Smith Jr.'s rise to Mavs' top pick came with caring single dad, family

North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried talks with Dennis Smith Jr. (4) in the second half against Boston University at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. Smith will make his pro debut during the NBA Summer League 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Credit: Ethan Hyman

Credit: Ethan Hyman

North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried talks with Dennis Smith Jr. (4) in the second half against Boston University at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. Smith will make his pro debut during the NBA Summer League 2017 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

The cry pierced the black silence inside apartment 229G, waking Dennis Smith Sr.

How could it not? The Smith family's second-floor confines at Tera Gardens, a Section 8 complex, measured 1,000 square feet. Dennis Sr. was the sole parent, a reality that Dennis Jr. and sister De'Aira couldn't yet comprehend.

"I want my momma!" came the cry from Dennis Jr.'s bedroom.

Yes, being a single parent was difficult, Dennis Sr., now 47, recalls, but that still-vivid episode was one of the few times he felt helpless.

"Junior didn't know where she was at," he says "I didn't know where she was at, so I didn't know how to give her to him."

Dennis Sr. is sitting in the living room of his spacious rental home in north Fayetteville, in North Carolina's Sandhills. His neighborhood, framed by majestic pine trees, is a mere 2.2 miles yet a world away from Tera Gardens.

On Dennis Sr.'s wall-mounted TV is a paused image from Dennis Jr.'s introduction-to-Dallas news conference as the Mavericks' No. 9 overall draft pick.

And sitting on a sofa a few feet away is Dennis Jr. in the flesh — Junior, as he's known here — placidly listening to this brief discussion about his mother, Helena.

"I didn't grow up with any mom," Junior says, politely. When asked what happened to her, he says, "That's a story for another day."

At present, what matters to Mavericks fans is 19-year-old Junior's mesmerizing basketball skill and freakish athleticism.

The Mavericks barely concealed their glee upon drafting him, immediately anointing the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder as their present and future point guard and potential franchise torch recipient from Dirk Nowitzki.

Despite suffering a torn ACL that cost him his senior season at Trinity Christian School, Junior earned ACC Freshman of Year honors during his only season at North Carolina State, along the way becoming a YouTube sensation with his knifing drives, 48-inch vertical leap and tomahawk slams.

By way of personal introduction, however, there is something Junior wants Mavericks fans to know. Already, they might have noticed that he sometimes refers to himself in third person. And when he does, he always includes the "Jr."

There is a reason he does so, a profoundly personal one, and it's why he will insist that "Jr." be included with his name on the back of his No. 1 Mavericks jersey.

"It's just appreciating who I am," he says. "I know that everything that has happened to this point happened because of my dad, who raised us by himself.

"Him being Dennis Smith Sr., he did this. He basically put me in this position to have the life that I have now. I've got to appreciate being Dennis Smith Jr. It means a lot."

Carolina roots 

Junior was born in Fayetteville on Nov. 25, 1997, though it's often been written that his birthplace is Godwin, 18 miles to the northeast.

That's understandable because the Smith family's roots are in Godwin, population 144. It's where Dennis Sr. grew up with four sisters and a brother, raised by their mother, Gloria. She worked in the corn and soybean fields by day, hustled home to fix supper, then worked nights in the Purolator filter factory.

"We were probably the poorest kids in school, but we were well-dressed because we all worked," says Dennis Sr., who spent several summers driving tractors in the tobacco fields.

He still lived in Godwin when he and Helena had De'Aira on May 9, 1995, and, two years later, Junior. Soon after, though, the family of four became three, for reasons Dennis Sr. declines to discuss.

In December 1998, Dennis Sr. moved into 120-unit Tera Gardens with De'Aira and 13-month-old Junior.

Built by private investors in 1980, the complex entered a Section 8 contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, providing reduced rent based on each resident's income.

"Dennis was a model parent," recalls Phil Rhoden, Tera Gardens' maintenance supervisor for the last 28 years. "You never saw his kids outside unless it was one of our activities or he was taking them to practice or school.

"A lot of single fathers could learn something from him."

Dirt-court days 

De'Aira's and Junior's first taste of sports was playing with their cousins and neighborhood kids on Gloria Smith's Godwin property, where she lived in a double-wide trailer.

The kids played so much basketball that the grassy area Dennis Sr. sectioned off for them soon became a dirt court. It's where Junior learned to dribble, never mind the dust and pebbles and crevices, which proved to be a precursor to his current ballhandling wizardry.

A friend advised Dennis Sr. that the most important basketball skill he could teach Junior was dribbling. That way, regardless of how tall he became, he would have dexterity that other players his size lacked.

Senior had Junior dribble with gloves on. And with the basketball encased in a plastic grocery bag.

And after watching his obviously talented son play a secondary role to the coach's son in an age-6 league at Fayetteville's Arthur D. Smith Recreation Center, Dennis Sr. bought instructional books and DVDs and became head coach of Junior's teams.

Junior-led and Senior-coached AAU teams finished second in national tournaments at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels. All the while, Junior mostly competed against kids two and three years older.

Junior's games at Smith Recreation Center became standing-room-only spectacles, with fans arriving for earlier games to nab Junior-watching spots and police arriving to make sure the fire code was enforced.

Stable home life 

All the while, Dennis Sr. tried to make sure his kids had stability at home.

Apartment 229G became a place where Dennis Sr. provided haircuts for Tera Gardens kids and where Junior's teammates often stayed several nights at a time, on a mattress Dennis Sr. dragged into the tiny living room.

Each week, Tera Gardens resident "Miss Annie" Lambright taught Bible study to kids in the community, with Junior and De'Aira front and center. Tera Gardens' management staff also organized frequent National Night Out activities, like family cookouts.

"You'd see Dennis (Jr.) going out there with his hot dog and drink in his hand," says Lambright, chuckling at the memory. "Dennis and De'Aira were very smart kids, polite kids. Their father was straight up to the money with them: 'Go to Bible study. Go to practice.' "

Grandma's love 

A potentially useful bit of information for Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle: If there is one person to whom Junior listens more intently than Dennis Sr., it's the Smith family's 73-year-old matriarch.


She moved from Godwin to Fayetteville about a decade ago after her trailer burned down.

After retiring from Purolator, she used her hard-earned money to pay cash for a 2014 Altima. But when Junior, still rehabbing from his ALC surgery, left for North Carolina State, Gloria gave him the Altima.

Gloria points to her mantle, which displays many of her kids' and grandkids' trophies, including Junior's ACC Freshman of the Year and N.C. State David Thompson Player of the Year awards.

A lifelong Redskins fan, Gloria whacked Junior in the arm when he said he'll now become a fan of America's Team, although she does plan to buy a Mavericks flag to fly next to her front porch.

Is she concerned about her 19-year-old grandson moving from North Carolina for the first time and becoming a professional athlete?

"I ain't going to tell you I ain't worried," she says. "Yes, I am. But they're going to take good care of him."

While Gloria speaks to the reporter, Junior plops between them on the couch and lays his head on Grandma's shoulder.

"You see what I put up with?" she says, feigning irritation. "It's like this all the time."

Based on the NBA rookie salary scale, Junior is slotted to make $2.7 million this season and is guaranteed to make at least $7 million during his first two seasons, not counting endorsement deals.

Yet on this night, Junior asks Senior for money so he can get something to eat. Junior says he has nothing in mind for himself, but he does know what his first major purchase will be.

A black Lexus SUV for Grandma. She's already picked it out.

"When you go back to Dallas," she tells Junior, "you tell Mark (Cuban) to go ahead and pay you, so I can get treated."

Finding success 

Dennis Sr., Junior and De'Aira remained in apartment 229G until January 2016, when Junior enrolled early at North Carolina State after graduating from Trinity Christian with a 3.9 GPA.

After his devastating knee injury the previous summer, which he incurred while playing in a showcase tournament in California for top prospects, Miss Annie greeted him in the Tera Gardens parking lot. She dropped to her knees in prayer.

On the night of June 22, moments before his name was called as the No. 9 pick, Miss Annie asked her granddaughter to send Junior a text, expressing her pride and love.

"Every time I think about it, I want to cry," Miss Annie says.

De'Aira, too, has succeeded, earning a basketball scholarship to Fayetteville State.

And in 2007, Dennis Sr. experienced a benefit of Section 8 housing by enrolling at Fayetteville State. He earned a degree in sociology in 2011.

"That's the whole concept," says Sherry Simonson, Tera Gardens' site manager since 1981. "It really makes us proud to see residents use this program for what it was intended for, to go on and be successful in life."

Siblings' bond 

For the last 18 months, Junior has been just 70 miles upstate, in Raleigh.

De'Aira is excited for Junior but recalls their childhood moments vividly. Playing one-on-one against one another. Catching fireflies together while Dad played softball. Walking to school together and stopping at Bojangles restaurant for cinnamon biscuits.

Playing video games into the night in apartment 229G.

"It made us close," she says. "You can't really separate us, despite what we go through, despite what happens."

Early in their childhood, their mother, Helena, returned a few times a year. Sometimes she took them to the beach. "One time we walked across the street and got some turkey sub sandwiches, which I'm sure Junior remembers," De'Aira says.

But after De'Aira's fifth-grade year, the kids lost communication with their mother for several years. The silence continued through De'Aira's freshman year of college, after she'd helped Fayetteville State finish 21-7.

She says the summer before her sophomore year, she started going to church again and, soon after, a family member found Helena, who then phoned De'Aira. An aunt and a cousin drove De'Aira through the night to Georgia for a reunion.

De'Aira took two years off from college while helping her mother, but she returned to school, and the basketball court, last season, posting six double-doubles.

And though Helena now lives in Virginia, De'Aira and Junior say they speak to her by phone several times a week.

"We've got a good relationship now," Junior says.

Perhaps that's another story. For now, the Mavericks are getting a 19-year-old point guard who seems mature well beyond his years.