It was Will Smith’s heart that took him to new heights as an athlete.
Ultimately, that same heart led to his untimely death.
A standout basketball player at Bakersfield High and Bakersfield College and former head coach at West, Smith, who suffered from atrial fibrillation, died Monday at the age of 53 after suffering a heart attack.
“He had a heart of gold a mile-wide,” said Mark Hutson, Smith’s coach at BHS. “(He was a) great guy, great player, great family man. Had no enemies. Everyone liked him.”
Hutson knew Smith well, and was one of many who shared stories that characterized his life, on and off the court.
Hutson told the story of when he wanted to help his former point guard play at a four-year college program. Smith was a three-year varsity starter for Hutson at BHS, and after graduating in 1983, went on to play two years at BC.
So the legendary Driller coach called then-Westmont College coach Chet Kammerer, who in turn, called Smith to invite him to try out for a scholarship offer.
There was just one problem — Smith didn’t have a car.
So, he called on a friend and BC teammate, Vance Palm, to see if he could get a ride out to Santa Barbara.
“We took my beat-up Dodge Omni out there and rolled into Westmont surrounded by all of these Mercedes and Beamers,” Palm said. “We walked into that gym and Will smoked them all. He was awesome.
“We went down there and played. Got in the gym and played for Coach Kammerer. He told us we could play. We were there for two hours. Will was instantly standing out. People wanted to play with him.”
After playing, Kammerer set up a meeting with Smith.
“They took us in a limo to this really nice restaurant,” Palm said. “Here we were, two dudes from BC, at this fancy place. Will was offered right there and took it on.”
Even before his college playing days, Smith was the floor general for the Drillers and someone Hutson had the utmost trust in.
“We were playing a game against East High up in the big gym at BC,” Hutson said.
The Drillers were down by one point with eight seconds left when Hutson called a timeout and designed a play for Smith.
“I wanted to give the ball to Smitty,” Hutson said. “I wanted him to hit the jump shot.”
Smith didn’t disappoint. He made the jumper and the Drillers edged the Blades by one.
Immediately afterward, now-retired Californian reporter Jeff Evans asked Hutson if he knew that Smith was 0 for 8 shooting before making that shot.
“I didn’t,” Hutson said. “I probably wouldn’t have had him take that shot if I did know. But I had all the faith in Will. That’s because of the type of person he was.”
After his playing days ended, Smith coached the boys basketball program at West High from 2007-2013.
Long before those coaching days, Smith eventually met his best friend, Sean Mullen, while working for State Farm Insurance.
Mullen and Smith met 25 years ago when the Mullens were still living in San Diego and working for the company alongside Smith. The friendship grew over time until the Mullen family moved to Bakersfield and their sons began playing sports together as youths.
Baseball is where the two sons excelled the most.
Sean Mullen’s son, Sean, and Smith’s son, Jalen, were four-year standouts at Stockdale. The younger Mullen is now a freshman pitcher at UCLA and Jalen Smith is a freshman second baseman at UC Davis.
Will Smith was at UC Davis on Sunday watching his son play for the Aggies.
Smith’s love for basketball as a player paled in comparison to the love he had for his wife, Gurmit, and his two children, including his daughter Saveena.
“He is just a wonderful, kind spirit. I’ve known over the years how you can really tell a lot about how a person treats kids,” the older Mullen said. “From the first day, he was the kindest and most humble person I knew. He lived that way every day. His daughter was everything to him and he was so proud of Jalen. When he talked about them, it was amazing. We will all miss him dearly.”
Services have been set for Sunday, April 21 at 1 p.m. at Greenlawn Cemetery on Panama Lane.
“There are so many people to thank in this tough time,” Gurmit Smith said. “Thank you to our entire family and all of his wonderful friends for the love and support at this time.”