Gavin Smith: Walking Tall
“He was so full of life in everything he did, and really was one of the biggest people I’ve ever known. Whatever he did, he just did really big” — Tara Addeo
Gavin Smith still lives on in the heart and mind of Tara Addeo, his younger sister. Smith, a one-time high school basketball All-American who played for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA, would have celebrated his 61st birthday on Thursday. And 13 months after her brother’s body was recovered and identified by Los Angeles County officials, he lives on as large as ever.
“His birthday is Dec. 10 and mine is the 11th,” said Addeo, a Carson Valley resident for the past 25 years. “Right now, it gets a little bit harder with him gone. Even though he was four years older than I was, growing up, we always celebrated our birthdays together.”
Smith, a father of three (his son, Evan, played at USC), had worked nearly two decades for 20th Century Fox studio before May 1, 2012 when he was reported missing.
In February 2013, detectives found his Mercedes-Benz SUV in a Simi Valley storage facility. Smith was legally declared dead before his body was discovered in a shallow grave on Oct. 26, 2014 in a remote area near Palmdale, Calif. Detectives eventually connected the storage facility to John Lenzie Creech, a convicted drug dealer. Creech, who began an eight-year prison sentence shortly after Smith disappeared, was charged with the murder in January of this year. Addeo said that no trial date has been set as of this time.
At Van Nuys High School — noteworthy for such celebrity alumni as actors Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Paula Abdul, as well as Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Don Drysdale — the 6-foot-6 Smith gained notoriety in his own right as a basketball player. During his senior season in 1972-73, he earned recognition on the Helms Athletic Foundation All-Los Angeles City High School Team and as a Parade magazine All-American. The Helms Athletic Foundation report described Smith as “one of the “finest basketball prospects to come out of the San Fernando Valley since Gail Goodrich” (Goodrich played at Long Beach Poly High School and then was an All-American for UCLA’s first national championship team).
“He was the star of the whole (San Fernando) valley,” Addeo said. “Everybody knew him. I mean, you couldn’t go out to eat without somebody knowing who he was. It was incredible.”
Smith ranked as the third leading scorer among L.A. City schools that season with a 27.0 point per game average. One player who finished right behind him on that scoring list was Marques Johnson of Crenshaw, who was named City Player of the Year and later starred at UCLA as well as the NBA.
Smith and Johnson were teammates on Wooden’s final NCAA national championship team in 1975.
“Our lives revolved around Gavin’s basketball for seven or eight years of my life,” Addeo recalled. “When I was growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me go on a date unless I went to the game first. So we’d have to drive over the hill to UCLA and go to Gavin’s game. That’s just the way it was.”
wizard of westwood
Smith didn’t have to look far to find the college of his choice. In 1973, UCLA was riding the crest of a wave that brought 10 NCAA championships during a span of 12 years to the Westwood campus, including seven straight from 1967-73.
“I think Gavin had like 40 full-ride scholarship offers,” Addeo said. “I think the main reason he went to UCLA was because of John Wooden. Coach Wooden really respected Gavin and Gavin really respected him. Coach Wooden was very tough, but he was very fair. That’s something Gavin always wanted; Gavin was tough, but he always very fair in life. I think that’s why they connected really well.”
Addeo remembers being a “star struck” teenager in her encounters with Wooden.
“He was like, ‘The Man,’” she said. “Of all coaches, there are maybe five that really come to mind when you think of as being great … and he was always one of them.”
Addeo remembers one occasion when she and another brother spent their spring break in Palm Springs.
“On one occasion, there were about 16 or 18 of us at this restaurant and we were all eating, and there was John Wooden,” she said. “So he came over to our table and said, ‘What are you guys doing down here alone?’ He ended up picking up the entire tab for all of us, which was a lot of money, and he said something like, ‘Stay out of trouble. I’m going to be watching you guys this weekend.’”
Smith had his best statistical season for UCLA with a 5.9 point per game average in 1975-76 (the Bruins were 27-5 under first-year coach Gene Bartow). He scored six points in the Bruins’ 65-51 NCAA Final Four semifinal loss to Indiana and eight points in a 106-92 win against Rutgers in the third-place game.
hawaii & Hollywood
Smith transferred to Hawaii for his senior season in 1976-77, where he set a school single-season scoring record of 23.4 point per game average and had five games with 30 points or more — even though he didn’t have the benefit of the 3-point shot rule.
Smith played professionally for nearly two years in Bologna, Italy.
He later found a professional career in the film industry, first in front of a camera.
He played a role as a basketball double for actor David Morse in the 1980 film, “Inside Moves,” and in 1994 he had a small role as a bartender in “Cobb,” which starred Tommy Lee Jones as baseball legend Ty Cobb.
Smith was working as a distribution executive for Fox at the time of his death.
Even after they were grown and had gone their separate ways, Addeo and her brother always made it a point to talk to each other on their birthdays.
“I would always call him on his birthday and he would say, ‘OK, I will call you tomorrow for your birthday.’ And I would be like, ‘Gavin, just tell me happy birthday now, you don’t have to call me.’” She said, laughing. “And he would go, ‘That’s not fair. That’s cheating.’ And so we always had this great bantering back-and-forth.
“So, that kind of stuff is hard, but I think that’s the same for anybody who loses somebody they love.”