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 greatest coaches.
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 undeniable.”
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 basketball operations.
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 drafted.
“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 different mentors.
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 saw coming.
“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 is.
“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.”