Cold visited Shaka Smart in his bedroom behind the garage of the duplex on Irish Lane.
To save money, his mother, Monica King, dialed down the heat each night. So, the boy woke up embraced by the unyielding winters of Fitchburg, Wis., the sort of chill that packs a shiver 20 years later.
But the cold room from childhood tugs the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball coach, one of the things that keeps Smart grounded after 18 days in March and April transformed his career. You know the story, the five wins in the NCAA tournament that brought Smart’s ragtag group to the Final Four in Houston.
Those 18 days opened a paradox in Smart’s life, changing everything and nothing at all.
Sure, there’s Smart’s eight-year contract with an annual average value of $1.2 million (including a $10,000 clothing allowance) to turn down N.C. State’s overtures and continue as VCU’s basketball coach. Throwing the first pitch at Wrigley Field, then singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The trip to the White House corespondent’s dinner (Look! Lance Armstrong). Or the 7:45 a.m. trips with Norwood Teague (“I appreciate him like you don’t know,” VCU’s athletic director said. “I can’t love Shaka enough.”) to glad-hand university donors, when each spare minute is precious.
The circumstances changed. But the 34-year-old Smart still would rather wear sweats and a T-shirt than a suit. He quotes Mary J. Blige and Shakespeare in the same breath and, when he talks, you swear a second career as a motivational speaker awaits.
“I’m still the same person,” Smart said. “What team sports do is they really do provide you with humility. You understand it’s not about you, and there’s so much more that goes into winning that’s beyond your control.”
Humility comes in many forms, from the eight-point loss to Butler in the Final Four that left VCU coaches and players feeling as if a vacation suddenly ended and they had to return to work to the tiny figure of Zora Sanae Smart. The first child of Smart and his wife, Maya, arrived Sept. 25.
Last season, Smart asked one of the team’s staffers who recently became a father if his 3-week-old child could walk or talk yet. The coach with every answer in March against Purdue and Florida State and Kansas left his element.
“He was oblivious to everything that was coming down the pipe,” said Mike Jones, Smart’s top assistant at VCU who now coaches Radford. Jones laughed. “He had no clue that it takes about a year or a year and a half for a baby to talk and walk.”
Smart, a former point guard at Kenyon (Ohio) College, calls Zora the family’s point guard. And new head coach. She runs the show. He and Maya have been relegated to assistants. Sleep, of course, is scarce.
From sun up to sun down / I’ll always be around / Every minute of every hour / Still it ain’t enough time
“The key,” Smart said, “is to stay in a state of appreciation for all the great people and gifts around me.”
That’s why Smart stayed at VCU. Sure, he talked to N.C. State and Missouri would’ve been next in line if not for Frank Haith’s hiring. No one who knows him was surprised. He’s not the sort to grab money or attention. Fame’s trappings are secondary, pulled into perspective by his upbringing.
Teague, who hashed out Smart’s new contract in a half-day, envisions a national program that advances deep into the NCAA tournament each year with Smart bouncing around the sidelines and diving for loose balls with the rest of the team during practice drills.
Smart believes things are just getting rolling entering his third season in Richmond, including fundraising starting this fall for a $10 million basketball-only practice facility next to the Siegel Center.
There isn’t time to reflect on the Final Four run.
“Clearly, the success we had was a result of a group of people coming together, committing to a common cause,” Smart said. “I was just one of that group.”
Mention the Butler loss and there is the briefest pause in Smart’s energy. That was not a happy day, to feel so close, to actually believe you can capture the title and, instead, fly home with nothing.
The pause ends. Energy returns. Reflection? That can wait for retirement in 30 years. There’s work to do.
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