Friday, October 27
Joe Smith was worth all this trouble?
By Ray Ratto
Special to

 Golden State Warrior fans will tell you this is nuts. So will Philadelphia 76er fans. Still, the evidence is clear and incontrovertible.

Joe Smith is the single greatest basketball player of the post-Jordan era.

If you don't think so, come to the NBA Correctional Facility outside Bryn Mawr, Pa., on alternate Tuesdays and see Kevin McHale in the exercise yard, or Glen Taylor working in the prison computer room.

Or think of the five first-round draft choices who will visit Minneapolis once, maybe twice a year, instead of actually living there.

Or, best of all, think of Smith's blank look as he considers the $86 million that just sprouted wings and flew off into the arms of some other, less-deserving Minnesota Timberwolf. Or, more likely, the Glen Taylor/Kevin McHale Mutual Defense/Keep Us Off CourtTV Fund.

The decision by Judge Roy Bean (played by David Stern) to strip the Timberwolves of $3.5 million, five first-round picks, and Smith himself, caught the sports world by surprise, but not because it shows a stunning show of punitive power from a league commissioner (read: well-paid owner lickspittle).

No, the surprising thing is that all this fuss is being made over Joe Smith.

Not that Smith is a failure as a basketball player. He carries his lunch pail well enough, even if as a first pick he hasn't set the league on fire.

But there is a rule of thumb first made popular in Roman times, which your seven-year-old will tell you reads, "Ne unquam aliquid raptes quod tibi non ferat superbiam raptando."

The literal translation is, "Never steal anything you will not be proud of having stolen," but it can be tweaked slightly to read, "If you're going to cheat, make it worth the bother."

With this being your guiding principle, especially if you work on the computer industry, you have to decide what you would be willing to get caught cheating for.

For Bill Gates' PIN number, you cheat. For Daniel Snyder's CAT scan, you cheat. For Shaquille O'Neal, you cheat.

More locally, for Randy Moss, you cheat. For Kevin Garnett, you cheat. For a space heater that works first time every time, you cheat.

For Joe Smith, you think about it awhile. A long while. And then if it still seems like a good idea, you think about it some more.

Maybe it was just that Taylor and McHale thought, with the cheerful help of Smith's agent Eric Fleisher, that nobody ever gets caught doing this stuff. Rules, after all, are for saps, or more precisely, for people who aren't incredibly rich.

Maybe it was that they figured that even if caught, the punishment would be the loss of Radoslav Nesterovic's handicapped parking tags, or an hour-long lecture from Russ Granik without bathroom privileges. You know, the traditional slap on the wrist; at worst, Stern would threw the pamphlet at them and snatch a draft choice.

Instead, Stern declared nuclear winter in the place that can least afford it. In fact, Stern is still thinking about suspending Taylor and McHale, which means neither of them can attend the Timberwolves' game with the Clippers Dec. 9.

The last two owners to be suspended were George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott. Steinbrenner went for his involvement in the Howard Spira/Dave Winfield mess, Schott for being a loopy woman with a thing for The History Channel.

So again we ask ... all this for Joe Smith?

He averaged barely more than 25 minutes per game last year, and less than 10 points per game. He helped make the Woofies a decent team but didn't elevate them to exaltation.

Joe Smith is what we in the business call, "a guy." Not a great player like Garnett, not a great but controversial player like Allen Iverson, not even a great but controversial team-destroyer like Dennis Rodman. Just "a guy."

You don't cheat for "guys." You may pay $86 million over seven years for "guys." But now, with Stern The Barbarian windmilling a broadsword he had not previously displayed in ownership issues, you don't cheat for "guys."

But if you find someone really, really good ... well, you know.

Ray Ratto, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, is a regular contributor to

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Wolves' loss will be felt off court as well

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