For one UCLA walk-on, success of both Bruins basketball teams has special significance
Jerrold Smith empathizes with defenders who try to slow Lonzo Ball. He knows how frustrating it can be to have Bryce Alford drain a three in your face. Heck, if you include all the Bruins basketball stars, Smith understands how embarrassing it is when Jordin Canada, the stellar point guard for the UCLA women’s team, crosses you over on her way to the rim.
The UCLA men’s and women’s basketball team are in the middle of a tremendous run of success. The men are in the thick of the Pac-12 title race after a big comeback win over Oregon Thursday night, and the women are likely to be a top-16 seed in next month’s NCAA tournament. For the first time since 1999, the men and the women are ranked in the AP top 10 simultaneously. And Smith, a senior guard, is uniquely connected to both teams.
Initially a practice player for the women’s team, the Los Angeles native walked onto the men’s team during the 2014–15 season. Four years ago, there wasn’t much college interest for the 6-foot, 165-pound player coming out of St. Bernard’s High. Smith says he talked to mid-majors like Loyola Marymount and New Mexico State, as well as small colleges like Division-III UC Santa Cruz, but was committed to attending “the best academic school” he could get into. He picked UCLA, where a friend introduced him to Wendale Farrow, then a UCLA women’s team video coordinator and scout team advisor (and now an assistant coach at Cal). When Farrow and Smith initially talked about helping out the basketball team, Smith thought Farrow was referring to the vaunted men’s program. When Smith showed up to practice and realized he was auditioning to be a women’s scout team player, he decided to go with it.
Farrow promised Smith that if he fully committed to helping the women for a year, he’d do everything he could to help Smith walk onto the men’s team. So Smith arrived early for every 7:30 a.m. practice, anxious for as many reps as he could get. UCLA women’s coach Cori Close often matched him up against Nirra Fields, the Bruins’ 5' 9″ All-Pac-12 guard.
“Coach Cori used to say, ‘If you come out here and give it your all, you’re going to get better in the process,’” Smith says. “So I treated it as if it was my own practice every day, like I wasn’t just there to make them better, but they were there to make me better.”
Smith says he spent “every day of every week” in Pauley Pavilion, juggling women’s practices, cheering right behind the bench during women’s games and rooting for the men during every home game. After dinner, he worked at UCLA’s student call center as a supervisor, managing about 100 students who made fundraising and outreach calls on behalf of the university. After that he’d return home to do homework (he’s a political science major). Then, he says, “it was time to wake up and do it all over again.”
Smith loved his season with the women’s team, but his ultimate goal did not change.
“I never wanted the women to feel like they were the runner-up for me,” Smith says. “I was just trying to be a better basketball player every day, just like them. But as things were developing and me being able to walk onto the men’s team looked like it could happen . . .”
He had to find out for sure. Smith dreamed of playing for one of the most celebrated programs in the history of college basketball. Only 15 guys can walk around campus and say they play for the UCLA basketball team. He wanted to know what that felt like.
Close and Farrow started dropping hints to UCLA coach Steve Alford and his staff, praising Smith’s work ethic and vouching for his skill. The summer before his sophomore year, Smith started showing up at men’s practices and at coaches’ offices. His daily visits at one point promoted men’s assistant Duane Broussard to tell Smith, “You are the most persistent person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Each meeting, Smith would rattle off different reasons for why he’d be an ideal member of the men’s team: He was already enrolled, he said, and already academically eligible. His transition would be seamless. He had no expectations; he just wanted a chance. The final selling point came the day he told Broussard, “Coach, I watch all your practices—I already know all your plays and drills.”
“Now that caught my attention,” Broussard says. “He already knew our guys well and hung out with them. They were obviously comfortable with him. We didn’t want to inject him in practice midseason because he’s obviously not going to play [in games], but if we did, we wanted him to be able to help us.”
After weeks of pitching, Smith finally got a chance. Midway through November 2014, he was added to the team, practicing in the afternoons with the men instead of in the mornings with the women. Last season he played in eight games, recording one rebound and one assist in 10 total minutes. From a distance, Farrow followed Smith’s progress and smiled.
“He’s from South Central L.A., and every kid who grows up there, it’s their goal to play at UCLA,” Farrow says. “It just took him a little longer to get there, and he took a different route. But man, when he got that opportunity, we were all super hyped.”
Despite Smith’s limited statistical contribution, Steve Alford awarded Smith with a scholarship before this season. Smith cried when sharing the news with his parents, conscious of how stressful it had been on his family to help him pay for school while he pursued basketball. Smith understands that being happy with sitting on the bench might seem crazy to outsiders. But as it turns out, being part of the UCLA basketball program is everything he imagined.
“My favorite moment was from this season,” Smith says. “We were playing at Kentucky and it was just ridiculous, that atmosphere was crazy. After we won that game, everyone is so excited and coach [Alford] runs into the locker room, runs right up to me and we’re in each other’s faces, happy and smiling and yelling and just then, realizing how much a part of the team I am, and how I was part of that win, too, that was so special.”
“Normally if you don’t have the prospect of a scholarship, it’s like, when does your interest level wear off?” says Broussard. “Really, walk-ons have no incentive to stick around. I’ve gained admiration for him because he’s dedicated and he’s selfless.”
He might also be a trendsetter. Close, the women’s coach, likes to joke with Smith and Alford that she is running the UCLA farm system. Certainly that’s what other aspiring walk-ons think.
“Like 80% of our scout guys now they’re going to follow in Jerrold’s footsteps and be on the men’s team eventually,” Close says, adding that she is so proud of Smith’s journey and loves how it connects the two programs. “At the start of every year now, I get guys asking me, ‘Hey will you call, will you put in a good word for me with coach Alford?’ Jerrold, he’s got a legacy!”