OAKLAND, Calif. – Well off campus and a town away in another kind of gym, Charmin Smith greets her fellow boxing friends with a “What’s up?” or wave. She offers a hug or bumps gloves, shares some small talk about what’s going on in everyone’s life.
Smith pulls on a navy blue bandanna to keep her hair back, then sits alone on a bench with a pile of protective gear and methodically adds each piece to prepare for her 90-minute Muay Thai class in a sprawling West Oakland warehouse.
This is how the first-year California women’s basketball coach might spend her Friday nights, as she did recently surrounded by friends with a passion for fitness and the martial art from Thailand.
They trickle in, Smith’s village outside of all her people at the University of California, where she is a first-time women’s basketball head coach.
Led by trainer Jason Joseph, or “Coach Jay” as they call him, Smith discovered Muay Thai 3 1/2 years ago when Joseph’s former gym was just a few blocks from her home. She drove by it so many times before finally going.
“It’s definitely my passion outside of basketball. I’ve found a whole new community. I have new teammates, new family with our Muay Thai-minded family and Coach Jay,” Smith said. “And it’s been truly phenomenal and I’ve learned another level of discipline and commitment. The technique and the skill that it takes to learn the art of Muay Thai has definitely made me a better basketball coach.”
Smith jogs laps around the mat to warm up as others jump rope to get the heart rate going. Then, time to spar.
Joseph hollers out simple instructions for each round.
He takes in newcomers with a good-natured approach, realizing it takes time to tackle a new activity.
“Clear your mind!” he might say after a mistake before a student tries again.
“Eyes on coach!”
“Stand tall! You are tall!”
“Take a break!”
Smith had been Cal associate head coach since 2012 before joining the WNBA’s New York Liberty as an assistant coach in April. She was gone all of two-plus months.
During her brief time away in New York, the 44-year-old Smith missed the camaraderie of her regular Muay Thai training and her community in the boxing gym just as she missed her Cal players in the other gym.
Everybody at Dogtown Athletic also greatly missed her.
Her boxing friends were thrilled when she returned to the Bay Area to take over the Cal program when Lindsay Gottlieb left to accept an assistant coaching position with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
“She’s necessary, she really is,” friend and classmate Bruce Daniel said. “She’s a calming influence.”
Coach Jay smiles when someone catches on to a new move or succeeds getting through a particularly difficult sequence or round – “That’s Muay Thai!” he declares.
Smith has picked up on plenty from his coaching style.
“I’m learning something new each day,” she says. “It’s inspiring to me the impact a good coach can have on someone.”
She has coached alongside some good ones and played for Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer at Stanford.
“When I think about being the head coach for the first time at Cal, to me that’s very intimidating,” VanDerveer said. “I mean, I was a head coach at Idaho, but she’s right in that spotlight, and I hope that she knows that I’ll always be a mentor for her, and as long as they come in second, I’m cheering for them.”
Smith joined the Cal staff under then-coach Joanne Boyle in 2007-08, then stayed put in Berkeley after Gottlieb took over in 2011.
Taking care of herself off the court is an example for the young women she coaches.
Muay Thai uses fists, knees, shins and elbows in a series of structured self-defense moves.
Her team even tried it out last month.
That goes to Smith’s message she shared on Twitter: “Would never ask them to be willing to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”
“I think my experience playing in the WNBA, playing at Stanford and going to Final Fours, I hope that they trust in me because I’ve done it as a player,” Smith said. “I want them to be able to hear me say like this is the way, and not just because I think so, but because I’ve actually experienced it.”
Smith is thankful she discovered Muay Thai.
For the mental toughness it takes. For the intense workout.
“I just needed a kick start,” she said. “I was doing yoga and taking guitar lessons. Muay Thai is what stuck, with the community and I needed something to get me in shape.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.