This is a sad story, one that shouldn’t have happened, except no one knew how to stop it, or what they would do if it happened again.

It has no heroes and one victim, Leon Smith of the Dallas Mavericks, now suspended without pay and in a Dallas psychiatric facility.

Smith, 19, was 4 when he was taken from his mother in an abuse and neglect hearing and made a ward of the state of Illinois, to be raised in Chicago group homes.


He was 18 when someone in the entourage of street agents he had acquired persuaded him to jump to the NBA, after which the unhappy events described below went down.

It’s about a lot more than basketball, but it’s about basketball too, even if everyone in basketball is trying to forget it.

It’s the story of a 6-foot-10 young man who was unprepared for the NBA but nonetheless became a first-round pick and got a three-year, $1.4-million contract, before anyone found out whether he could live up to the attendant responsibilities.

It turned out, he couldn’t. In his first practice at a mini-camp, ordered to run laps, Smith said to assistant coach Donnie Nelson, “Why don’t you run them yourself?”

Smith was subsequently sent home from the Los Angeles summer league after another run-in with Nelson. He rejected the Mavericks’ offer to put him in a minor league--at full pay--after which Don Nelson, the Mavericks’ coach and general manager, put Smith on his taxi squad, away from the big team.

After that, Smith took more than 200 aspirin in a reported suicide attempt, checked into an Atlanta psychiatric center, left, returned to Chicago, was arrested on a charge of threatening his estranged girlfriend with a pistol, was bailed out by his high school coach and arrested again the next day, charged with breaking the windows in his old girlfriend’s mother’s car and ramming it with his truck.


The Mavericks, playing in Chicago that night, hired extra security to work behind their bench. Even people trying to help Smith felt overmatched.

A source says Players Assn. director Billy Hunter personally flew to Dallas “after the suicide attempt but before the crime spree in Chicago. Then Billy went to Chicago, after 1/8Smith 3/8 threatened the girlfriend with the gun but before he broke the windows in the car.

“The problem is, nobody’s in charge. Leon does his own thing. Legally, he’s of age and he doesn’t always listen.”

On the record, no one is saying much.

“We’re just having one voice, 1/8team President 3/8 Terdema Ussery,” Don Nelson says. “I’ve said enough. You can just get some of the stuff I’ve said from other articles, if you do your research, which you probably won’t do. You can use that stuff but I’m just making no comment. It’s occupying about 90% of my time now.”

Ussery didn’t return calls. The team faxed a release in which he said, “This is no longer a basketball issue. Leon must focus on getting the care he needs . . . “

As recently as last spring, the NBA and the union signed a side letter to their bargaining agreement, agreeing to explore ways to discourage players from turning pro so young, in concert with the NCAA.


The NCAA wouldn’t talk to the NBA and when the issue came up at the union’s postseason meeting in the Bahamas, players started jumping up and down, saying they weren’t going to countenance any interference in any individual’s right to earn a living.

Now the reform process is dead and the league is taking the position that Smith’s case is peculiar.

“I’m not sure his case relates particularly to age,” says Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik. “I think he obviously has some problems that obviously need some attention, beyond basketball. We’re not trying to use this as some example of why you have to do something about young players. I think this is just a particularly difficult situation that’s really personal to him.

“I don’t want to play amateur psychologist but there’s obviously more here than the issues of adjusting to life in the NBA and adjusting to the game.”

The Trouble Begins

Not that a lot of teams would have handled it better, but the Mavericks have been pilloried for their conduct, as if they had planned this disaster beforehand.

If it’s a personal nightmare for Smith, it’s also a continuing PR problem for the team, a drumbeat that won’t stop and threatens to drown out everything else.


Actually, say people who have been involved, the Mavericks have tried to do the right thing from the start.

They started by doing Smith a huge favor, trading two No. 2 picks to San Antonio for the last pick in the first round and selecting him. Otherwise, he’d have fallen into the second round, where there’s no guaranteed money and he’d have had no choice but to play in a minor league, if that’s what his new team wanted.

Of course, the Mavericks might have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had worked Smith out first, or interviewed him. But they didn’t. Nelson said he didn’t want to tip his hand.

Had he met Smith, he might have noticed Leon was different. Others dealing with Smith, before and after the draft, noted how erratic his behavior was.

There was a telephone conversation, however, in which the Mavericks made it clear they would draft Smith in the first round, with the understanding he would play overseas or in a minor league, if they asked him to. He agreed.

After drafting Smith, the team sent a scout to work with him. They offered to let him move in with another of their scouts, which Smith refused.


Nelson looked at the project as a low-cost, nothing-to-lose move. To the man of 1,000 zany ideas, this barely qualified as unusual. Nelson once traveled to Africa with his friend, Utah Coach Rick Majerus, to see if they could find the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo. A look at their rosters tells you how that one turned out.

Not that Nelson ever stopped casting about.

In Dallas, they had Smith working out with a 7-foot-2 Croatian, Bruno Sundov, whom the Mavericks drafted at 18 and who spent last season in a prep school. Last spring, they also drafted Wang Zhi-Zhi, a 7-foot Chinese, now playing for the Red Army team. A 7-foot Australian, Chris Antsey, a No. 1 pick in 1997, was recently traded to Chicago.

Of all of them, Smith may have been the least prepared to be on his own in a new city.

By midsummer, Smith had a new agent, Matt Muelbach, and was insisting on staying with the big team. The Mavericks had “tendered” him--sent him a contract to retain his rights--assuming they had a deal: He would go to St. Louis of the International Basketball League and they would pay his full NBA salary.

Now they had a contract they had to honor, whether or not Smith went to St. Louis. Instead, he reported to the Mavericks shortly before the season started. Nelson, with no choice but to acquiesce, ordered that he work out with the taxi squad and otherwise be kept away from the team.

Things soon spiraled out of control.

On Nov. 14, Smith was taken to Parkland Hospital, where it was estimated he had ingested more than 200 aspirin. Police said he had painted his face, declared he was an Indian fighting Columbus and broken a car window with a rock. He was charged with criminal mischief.

Smith was put in the NBA’s player-assistance program, which is run in conjunction with the union. He entered an Atlanta psychiatric facility but left several days later.


He turned up in Chicago, where on Dec. 2, he was arrested after his former girlfriend, Cappie Pondexter, a student at Marshall High, said Smith had showed her a pistol.

Bailed out by his high school coach, Smith was arrested again the next day on a complaint from Pondexter’s mother that he had damaged her car.

Smith finally flew back to Dallas and entered another psychiatric facility. The Mavericks suspended him without pay. To date, he has received only two paychecks of his $450,000 salary.

There Really Is a Leon Smith

It’s hard to say which is worse, that Smith’s career hangs by a thread, with league officials saying his contract is potentially “voidable” . . .

Or that he has been in the middle of a continuing tug-of-war for years.

He had already lived in four group homes by the time he was 14, when he was enrolled as a freshman at Mt. Carmel High, a Catholic school in the Chicago suburbs.

He soon transferred back into the inner city, to Martin Luther King High, where he became a star. However, in his senior year, someone tried to talk him into transferring again--this time all the way to California, to Compton High.


This time, whoever it was went to the door of Sullivan House, the group home where Smith was living, to get him, and was turned away by program director Bill Green.

“His senior year, he got bombarded by all the street agents,” Green said from Chicago. “ . . . I tried to intercede. I did intercede a couple of times, when they tried to take him to California. I informed them he was a ward of the state and told them I was taking their license number and if he left the house, I was going to call the police on them.”

Smith had moved into the house four years before, after starting school at Mt. Carmel. Green found him quiet and withdrawn.

“Not a loner,” Green says, “but there was a shield around him all the time. No one got too close. It wasn’t easy for him to trust people.”

The more Green and the kids at Sullivan talked to Smith, the more he withdrew, sometimes going to his room and closing the door. After a while, Green says, he learned to let Smith come to him and they became friendly.

It was Green who helped Smith leave Mt. Carmel for King, and Green who made him stay at King, when he wanted to transfer again a few weeks later.


“I had been told this was a kid who knew what he wanted out of life, who had his head on straight and tight,” says Green. “But Mt. Carmel was a predominantly white school and he said, ‘The kids look at me like it’s some kind of circus.’

“Leon was 6-9 or 6-10 as a freshman. He said, ‘I just don’t feel comfortable there.’

“I said, where do you want to go?

“He said, ‘King.’

“I said, that can be arranged. And after he’d been at King a couple of weeks, he wanted to transfer again. That time, I put my foot down.

“Leon didn’t adjust well to new surroundings. He had trouble adjusting here. He had trouble in the summer camps, like Nike’s.”

His senior year, Green says, Smith often drove up in big cars, presumably lent to him by new benefactors. Even so, Green notes, Smith remained humble with intimates.

“He didn’t flaunt it,” Green says. “He still associated with the kids in the home. He still went out back and played ball with them. And he played at their level. He didn’t block all their shots.”

On the other hand, what Smith didn’t want to do, he didn’t do. Green tried to talk him into going to the beach to run. Smith didn’t want to.


Nor, says Green, could he handle coaches yelling at him.

“There was concern about his making it to the pros,” Green says. “I didn’t have any concerns about anything like the pill incident. That was a total shock to me. I would have thought he could have gone on in life. . . .

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a kid. I’m not sure how it’s going to affect him. I’m not sure he has the moxie to pursue something else if this doesn’t work out.”

Smith’s mother, Linda, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Dwain Price, “People are trying to control him 1/8Leon 3/8 for their own selfish reasons. It’s a money thing.”

Other friends note Linda Smith popped back into her son’s life after he became a high school star.

Sonny Cox, the coach at King, told the Dallas Morning News’ Marc Stein the Pondexter family “used Leon too.”

Cox is a controversial figure in Chicago prep circles, who has withstood charges of widespread recruiting and of charging college coaches to talk to his players.


“I can tell you, I’m very sad about it,” says Robert Harris, a Chicago lawyer appointed as Smith’s guardian-at-law during his high school years.

“Would I have predicted it? No. I had certainly hoped he would be getting good advice and be involved with people who would help him manage his affairs.

“But I don’t think we, as a system, do a good job of raising our children. We’re not the best substitute at all for parents, whether that’s your own natural parents or some other foster parents or adopted parents or some other relative that steps in the parent’s position.

“I can tell you that, although he didn’t have a history of doing any of the things that he’s alleged to be doing in the last few weeks, that it’s definitely a possibility with our kids, because they have such bad lives. I mean, they come into the system because they’re abused and neglected and the system doesn’t do a good job. We don’t step in.

“And then when they turn 18-19, we decide that they’re adults and we put ‘em out. I didn’t, and most of the people I work with, the judges, none of us were put out at 19. But that’s exactly what happened with Leon.

“Even though he had certainly more moneymaking potential than I had and a better offer than I had, even that doesn’t accomplish everything that you need. . . .


“It just shows you what happens, when you’re out there by yourself, flapping in the wind.”