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Focusing on the future
by Daniel Walsh / April 10, 2003

There is a cable television station in Chicago that interviews local high school athletes once a week. Last year, the station had Leon Smith on the show. Leon was a graduate of Martin Luther King, Jr. high school on the south side of Chicago and was a former first-round pick of the Dallas Mavericks in 1999 at the tender age of 18.

His career was derailed as soon as it started because Leon's story is a complex one. He grew up as a foster child, bouncing around from home to home without any consistent parental guidance and without any kind of proper social education. For simplicity sake, the result was incredible physical growth (6-11, 265 lbs.) coupled with stunted personal growth. However, Leon was being judged and rewarded for his abundant basketball ability, not his social deficiencies.

But, after Leon was drafted, his social inadequacies led to his downfall, as he had difficulty getting along with teammates and coaches and was cut before the season began. This was an unprecedented move because the Mavericks still had to pay Leon's $3 million guaranteed contract and could have at least gambled that he would turn things around on the bench while they paid him, instead of just paying him to leave.

The Mavericks unusual move was almost literally the beginning of the end for Leon. He got arrested in Chicago for threatening his girlfriend. Then, the demons took control, as Leon tried to kill himself by eating large quantities of aspirin and was found alone, passed out, with green paint on his face.

The suicide attempt left Leon's basketball future in doubt and he disappeared, which is why it was a shock to see the former Illinois Mr. Basketball on the television program. Leon stated that he was playing for the Gary Steelheads of the CBA and putting his life back together.

An immature sports fan called up the show and waited on the line to talk to Leon. The fan was going to make a joke about the suicide attempt and ask Leon if he thought about auditioning for the Incredible Hulk movie. Luckily, the fan never got the chance to talk to Leon.

Fast forward one year and that same fan was taking a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago on a business trip. He noticed a tall man in line, dressed in a full body velvet blue jump suit with red and white stripes down the side. On the airplane, the fan saw the tall man's face and realized it was Leon Smith.

The fan approached Leon and asked him a few questions. Leon had just come off a season where he averaged 16.8 ppg and 15.5 rpg for the Steelheads, was picked up by the Atlanta Hawks at the end of the season and then traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Toni Kukoc deal. However, Leon didn't make the Bucks squad this year and signed on with the Harlem Globetrotters, with hopes of getting picked up by an NBA team during the season.

So Leon had gone from NBA first-round pick to throwing confetti on fans.

You wondered about his mental state. As Leon talked to the fan, he kept his head down, repeatedly fumbled with a piece of paper in his hands and mumbled his words. You couldn't tell if he was shy or just ashamed to tell his story of dreams gone awry.

The fan felt bad about the immaturity he had shown by almost making an awful joke about the life of a person that he could not even begin to understand or relate to. Thus, the fan told Leon that he could do a story on him and possibly help get his name out in the sports world to let people know that he is doing okay and still working hard at getting back to the NBA. Leon's eyes lit up. He said that he still dreams of getting back to the pros and helping a team win a championship. He took out a pen and gave the fan his number.

For the weeks that followed the fan tried several times to contact Leon, but his calls were not returned. The fan didn't deserve the return call. Leon was maturing, he was busy playing basketball and didn't have time for his past. He was busy working on his game and didn't have time for people that wanted to make jokes about his past and then try to be his friend.

Leon just signed with a team in Puerto Rico. He will keep trying to get back to the pros, and when he does, will be better prepared to succeed. Hopefully, Leon will make it back to the NBA for good and someday maybe he will be the one getting showered in confetti.

Daniel Walsh writes for the Daily Southtown and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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