One from the Heart

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

SUDDENLY, STEVE SMITH WAS CRYING. The 6'8" shooting guard for the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks was in New York City two summers ago when, during lunch at the Fashion Cafe with his future wife, Millie, his eyes filled with tears. "I asked him what was wrong," says Millie, "and he said, 'I never got a chance to do something like this with my mom. I never even got to take her shopping.' "

Now five years after his mother, Clara Bell Smith, died of gallbladder cancer, Smith, 27, has given a gift that will be her memorial, a symbol of the loving bond between mother and son. Last month he donated $2.5 million to his alma mater, Michigan State University—reportedly the largest gift ever bestowed on a school by a professional athlete—to help build the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, a state-of-the-art facility where athletes will be able to get tutoring and counseling. Smith's gift will also endow an annual scholarship to MSU for one student from his old high school in Detroit. "I have had great coaches," Smith said at an emotional press conference in Atlanta announcing the gift, "but none greater than my mother."

For Smith, who last summer signed a $50.4 million, seven-year contract with the Hawks, making the unprecedented donation was simply putting into practice what he learned from his best friend, Clara Bell. "She taught me the game of life," he says. "What you're supposed to do, what you're not. She always taught me to be a good person and good things will happen."

He has taken her advice to heart. A superlative shooter enjoying a solid season with the Hawks, the unassuming Smith defies the contemporary stereotype of the self-absorbed athlete. For each of the 41 Atlanta home games in the regular season he buys a block of 40 tickets for needy children and the elderly. He also donates $50 to the Make-a-Wish foundation for every three-point field goal he scores. "Being a role model is not a burden," he explains. "It makes me feel good to see smiles on people's faces."

The special bond between Smith and his mother was forged in their rough-and-tumble neighborhood in northeast Detroit. Smith's father, Donald, drove a city bus and worked a second shift sanitizing toilets for a chemical company so Clara Bell could stay home with Steve, his older sister Janice and brother Dennis (now 42 and a driver for Pepsi-Cola in Detroit). "My brother and sister were so much older, and my dad left for work about 5:30 in the morning," Smith remembers. "So it was pretty much just me and Mom." To make sure their kids didn't roam the streets, the Smiths built a basketball court in their backyard, where Steve would shoot hoops with his mother until he was old enough to play with his friends.

When Smith was 7, Janice, then 20 and living in California with a boyfriend, was shot and killed during a burglary. "It was hard for me to understand why it happened," says Smith, who went on to become a standout basketball player at John J. Pershing High School in Detroit. He accepted a full basketball scholarship to Michigan State in 1987 and led the Spartans to a Big 10 championship in 1990 before being selected by the Miami Heat as a first-round pick in the 1991 NBA draft. During his rookie year he learned that his mother was suffering from cancer, and soon afterward he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for three weeks. While he was recuperating, Clara Bell died. "I was crushed," says Smith. "I had no interest in basketball. It wasn't fun anymore without her."

Still, Smith returned to action, and with the help of his father (now 66 and retired) slowly recovered from his loss. "I can never get over it," he says. "But I'm better at dealing with it. I go to where she's buried in Detroit and talk to her. It helps me and keeps me smiling." He had been thinking of ways to memorialize his mother for several years before Michigan State approached him about making a donation toward a new academic center. When he learned he could name the building by pledging $2.5 million, he didn't hesitate. "At first I asked him if he was crazy," says Millie, 23, a Georgia State University marketing major Smith met through friends in 1993 and married last June. "But I know Steve, and he just does stuff like this."

Nor is Smith finished honoring his mother. After the NBA, he intends to fulfill a promise to her by returning to Michigan State to obtain a business degree. Smith and Millie, who live in a new mansion outside Atlanta, also plan on having children; Smith wants five or six; Millie says two. But both agree they would like to be the kind of parent Clara Bell was. "And that," says Smith, "is one tough act to follow."

MEG GRANT in Atlanta

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