David “Smokey” Gaines, a pioneering college basketball coach after his playing days in the American Basketball Association and the Harlem Globetrotters, died Saturday. He was 80.
He died after a long battle with brain and liver cancer. The Detroit News reported he also recently tested positive for COVID-19.
A native of Detroit, Gaines played college basketball at LeMoyne-Owen in Tennessee. He turned down a chance to play for the hometown Pistons to fulfill a dream of playing with the Globetrotters, which he did from 1963-67, followed by a short stint with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA.
After his playing days, he went into coaching and in 1973, Dick Vitale hired him as a part-time assistant coach at Detroit Mercy, where Gaines became the first Black coach in team history. He was promoted to a full-time assistant, and when Vitale stepped down from the job, Gaines became the head coach before the 1977-78 season.
In his first year on the job, Gaines led the Titans to a 25-4 finish and an appearance in the NIT. The following season, Detroit Mercy made the NCAA Tournament with a 22-6 record.
“Smokey was a motivator, he just had his way of doing it and he got the most out of you,” said Earl Cureton, who played for Gaines before embarking on a 12-year NBA career.
“We had one of our most successful seasons when he took over, but he just wasn’t a great coach, he was a great individual. He came from some hard times and made his way out and reached his dream of playing with the Globetrotters and in the ABA.”
He left Detroit Mercy after two seasons and a 47-10 record to take the head coaching job at San Diego State, where he coached Tony Gwynn, the future Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who played both sports with the Aztecs. He was the first Black coach of a Division I team in California.
Gaines resigned after the 1986-87 season. The Aztecs had a 112-117 record and one NCAA Tournament appearance under his leadership.
After that tournament berth in 1985, San Diego State didn’t return to March Madness until 2002 under coach Steve Fisher.
In 2006, Gaines became the 24th person inducted into Harlem Globetrotters’ “Legends Ring.”
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