The old Wheelock Gymnasium at Riverside City College may be gone, but the memories remain with basketball coach John Smith.
John was not the first in his family to make some noise in the Wheelock Gym. Lucky Smith, John’s father, won two state championships as a player while at RCC.
Years after playing in the gym, Lucky would return to visit his son’s team during their practices.
“He would walk in and say ‘Wow, this place still smells the same,” John said of his father before his passing. “It was such a surreal feeling to see his eyes and face light up when he walked in the gym.”
Though there is a new Wheelock Gym, John continues to remember the legacy his father created at RCC, while forging his own.
John spent his early years looking up to his father. As John was growing up, Lucky played in the NBA.
Because of his involvement in the NBA, Lucky was not around until John hit the age of 13. John picked up basketball at the age of five.
John’s love for basketball took off from there. He played three years at Arlington High School then left for his final season to play for the prestigious, J.W. North basketball program.
“The tradition of North basketball was great so I would have a better chance of going to the next level from North,” said John. With the help of his father, John did just that. He went on to attend the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
A man familiar to the John family was coaching UNLV at the time, a coaching legend that won three state championships while coaching at RCC in the 1960s, Jerry Tarkanian.
“I wanted to go to UNLV and I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” said John.
After playing just one season at UNLV, John left to play at the junior college level.
“In year two in the third game of the season, Oregon State was coming to watch me play and I shattered my hand and tore tendons in my knee on the same play. I was out for the year and I started coaching,” John said.
John then went on to enroll at California State University San Bernardino. While he was an assistant coach at his alma mater, North High School.
John coaching career took him to his first college job at the University of Southern Idaho, where he coached a very talented team that included NBA player Smush Parker.
Since coaching at RCC, John’s career would go down a path most coaches would not attempt, coaching hearing-impaired players.
John played basketball with a friend of his, named Mike Torrez, who was a deaf player. Torrez introduced John to the first deaf player he would coach, Orion Palmer.
“He was really good for us and it opened up my eyes to another way of getting things done on the basketball court,” John said. While communication should be a standard whether you have a deaf player or not, it forces the player to “communicate on every single play,” John added.
John speaks at the California School for the Deaf here in Riverside every other summer.
Smith urges the participants to “keep pushing hard because someday there is going to be a deaf player in the NBA or WNBA.”
John is in his ninth year coaching at RCC. That includes a state championship with the 2006 squad.
John has turned down many coaching jobs from four-year universities.
“John won the first championship here since the Tarkanian era, which makes me very proud,” said John’s mother, Allicestyne Smith.
Riverside is where John grew up and where his family resides.
John said he would only consider leaving “if a friend went with me who understands my priorities with my family” or “if I was offered a head coaching job.”
But if neither of those happen, John is just fine with staying where he is.
“This is the greatest junior college coaching job in all of California,” John said.