Phillip Arnold Smith was an inspirational basketball player and remarkable man. He was born on April 22, 1952, in San Francisco to Benjamin and Thelma Smith. Smith was the second youngest of nine children. Growing up, his love for basketball was immense. According to his brother, Stephen Smith, basketball was “probably the biggest thing on the planet.” He attended Washington High School where he played both football and basketball. He went on to attend the University of San Francisco. In his four years at USF, from 1971–1974, he led the Dons to multiple NCAA tournament appearances, going as far as the second round. He averaged 21 points his senior year to go along with All-American honors. Despite his achievements at the collegiate level, it wasn’t enough to garner a first round selection in the NBA draft.
Still relatively unknown, he was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors in the second round. The Warriors didn’t know yet but they had just drafted an instrumental piece for their 1975 championship run. Smith led a comeback in Game 1 of the 1974– 1975 NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets which set the tone for the rest of the series. The Warriors ended up winning in a 4-0 sweep. Smith’s teammate and Hall of Famer Rick Barry had high praise for the young shooting guard from USF: “For a rookie to come into the league and to have this big an impact in the team’s success was a rarity.” Smith went on to have two NBA All-Star appearances in 1976 and 1977, All-NBA 2nd Team selection in the 1975–1976 season, and All-Defensive 2nd Team honors the same season. He’s one of the best players to ever put on a Warriors uniform and if it wasn’t for an Achilles tendon injury, his coaches believe, he would have been remembered as one of the greatest of all time. His career concluded with two-year stints with the San Diego Clippers and the Seattle Supersonics.
Phil Smith played an instrumental role on the Golden State Warriors championship team in 1975, but he was also an inspiration off the court.
In 1975, Phil married his college sweetheart Angela and, according to his former USF coach Bob Gaillard, he fainted during his vows. Phil and Angela settled down in Escondido, California where they had five children and remained married for 27 years. Alicia, his eldest daughter, said that her father was a family man who always stressed the importance of education before athletics. The Smith’s family values have been commemorated with a portrait of Thelma and Benjamin Smith on the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center mural. Even in fame, Phil was a dedicated family man, choosing to spend time at home with his brothers rather than with his teammates in the spotlight. After an interview with Smith’s younger brother, Matthew, Mark De Andre wrote, “It was basketball that kept Matthew Smith and his brothers on the straight and narrow. Basketball, and parents determined to see their children succeed despite the pitfalls that ruled the inner-city streets of the Fillmore District in the 1970s.”
Phillip Smith inspired new generations of people to play basketball. His story was that of success and it echoed throughout the neighborhood. Bill Cartwright, a former NBA player and USF alumni, said, “When Phillip made it to the pros, guys who had never picked up basketballs in their life—robbers, muggers, thieves—began to pick up basketballs. You saw a revolution in the neighborhood because this one dude from the neighborhood had made it.”
After four long years battling bone marrow cancer, Phillip Arnold Smith passed away on July 29, 2002, in his home in Escondido, California, at the age of 50. He remains an inspiration to those in the Fillmore and is still widely recognized by the basketball community. In 2017, in honor of Black History Month, NBA.com posted a video commemorating his story featuring Rick Barry, Bill Cartwright, and members of his family, all telling stories of the late great Phil Smith. Although basketball was his first love, nothing would surpass his love for his family. His former coach, Al Attles, once said, “As great as he was as a basketball player, he was a much better person,” and that is how his legacy is remembered.
— Jesse Cortes
“A Muni Family Remembers Their Warriors Superstar.” SFMTA. 27 May 2016.
“Phil Smith Statistics” Basketball Reference. 2018.
“Phil Smith.” University of San Francisco. 2018.
“Phil Smith.” Wikipedia. 2019.