Smart’s rise no shock to those who know him best
When Shaka Smart found out his social studies teacher was also a
basketball coach, the seventh-grader would hang around his desk
every day, talking about Magic Johnson or the latest move he was
perfecting on the playground.
”He was this effervescent, bubbly, bouncy, chattery little
guy,” Kevin Bavery remembered Tuesday. ”He was clearly different
and driven and passionate.”
By taking VCU, a team many didn’t even think belonged in the
NCAA tournament, to the Final Four at just 33, Smart has become the
coach of the moment, the prospect at the top of everyone’s wish
list. There is substance behind that stylish name, however – a
maturity, perspective and vision that are trademarks of the game’s
If Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens are the cornerstones of the
future, their generation’s Dean Smiths or Coach Ks, Smart’s friends
and mentors say the game will be in good hands. The young coaches
face each other Saturday night, when VCU plays Butler in the most
unlikely of national semifinals, a matchup of mid-majors in a game
usually reserved for powerhouses.
”Shaka and Brad are two young guys who were given an
opportunity, and they’ve absolutely ran with it,” Michigan State
coach Tom Izzo said. ”I think it’s good for our game because
they’re good guys who are good coaches.”
Smart grew up in Oregon, Wis., a village of fewer than 10,000
people about 10 miles south of Madison. His father, who named him
after 19th-century African warrior Shaka Zulu, left the family
early, and he was raised by his mother. She didn’t have many rules,
but her sons knew better than to bring home a bad grade.
”And sometimes a bad grade was as high as a B,” Smart
recalled. ”So I had to excel in the classroom. I didn’t really
have a choice.”
Smart’s love for basketball began with his grandfather, Walter
King, who lived in Chicago and would send Smart packages of
basketball-related articles. King died early Tuesday at 90.
A standout point guard – he set the Oregon record with 458
career assists from 1991-95 – Smart dreamed of playing Division I
basketball, maybe getting a shot at the NBA. After a few trips to
all-star shootouts in Chicago, however, he realized he likely would
get very little playing time, and would probably be better off at a
Division III program.
Accepted at Harvard, Yale and Brown, Smart instead chose to take
an academic scholarship at Kenyon College, a small private school
in Gambier, Ohio, and play for Bill Brown.
”Bill Brown is probably the closest I had, definitely the
closest I had to a father figure in my life,” Smart said. ”Going
to Kenyon was an easy decision.”
Academically, Smart did so well at Kenyon – he graduated magna
cum laude – that his adviser suggested he pursue a Ph.D. But Brown,
who left after Smart’s freshman year, had told Smart there would
always be a job open on his staff, and Smart couldn’t pass up the
opportunity. After graduating from Kenyon, Smart joined Brown as an
assistant at California (Pa.) University.
”I believe he sees coaching as the way I see teaching, which is
a way to reach kids and to make a difference in their lives,” said
Peter Rutkoff, an American studies professor at Kenyon who served
as Smart’s adviser and directed his senior honors project. ”The
coaching thing really grabbed him in a way that was
That was no surprise to Bavery, the social studies teacher who
would coach Smart at Oregon High School.
His former players often worked his youth camps. When they used
their breaks to get water, eat lunch or even just rest for a few
minutes, Smart would stay out on the court, working on his game,
and the campers would soon join him.
”Pretty soon, you’d literally see the entire gym, 35 to 40
campers chasing him all over the gym,” Bavery said. ”It was like
the Pied Piper. That was where you could really see his high-level
passion for the game.”
Smart spent two years at California, working camps in his free
time. It was at one of those camps that he caught the eye of Dayton
coach Oliver Purnell, who offered him a job as director of
Two years later, Smart was hired as an assistant at Akron by
Keith Dambrot, LeBron James’ high school coach.
On Smart’s first day, Dambrot put him in charge of James’
workout – no small task considering that was the summer James got
”He was nervous, but he wasn’t intimidated. He worked me out
like I was one of his college kids, and I respected that,” James
said. ”To see where he has come in eight years, to now being a
coach in the Final Four, much respect to him.”
After three years at Akron, Smart rejoined Purnell, who was now
at Clemson. The Tigers went 25-11 and reached the NIT championship
in Smart’s first year as an assistant, then made it to the NCAA
tournament the following year.
”He really had everything to do with our success,” Purnell
said. ”The thing that stood out to me then and over the years is
he’s not a recruiting specialist, he’s not an X-and-O specialist.
He’s good in all those.”
Smart joined Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida in 2008. A year
later, he was hired by VCU.
”I remember sitting with him quite a bit when he was an
assistant at Akron and I was an assistant here, and he was one of
those guys who came across and you could tell he was pretty darn
good at this thing,” Stevens said.
Smart said he has taken bits and pieces of his schemes from his
But it is his own personality, his confidence, that has made the
mixture so special, as unique as his first name.
”He’s like a best friend,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez
said. ”You can talk to him about anything. When you’ve got a guy
like that leading the way, it’s easy for us to come out here and
perform and have a good time.”
VCU was widely ridiculed after it was selected for the
tournament, having lost five of its last eight games. But Smart
knew there was more to his team than its record showed, so sure
that he pulled out a desk calendar on March 1, ripped off the month
of February and set it on fire.
The Rams responded with two wins in the Colonial Athletic
Association tournament, including a resounding win over top-seeded
George Mason. The Patriots, whose trip to the Final Four in 2006
inspired mid-majors everywhere, had won 16 straight, and had beaten
VCU by 20 points a month earlier.
”To us, at least, they signified a team that could certainly
make a deep run in the tournament and obviously a few years back
did,” Smart said. ”When our guys beat them convincingly in the
league tournament, that demonstrated to them, if we follow the
plan, we can do this same thing against anybody.”
And they have, knocking off teams from the Pac-10 (USC), Big
East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue) and ACC (Florida State) before
taking down No. 1 seed Kansas, a victory few outside of Richmond
”He’s brought them together at the right time, and I think the
reason is he understands what it takes to run a basketball
program,” Purnell said. ”He understands the rhythm of the team.
He understands you stay with it, keep breaking those rocks. Because
you never know which one’s going to break it for you.”
Through it all, Smart has oozed confidence and self-assurance –
no different from the little kid who used to hang around Bavery’s
desk or the student Rutkoff trusted so much that he had him
housesit during the summers. But Smart isn’t letting the hype
change him. When Bavery sent him a congratulatory text after VCU
beat Kansas on Sunday, Smart was quick to respond as he always
”The thing I think is just amazing is this guy you see on TV
and in interviews is the guy he is,” Rutkoff said. ”He doesn’t
act. There’s no pretense. He’s real. And he always has been.
There’s so much honesty and so much integrity and so much decency.
He’s just, really, a lovely human being.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Larry Lage in
Detroit and Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this