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.