Remembering Smokey Gaines, Detroit-Mercy’s first Black head coach

To those who knew David “Smokey” Gaines, he was more than just a basketball coach.

He was a trailblazer.

The former Harlem Globetrotter and head basketball coach at Detroit-Mercy and San Diego State died on September 5th. According to his family, he died with complications stemming from liver and brain cancer. He was 80.

Gaines, a native Detroiter, was a standout basketball prospect out of Northeastern High School, earning All-State honors in 1959. From there, he went on to play at LeMoyne-Owen College in Tennessee. After his collegiate career was complete, Gaines played with the Harlem Globetrotters from 1963-1967. Additionally, he had a brief stint with the Kentucky Colonels in the American Basketball Association.

While notoriety followed Gaines as a basketball player, it was his coaching career that blazed trails. His coaching career began in 1973. That is when he was an assistant coach on Dick Vitale’s staff at Detroit-Mercy. Vital left the program following the 1976-1977 season to take the Detroit Pistons head coaching position. This move paved the way for Gaines to take over as head coach, becoming Detroit-Mercy’s first Black head coach in the process. During his two years as coach, his record was 47-10. Under his coaching, the school made appearances at the NIT and NCAA tournaments.

Vitale shared his sentiments on Gaines’ passing in a series of tweets

New School, New History

After making his mark at Detroit-Mercy, Gaines blazed yet another trail. Following the 1978-1979 season, Gaines left to take the head coach position at San Diego State University. In doing so, Gaines didn’t only become the first Black head coach in the schools’ history.

He became the first Black NCAA Division 1 head coach in California.

As coach of the Aztecs, Gaines compiled a 112-117 record throughout eight seasons. Arguably the best season of his coaching career was during that stretch.

In the 1984-1985 season, he coached the Aztecs to a 23-8 record, leading them to a Western Athletic Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth. He earned conference coach of the year honors for that season as well.

The Final Stop

When his coaching career came to an end, Gaines sought to blaze one last trail, but in a different way.

In 2008, he became the athletic director for the Memphis City Schools. An article from the Tri-State Defender reported that Gaines took the position because he wanted to improve kids’ lives and bridge a gap between athletics and education. “All of the successes I have had in my life are a result of my education, and my education has come because of my involvement with athletics,” said Gaines.

“Too many athletes are not succeeding in school and do not have options after they finish playing. I had options, and I want all our student-athletes to have options.”

Gaines earned his Bachelor of Science degree at LeMoyne-Owen and a Master of Arts degree at Eastern Michigan University.


Follow Kory Woods on Twitter @koryewoods

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