November 21, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Cal State Fullerton needed a bucket. The Titans swung the ball around the perimeter, trailing Portland State by three points in double overtime earlier this month.
Freshman guard Jamal Smith waited on the wing — legs bent, palms open — ready to catch the ball.
Jamal’s father, John Smith, the Titans’ associate head coach, prepares the team for moments like this, often sharing a lesson he learned from his father, the late former NBA point guard Lucky Smith:
You’ve got a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean. If you boil a big bowl of hot water, which represents adversity, and you put the carrot in there, it gets soft and mushy. You don’t want to be the carrot. If you put an egg in there, it gets stiff. You don’t want to be the egg. But when you put a coffee bean in there?
“It changes the aroma,” John said. “That sweet-smelling aroma. It changes your mentality to get through whatever challenge is in front of you.”
Jamal has heard this analogy all his life. That’s why when the ball flew into his hands against Portland State, he didn’t hesitate to release a high-arc three in the corner.
Jamal held his follow-through, tying the game at 94, as he sprinted past his team’s bench, past his father, and maybe, somewhere up in the rafters, past his grandpa Lucky, too.
Sitting in his Fullerton office, John picks up a photo of himself wrapping his arms around a young Jamal during the national anthem of a game at Riverside City College. John led RCC to four conference championships and to the state championship in 2009.
The court is more than hardwood, 94 by 50 feet, for the Smith family—it is a space of love.
“We put Jamal in a walker at eight months while John was having practice,” said his mother, Kelly Smith. “Jamal would be in the gym chasing balls around.”
John finds two photos, placing them side by side: one of him whipping a no-look pass, back when he played for University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and two, of Jamal throwing the same pass with the same form.
To understand John and Jamal, you have to understand Lucky — the most dynamic passer of them all.
Lucky, 6-foot-6, was one of the NBA’s first big point guards in the late 1960s, having played college ball for the legendary Jerry Tarkanian at Riverside City College.
Growing up in Riverside, John was known as “Lucky’s son.” But Lucky, traveling across the country in the pros, wasn’t around until John turned 12. “I was chasing his legacy,” John said. “I wanted to become Lucky.”
From that point on, the two grew fiercely close. Eventually, Lucky promised to prepare John, then a high-school senior, for his upcoming first UNLV practice. Holding a ball, Lucky pivoted back and forth, and back and forth.
Seriously? A pivot? That’s the big secret? John thought.
Sure enough, pivoting was the first drill of John’s college practice. But with a stacked squad with future pros like Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, John later finished his career at Dominican University.
Inspired by the way Tarkanian cared for players beyond basketball, John pursued coaching at 20, eventually coaching at RCC, San Bernardino Valley College, the College of Southern Idaho, J.W. North High School and more.
“What he likes most about coaching is the influence he has on his players,” said one of John’s daughters, Kianna, a senior at Troy High School who will play for Cal.
“I still see the players that were there from when I was 5 years old, come back and tell him how much they appreciated him,” Kianna said, “and I think that’s what drives his passion for the game.”
Jamal felt double pressure, being John’s son and Lucky’s grandson, as a kid in Riverside. He couldn’t just walk the ball up the court; people expected him to do something special with it.
Trying to find his own way, he also played football, cornerback and defensive back.
After one of Jamal’s basketball games, Lucky sensed the weight on the 10-year-old’s shoulders. “He told me, ‘Don’t ever forget, basketball is supposed to be a fun sport,’” Jamal said. “I really took that to heart.”
Jamal developed a passion for basketball in high school and stopped playing football.
“It made me happy,” Jamal said. “I wanted to do it for myself, become the best basketball player I can.”
He spent hours completing drills with his father, memorizing John’s phrases:
Get a lift on that jumpshot.
Don’t be extrinsically motivated, be intrinsically motivated.
Get your feet squared.
Don’t try to do too much.
Jamal developed a high IQ for the game, watching film with his father. He was skilled, but stood just 5-1 and barely 100 pounds as a freshman. “He was smaller than everybody so he knew he had to outwork people,” John said.
Jamal grew to six feet, 150 pounds by his senior year, becoming a player who could not only slash inside but pull-up from midrange.
He never thought he’d play for Cal State Fullerton, let alone for his father. The goal was to play for Howard University, but the family didn’t get the financial aid they had hoped for.
Titan head coach Dedrique Taylor gave Jamal a chance to walk-on to the team. Jamal, now 6-3, redshirted last season and added 35 pounds, and is now a reliable option on the floor.
Sometimes dropping into John’s office, Jamal immediately senses when his father is struggling. “Nobody else can,” John said. “He can talk me out of certain things and get me back to focusing on why I coach.”
Most days at practice, John’s mind wanders back to Lucky. During a pivoting drill. On the free throw line. At center court.
“He lives with me,” John said. “Everything that I do is an extension of what he’s taught me and what my mother taught me.”
Lucky always talked to him about patience and composure. If you’re not calm, your players won’t be calm. They’re an extension of you.
Jamal, who is majoring in business, internalized this lesson, too. Waiting his turn by sitting out last year, and fighting for minutes this year, he has learned to keep a level head.
Last week, Jamal entered the game against Pac-12 power Washington in the second half. The Titans trailed 63-59. Undeterred after committing two turnovers earlier in the game, Jamal calmly put in a layup to bring his team within two points.
He is becoming the coffee bean his father, and grandfather, had envisioned.