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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.
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