By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
“Scoring points is where it’s at,” Gavin Smith once said. In that sense, Smith was everywhere.
For one season in the mid-1970s, Smith was the face of University of Hawaii basketball. The 6-6 forward from San Fernando Valley, California lit up the scoreboard and Rainbow Warrior opponents, averaging 23.4 points and 6.5 boards per game. He delighted fans with his no-fear, shoot-to-thrill mentality.
He was so popular with the local crowd that fans began showing up at games wearing variations of Smith’s trademark white headband. Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi himself donned a headband the night of Smith’s final game.
Gavin Smith’s 23.4 points-per-game average remains a UH single-season record.
Smith transferred to Hawaii in 1976. The senior-to-be previously was a role player at national power UCLA, playing under the legendary John Wooden and his successor, Gene Bartow. Smith was a member of the 1974-75 Bruins team that brought Wooden his tenth and final national championship.
Coming off the bench didn’t sit well with the former Van Nuys High School star, whom Washington State head coach George Raveling once called, “the best white high school player in America.”
“I felt it was time to move on,” Smith explained to Honolulu Advertiser writer Dick Fishback in October 1976. “I gave [the Bruins] so much and I don’t really feel I got much out of it. You put so much in there mentally and physically, but the mental part was the worst of it. When you think you should be playing and aren’t, well…”
It would be a fresh start both for Smith and the UH basketball program. Larry Little was in his first season as the team’s head coach, and had the unenviable task of leading a program had been handed a two-year probation by the NCAA for numerous rules violations by the previous coaching staff.
The season didn’t start well. In his UH debut, Smith shot 5 for 16 from the field, finishing with 14 points as Hawaii fell to Oregon State, 91-76.
“I wasn’t nervous, but maybe the adrenaline was flowing too much because all my shots were too hard and long,” Smith said after the loss. “It was a learning experience, not only for the young players but for seniors like myself, too.”
Smith’s supporting cast included forward John Moore, center Brian Austin, guards Gary Gray and Robert “Jeep” Kelly. Promising forward Ed Torres was declared ineligible after only six games.
Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi donned a headband for Gavin Smith’s final game as a Rainbow Warrior.
As the season progressed, so did the growing legend of Gavin Smith. In late November, the Honolulu Advertiser’s Harry Lyons remarked, “In Gavin Smith, the golden-tressed, headbanded UCLA refugee, [UH] may have come up with a new matinee idol. A coed sitting near the press table kept screaming ‘GAV-in! GAV-in!’ every time the kid let fly. He not only set hearts aflutter, he can shoot like hell.”
And shoot he did. Smith had a 40-point outing against Houston Baptist. And 37-point performances against Oregon State and Southwestern Louisiana. In all, Smith had five games of 30-plus points – tied atop the UH record books with U.S. Olympian and NBA champion Tom Henderson. During his one UH season, Smith took 571 shots – a 21.9 field goal attempts per game average – another still-standing UH record.
It’s worth noting that this happened before the NCAA adopted the three-point line. One wonders what numbers Smith could have posted had the three-point shot were in place.
It wasn’t all fun and games. Little benched Smith for one game for disciplinary reasons. At one point in the season, Smith was in danger of being declared academically ineligible. Noted Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist Bill Kwon: “Transfer Gavin Smith is struggling academically and not really helping himself by skipping classes.”
The Rainbow Warriors’ season finale epitomized Smith’s time at UH. Smith scored 37 points on 32 shots, but his technical foul with 33 seconds left in the game helped future NBA All-Star Andrew Toney and the Southwestern Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns secure an 84-80 victory.
The team finished the 1976-77 season with a 9-18 record. The following season, sans Smith, Hawaii went 1-26.
That was it for Gavin Smith’s terrific and turbulent season as a Rainbow Warrior. His hopes for an NBA career never materialized, although he did play two seasons professionally in Italy.
In time, Smith returned to California and began a career in the film industry. He had bit roles as an actor, including portraying a bartender in the 1994 biopic Cobb (starring Tommy Lee Jones). Later, he transitioned to work behind the camera, landing a job at 20th Century Fox’s distribution department. He was credited with helping films such as Titanic and Avatar succeed.
Unfortunately, Smith’s later years were beset with substance abuse, marital and financial problems. In May of 2012, Smith was reported missing. Two years later, after being declared legally dead, his remains were found in a shallow grave in Palmdale, a city in northern Los Angeles County.
In January 2015, a convicted drug dealer named John Creech was arrested and charged with Smith’s murder. Smith and Creech’s wife had reportedly been having an affair. In July 2017, Creech was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and handed an 11-year prison sentence.
Former UH head coach Riley Wallace, who coached Centenary when the Gents played Smith and Hawaii in 1977, remembers Smith as an outstanding talent. “[He was] a big-time scorer. Scored a lot of points,” Wallace told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2015. “He was one heck of a good shooter. He had the long hair and wore a bandanna. He was a heck of an offensive player.”
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