Not many people can say they remain good friends with those they grew up going to school with, let alone people whom they didn’t even attend school with. That’s what makes Tim Tucker and Gamal Smalley’s friendship all the more unusual.
Tucker, 49, is Pasadena High School’s longtime boys basketball coach who is in his 15th season at the helm. Smalley, 51, is in his first season coaching Muir’s boys basketball team.
Tucker and Smalley grew up playing pickup basketball at local parks in Pasadena, but they didn’t play on the same high school team. Tucker went to Pasadena and Smalley went to Muir. They didn’t even play against each other; Smalley was a senior with the Mustangs and Tucker was a sophomore on the Bulldogs’ varsity team, but didn’t play when the teams met.
“But back then everybody played all day and every day when we weren’t in school,” Tucker said. “We didn’t have PlayStation or anything like that. The recreation was to get up, play basketball, eat lunch, play basketball and you traveled from gym to gym, so we knew all the guys.”
Thirty five years later, their friendship remains strong, but it was one heated conversation over the phone that has led to Smalley and Tucker squaring off on the hardwood when their teams meet for the second time this season today at 5 p.m. at Pasadena High.
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It was Tucker who convinced Smalley to get into coaching. He put in a good word for Smalley and in his first season he led Ribet Academy to the CIF-Southern Section championship Division 5AA championship game, where it lost by one point. Prior to that, Smalley was an assistant coach at Pasadena City College alongside legendary coach George Terzian. Smalley went on to coach for two seasons at Blair before pondering an offer at another school. The Muir job opened up and Tucker called.
“He’s always called me about different coaching openings,” Smalley said. “He’s always encouraged me to take a look at certain opportunities. He wanted me to take the Muir job. We argued late at night. It was a very heated conversation.”
Tucker felt Smalley was needed more at Muir than at the other school Smalley declined to identify.
“He felt I needed to be at the community where we grew up in,” Smalley said. “That was his philosophical view and I didn’t want to hear it at the time. But it’s worked out so well.”
They hung up on each other, but the next day Tucker called, laughed off the conversation the previous night and again pressed Smalley about taking the Muir job.
“I had to take it,” Smalley said. “And after the way the season has gone it’s been rewarding.”
“It was good for him because he’s an alumni and they needed an alumni,” Tucker said. “There’s enough talent in this city to go around, and pretty soon he’ll get that program back to winning.”
Muir (10-14, 5-8) hopes to muscle its way into its first playoff appearance in four years. Pasadena (19-16, 12-1) won its sixth Pacific League title in a row and is poised to make a deep run in the CIF-SS Division 2A playoffs.
Regardless, the rivalry is alive and well.
“He’s a very intelligent coach and will bring a lot to Muir,” Tucker said. “But when we’re on the court we don’t hold any punches. We’ll go after each other. Then we’ll shake hands and have dinner afterwards.”
Tucker considers Smalley’s wife, Natalie, a big sister. Tucker tried getting her to his side during warmups in the first meeting just a few weeks ago. With about 10 minutes to tipoff, Tucker wrapped his arms around Natalie Smalley under Pasadena’s basket. He yelled over to Smalley and had a big smile.
“I went over to the referees and told them that there’s gotta be a technical foul or something,” Smalley said with a big laugh. “At least kick him out of the game. Sometimes I’ll come home and my wife says, `Hey, I just talked to Tuck’ and I’ll be like, `You can’t be talking to the enemy.”‘
For the last 10 years, Smalley and Tucker have traveled together each year to attend the NCAA Final Four. They’re members of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and have put together charity camps, including last year’s Rio/Pac All-Star Basketball Game to benefit Pasadena senior Steven Adams, who underwent 10 hours of surgery last year.
It’s easy to see why Smalley admires Tucker. Ten years ago, Smalley’s youngest son, Zachary, now 12, underwent several surgeries. When Zachary was brought home, Smalley found him eating ice cream with Tucker.
“My son said, `And he (Tucker) said I didn’t have to share it with anybody,”‘ Smalley recalled. “That’s the kind of caring and warm person he is. I just hope my son goes to Muir and not PHS. But Tuck got him early with that ice cream.”