Big Ten scoring champion for the second year in a row in his senior season en route to first-team all-conference and second-team All-America honors. He was then selected fifth overall in the 1991 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat and went on to play 14 seasons in the league with six different teams.
Along with being named an all-star, Smith was named the recipient of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1998, an honor given annually to an NBA player or coach who shows outstanding service and dedication to the community. He also won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.
Smith represented the United States in multiple tournaments, including being a part of the gold medal-winning `Dream Team II' at the 1994 FIBA World Championships and winning another gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games.
"To get selected (for Team USA) again in 2000 and win an Olympic gold medal and get a chance to experience not only the basketball at the Olympics, but the opening ceremonies, the closing ceremonies and to be around all the other athletes from the United States and all the other countries was just a feeling you can't describe," Smith says. "I got a chance to win an NBA Championship, but it's a different feeling. I'm proud to say that I don't think there are many guys that have the chance to win a World Championship, and Olympic Championship and an NBA Championship, so all I can say is that all of them are different and all of them are special."
Smith announced his retirement from basketball in 2005, closing the book on a dynamic playing career. He chose to announce his retirement from the Clara Bell Smith Center, a building that will forever be linked to his generosity and the legacy that he left in East Lansing.
"I owe a lot to everybody who has helped me through this experience of playing basketball, and not only just playing basketball but through life," Smith says. "I look at it as kind of giving back to the community in the state of Michigan - in the city of East Lansing, the city of Detroit and my neighborhood. It doesn't cover everybody, but it gets a large portion of people who have helped me along the way."
The man who is as much a champion off the court as he was on it remains as humble today as he was before beginning his college career, which ended with him being inducted to the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame and his No. 21 hanging from the rafters at the Breslin Center.
"I'm humbled just to have a chance to say thank you to those guys," he says. "You look at the relationships I had at Michigan State, they're still there today. I'm one of the luckiest guys to have been coached by Jud Heathcote and to have had assistant coaches like Tom Crean and Tom Izzo, and have all the teammates and the coaches that I had."