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David 'Smokey' Gaines, Detroit Mercy's first Black coach, Harlem Globetrotter alum, dies at 80

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's been a heartbreaking few months in the college basketball circles, with the deaths of such coaching titans as John Thompson, Lute Olson, Lou Henson, Eddie Sutton and others.

And, now, David "Smokey" Gaines.

"One right after another, it's unbelievable," said Dick Vitale, who hired Gaines for his staff at Detroit Mercy back in the 1970s — and who heard about Gaines' death Saturday morning, the day after Vitale's latest charity gala for pediatric cancer research raised another $7.4 million.

"I got a call from Smokey's son Darryl. That brought me from cloud nine to down low."

David "Smokey" Gaines coached Detroit Mercy for two seasons in the 1970s.

Gaines, who succeeded Vitale as the head men's basketball coach at Detroit Mercy and later coached future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, died in Memphis, Tennessee, after a lengthy battle with liver and brain cancer. In his final days, he also contracted COVID-19. Gaines was 80.

Gaines also spent four years with the famed Harlem Globetrotters, among his many ventures in adulthood.

Gaines grew up in Detroit — he had eight siblings, with six sharing a bed in a house on Hastings Street — and got his nickname from his sharp-shooting on Detroit playgrounds. He was an all-state player at Northeastern. He went on to play collegiately at LeMoyne-Owen in Memphis, and actually was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. But he had a shot with the Globetrotters, a dream since he was a child, and he took it, spending four years there.

He then had a brief stint with the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association, before returning to Detroit, where he earned a master's degree from Eastern Michigan and was coaching high school when Vitale got the Detroit Mercy job in 1973 and brought Gaines onto the staff.

Vitale coached four seasons and made the Sweet 16 in his last season, before leaving to become head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Gaines was promoted as his replacement, becoming the first Black head coach in Detroit Mercy history; Detroit Mercy's last five head men's basketball coaches, including current coach Mike Davis, are Black.

"I'm going to build on the very sound foundation that Dick Vitale has established," Gaines said when he accepted the job. "'The program at UD speaks for myself.

"I hope that people don't judge me on being the first black coach at U-D, but will judge me on my results."

Said one of his Detroit Mercy players, Earl Cureton: "Smokey was a motivator, he just had his way of doing it and he got the most out of you. 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."

Gaines' first team went 25-4 and made the NIT quarterfinals, and then in 1978-79, the Titans were 22-6 and made the NCAA Tournament, falling in the first round. At Detroit Mercy, according to an in-depth profile in the San Diego Reader two years ago, he was one of the founders of the pregame hype introductions, dimming the lights at Calihan Hall and spotlighting each player as they were introduced.

But Gaines and a new athletic director didn't get along, and Gaines left after just two seasons to take the head-coaching job at San Diego State.

David "Smokey" Gaines with Dick and Lorraine Vitale in Las Vegas in March.

Gaines coached eight seasons at San Diego State, making one NIT and one NCAA Tournament — the Aztec's last NCAA Tournament appearance until former Michigan coach Steve Fischer took over. 

Interestingly, Gaines' predecessor didn't want Gwynn to play baseball, but Gaines, when he got the job, allowed it. Gaines and Gwynn didn't get along at first, because Gaines was a major advocate of conditioning and running and Gwynn, who battled weight issues all his life, wasn't immediately a fan. But Gwynn went on to play three seasons of baseball and four of basketball, earning all-conference honors in both — before he went on to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer in MLB, one of the greatest hitters ever.

Gaines resigned after the the 1986-87 season, when San Diego State was 5-25, 2-14 in the WAC.

Post-San Diego State, Gaines had a bunch of interests, according to a profile in the San Diego Union-Tribune. He became a single-digit-handicap golfer; he opened a nightclub in San Diego; he coached a short-lived professional basketball team in San Diego; he eventually returned to Memphis to coach his alma mater; and then became athletic director at Memphis City Schools. He spent various times living in San Diego, Las Vegas and Memphis. Gaines had a wicked sense of humor, and once, when he was young, considered a career as a stand-up comedian.

Gaines suffered a stroke in 2018, and one of his hospital visitors was Vitale. They last saw each other in March, after Vitale called his last basketball game before the COVID-19 shutdown. Vitale and wife Lorraine went to dinner with Gaines, and the three of them attended a Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds concert. Vitale knew Gaines was a fan, so he made it happen.

"He knew everybody," said Vitale, who got to know Gaines and hired him through his connection with the late Sam Washington, who famously founded Detroit's St. Cecilia's. "I'd come into the office, and he'd be sitting in the office with famous players from baseball, or Motown stars, football stars, you name 'em. 

"He was very loyal to me, very dedicated, and he loved going out there representing the university, and he did it in a charismatic way."

Gaines had four children, and was divorced. Funeral arrangements were pending Saturday.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984