Man Of Direction, Faith: Cal's Brandon Smith
by Mark Stringfellow
August of 2008. Day 11 of Brandon Smith's 12-day voyage to Chennai, India.
Smith and his best friend were in the midst of teaching a group of orphans praise songs when his world shifted. It changed the California sophomore's entire perspective.
As they sang, a few kids sang their newly-learned English words at the top of their lungs. The last melody rolled off of the group's tongues, and the group of youth erupted into a huge roar.
While the elation from the kids grew to enormous heights, Smith slid away from the podium and sat down at the nearest bench.
Quiet, drained and slouched in a position of amazement and vulnerability, he began to take in what just took place. Here was a then-17-year-old native of Chico, Calif., over five thousand miles away from home addressing a joyful crowd of kids half his age that couldn't fathom the degree of poverty that they were stricken to, because they were engulfed in happiness.
"At that moment with all of my 'American riches,' I felt so poor. And in their perceived poorness, they were so rich and full of life to me," said Smith.
As Smith took count of all of the things that he took for granted and how wasteful he'd been in America, tears began to fill his eyes relentlessly. He noticed his best friend coming his way, but composure never set in - his face full of tears, head propped in both hands.
His best friend standing over his shoulder, he whispered these words: "You know that this changes our lives forever."
"Just noticing the joy in the kids' eyes, it made me realize how ungrateful and materialistic that I had become," Smith said. "The biggest thing that I noticed was that no matter what the age, everybody wants to believe that they lived a life of significance."
Smith has traveled to China, France and Japan on missionary trips, but none captivated him in the way that India did.
He was reared in a household where both parents were and still are very active in the ministry. His father Sean is an international evangelist and his mother Barbara is involved in several international initiatives that cater to single-parent mothers with dire needs.
As the saying goes, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.
"My biggest motivator has been my parents," said Smith. "With both of them being in the ministry, we pride ourselves on being a family of faith, so I live my life accordingly."
This foundation, merged with his countless international missionary trips, prompted him and a couple of friends to start making a difference in their own backyard.
Smith and Cal football player Spencer Haygan got together to help the homeless around Berkeley.
"We decided that once a week, we were going to feed, talk, hug or read to the homeless that we see around our campus," Smith said. "They chuckled in the beginning because we were walking around hugging everybody, but eventually they warmed up to us and began to see the value that we all could gain from it."
What started as a movement out of the sheer desire to lend a helping hand has become a weekly event. They aren't seeking notoriety or acclaim, they're just fulfilling a burning desire that has always been inside of them.
Smith's off-the-court outlook is a mirrored reflection of his role on the court.
His ascension to Cal's starting point guard came when former guard Gary Franklin enrolled at Baylor Montgomery. This news was a shocking surprise for many Cal players, but it left the starting guard position open for the taking. Although Smith played in 26 out of 35 games during his freshman campaign, he only started two games that season. With his starting time limited, Smith drew back to his years at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif.
There, Smith was the leader in assists in a season, most steals in a game, assists per game and he was nominated for Gatorade's Player of the Year award.
This year at Cal he's been able to put his skills back to work. It's been a learning process, but he's finding his groove.
"My desire to compete and win is on level ten," Smith said. "I just have to work on the little nuances and tempo that comes with being on the court as opposed to last year when I was viewing it differently."
When referring to Smith's current role, head coach Mike Montgomery said that he needs Smith to run his club.
"He does a good job of finding people on the push. The balls that he's been giving guys, they've been scoring," Montgomery said. "He could set up some things if he could shoot the ball a little better. Then he could get people to cover him and he could be better with penetration, but he's made a lot of progress."
"Because I haven't reached my full potential, I have a lot more to learn in this game. Offensively I have to be able to insert myself even more. From there, I can work on my all-around game and being a vocal leader comes with that also."
Where Brandon lacks in shooting ability, Montgomery acknowledges that he noticed improvement in his conditioning. Last year Smith was touted as one of the most conditioned players on the team and this year that has only increased.
His workout regimen includes hiking, intensive gym work outs, running hills or whatever it takes to increase his toughness and agility. Smith knows that athletes who have strong convictions in the ministry can sometimes be pegged as soft, but he doesn't buy into those notions.
"When I step into these lines, I'm just as hungry as I am for the ministry," said Smith.
When it comes to infusing the ministry and athletics, he likens himself to former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
"He gives his all on the field and he's the consummate athlete, but in terms of wearing his faith on his sleeve he does that with the same amount of confidence," said Smith.
Smith realizes that hard work, team cohesiveness and focused play are the ways that he and his Golden Bears can continue to improve. He has the foresight to know that all things, if worked on properly, will develop and blossom into something great. That has proven to be true in his daily walk with his ministry as well as sports.
Although he's always had a heart for it, Smith recalls the time when he received the vision that ministry was the right walk for him. On October 20, 2007, in Las Vegas at the Thomas and Mack Center is when it all came to a head. Following a day of fasting and praying, there was a moment where a vision of himself on a stage in a room full of a thousand people came into his mind as clear as day.
"I was talking about the love of Jesus and I was full of passion, vigor and life. My heart was burning in a good way," Smith said. "I just genuinely felt everything at that moment.
"Once I explained my vision to my dad and told him exactly what I felt, he confirmed it and said that is the same vision that he received when he began his ministry," Smith said.
His father's confirmation was all Smith needed to set out with confidence.
A similar moment happened during a Cal game, where Smith was able to connect to the unrelenting desire of his head coach.
"I can't recall the opponent, but it was very late in the game and the opposing point guard was hustling down the court trying to get in position. At a brief moment I noticed coach locking eyes with the guard," Smith said. "They kept staring at one another and it was as if coach gave him a gaze as to say, no matter what you do tonight, you will not win."
Although it was subtle, the guard seemed to hear everything that his coach said to him at that moment.
"I wanted to win for [Montgomery] after that moment, because I felt his desire. I often wonder if he sleeps, because he's always studying film," said Smith. Cal went on to win that game and he's admired his coach ever since.
Whether they're big or small, Smith takes heed to the subtleties in life. That is what has launched him this far and that is ultimately his inner compass.
Without following that compass, his life wouldn't have taken a 360-degree turn in India and he wouldn't have had the vision to speak with the homeless around his campus.
Without following that compass, he wouldn't have earned that starting position.
Without that compass, he wouldn't be known as Cal's starting point guard, Brandon Smith.