The Journey Is The Reward…
"Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come." –Chinese proverb
Perhaps you heard. Shaka Smart is continuing his journey at VCU. The athletics department last night announced that "…changes in his contract have been agreed to in principle, and the details are being finalized…"
Last night's windy conditions can only be ascribed to the collective exhale from north and south of the river, and east and west of I-95. Now comes the difficult but rewarding part: continuing to move this program forward, on every front.
However let's take one step back, all the way to August 11, 2009. I wrote a piece about Smart for the website Virginia Sports Now, the first extended profile of the new VCU coach of whom people knew little. It was approximately four months after Smart was initially hired, and two months before his first official practice. The gist: introduce Smart on a more personal level to the #RamNation.
There's old information and stories you know. But the enjoyable part of re-reading this, for me anyway, was uncovering nuance that went undetected in 2009. It showed us we were onto a fearless leader. Forget cheap words like special and different. Smart's confidence in his convictions, and the positivity that nourishes the plan, is his most impressive trait.
Here it is, in its unedited entirety. Enjoy this step back in time. Then, sprint forward.
His name is Shaka Dingani Smart and the name helps tell much of the story behind its owner.
It is an interesting and unusual name, one that has to have a story. Shaka Dingani Smart didn’t want to know the story. He had to know the story. He made sure he knew the story.
Smart explains that his first name is from the African tribal leader
most known for uniting 100,000 Zulus while also being a feared warrior
and complex historical figure. The middle name Dingani is from another
prominent tribal chief, Shaka Zulu’s brother. Dingani ultimately stabbed
and killed his brother.
Knowing is important. Smart is just that way, about everything. He always has been.
Stories abound of the precocious collegiate athlete who, instead of
spending time after class goofing off with friends or playing pickup
hoops, huddles with his basketball coach to discuss the finer points of
the game. It’s the frequent story of how successful coaches laid the
early foundation for their coaching careers.
Smart, the new Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball
coach, has that story, too. Except Smart did this in the eighth grade.
“I’d stay after class and we’d diagram plays and drills on the
blackboard,” said Smart of Kevin Bavery, who would eventually become his
high school coach and a great influence on his life. “I don’t know if
he enjoyed it or was humoring an eighth grader, but it was something we
Remarkably, that wasn’t even Smart’s first basketball (and
intellectual) geeky-yet-impressive moment. As a seventh-grader Smart
kept a notebook, but it wasn’t your everyday notebook. It didn’t contain
math problems, the names of cute girls, list his favorite college
teams or chores that needed to be done at home.
“Zone defenses, maybe 20 different ones, with different alignments,”
said Smart with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what some of them were, but
I really liked the strategy side.”
Smart took over for Anthony Grant at VCU in April, becoming the school’s 10th
head coach in its 41-year history. His ascension to a head coaching job
at a successful mid major basketball school at 32 years old is at its
core no surprise and, at its most romantic, destined.
Smart coached his brother—five years younger—in basketball and
soccer as a youngster. During his teen-age summers, he coached youth
leagues. And there was always the notebook and the chalkboard diagrams
and love of all things strategic and analytical.
No matter how it was analyzed—by data or by romance—coaching was in the cards for Shaka Smart.
“I loved to play and I wanted to play as long as possible, but I also
loved the idea and identity of a basketball player,” he said of his
days as a star point guard at Kenyon College in Ohio. “I knew it would
be hard to get away from it, and I rationalized it in my mind that the
transition would be made easier by coaching.”
That rationalization, or transition or whatever, was paved by the man
who recruited Smart to Kenyon, Bill Brown. Smart calls Brown a true
father figure, something Smart didn’t have growing up in Wisconsin. His
father left when Smart was two years old and was in and out of his life
until the age of 17. Smart hasn’t heard from him since.
“We had a relationship that was more than the typical player/coach
relationship,” said Smart of Brown. “He left after my freshman season
and he explained why and tried to take the high road by telling me it
everything would be okay. Part of that was that he told me when I was
done playing, I could come work for him. Coaching was always in the back
of my mind, much to the chagrin of my professors.”
There is no doubt the world of academia offered up a scowl to rival
the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Shaka Smart? Coaching basketball?
After all, Smart was admitted to Harvard, Yale and Brown (among
other schools), and turned them down to attend Kenyon College. Smart
found school interesting; he could study social issues and weigh them
with deep thought and attention. His competitive nature took over those
studies and he graduated Kenyon magna cum laude in history while also
being a four-year starter on the basketball team and the college’s
all-time assists leader. Smart was also named one of 20 selections to
the 1999 USA Today All USA Academic team.
Upon graduation, Smart had unlimited choices. But the lure of
basketball was greater than any other path. Smart took Brown up on the
three-year old offer and began his coaching career at California
University (Pa.). True to his competitive spirit and thirst for
knowledge, Smart also earned his master’s degree in social sciences
while working there.
stayed at CUP for three years and then went to work for Oliver Purnell
at Dayton as its director of basketball operations. Purnell was
impressed from week one.
“The first time I hired Shaka, I interviewed him for a week,” said
Purnell, now the head coach at Clemson. “One of the ways I do that is to
make them work a basketball camp (because) lots of guys in a two to
three hour interview can’t let you know who they are.
"One of the things that jumped out at me is how well rounded and
smart he is. He just does everything well when it comes to basketball.
He knows how to teach. He knows the PR. He’s impeccable at speaking to
kids at camp or to parents or to the Rotary Club. There’s nothing
that you need to do as a head coach that he can’t do, (and he has a)
tremendous work ethic and that’s huge. Some guys are blessed with a lot
of these things and don’t want to work. He’s blessed with that total
Two more seasons and Smart moved up again, this time as an assistant
at Akron. After three years, Purnell again hired him at Clemson.
After two more years with Purnell and one year with Billy Donovan at
Florida, Smart impressed VCU Director of Athletics Norwood Teague
sufficiently enough to be given the VCU job one week before his 32nd birthday.
“We have landed a gem,” Teague said at the press conference to announce Smart’s hiring. “I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
Ray Mernagh, author of One Chance to Dance, a book chronicling a
season in the MAC, spent a great deal of time with Smart in Smart’s days
"I called around once to some of his professors from college to see
if they remembered him,” Mernagh said. “They all mentioned that they’d
talked to him very recently and that he calls them often. He stays in
touch with his old professors from Kenyon.
“I think that’s different. Usually you’ll have a guy stay in touch
with his coaches (which he does) but it seems kind of unusual to keep in
touch with professors. I’m not sure a lot of D-1 coaches can tell you
who they had for a certain class in college, but I bet Shaka might be
able to name every single one he had.”
Smart credits his mother, Monica King, who raised four sons by
herself, with instilling his work ethic. It is the kind of drive and
focus that allows people to accomplish great things at a young age,
while continuing to be humble and work hard.
“My mom drilled it into us,” said Smart. “It isn’t so much what she
said to us, but we could see she worked very hard and sacrificed for us.
We learned the value of hard work by watching her, and she taught me
that mindset. You have to work to make it happen. Sometimes you have to
suspend fatigue and diversions. I guess I’ve always been a little
extreme, very focused.”
That focus maturated from zone defense notebooks in seventh grade to published author in college. Smart wrote an article for Winning Hoops magazine about making the most of your players with great work ethic. In retrospect , the irony is almost comical.
Becoming published is one thing. That the magazine published the
work of high school coaches and Smart wrote his article while a college
student is something different, on many levels.
First, he wasn’t a high school coach. Second, he was talented and
intelligent enough to have the article picked up and published. Most
notable and telling, Smart was a college student reading a trade
magazine about coaching high school basketball.
Clearly, inspiration is behind that kind of drive. Smart daily
draws from inspirational quotes. He is a big quote guy, frequently
posting some of his favorites on his Twitter account (@coachsmartvcu).
In fact, Smart has a file of inspirational quotes on his computer
that stretches more than 60 pages. His goal is to add one quote every
day to the file.
Though choosing one single favorite quote is an impossible task, Smart has a dream.
“You know what I’d love to do down the road—I don’t have any idea
how coaches have time to write books—but down the road I’d like to write
a book with my 10 favorite quotes. There’d be a chapter with each
quote, who said it, and what it means to me,” he said.
That time constraint is what Smart has found most challenging since
his April hire. It hasn’t slowed him down. When asked about the first
few months of being a head coach, Smart’s look turns from contemplative
to full-out giddy, a smile overtaking his face that looks like a child
who has just been told he could have a second helping of ice cream.
“I love it and it’s gone well so far,” he said. “I’d be lying if I
didn’t admit I wished it wasn’t so hectic, but I love it. Nothing has
been completely different than I expected, but it has been more intense
than I thought, more time consuming. I spoke at Villa Seven about my
first 100 days, and I talked about the paradox. You need to prepare
diligently, but the flip side is that you can never be prepared for the
things you experience.”
It had better not throw him. Basketball is the sport at
VCU, where no football team exists to draw attention away. The Rams’
flagship program has won three straight CAA regular season titles and
been to three NCAA tournaments since 2004. VCU is gaining national
attention with its success. Coaches are graded on wins and losses, not
feel good stories, and VCU has done a lot of winning in recent years.
Success is engrained, and it is expected.
wouldn’t say there is pressure,” he said. “But there are certainly high
expectations and that is a good thing because I have high expectations
for myself and for the team. It’s a good situation when there are high
expectations because it raises the level of everything we do.”
Thus far, those expectations haven’t changed the way Smart handles
himself. In interviews and sometimes in general conversation, many
coaches will resort to the Nuke Laloosh-induced sports clichés, Smart
will not. He converses. He takes a second, five seconds, to consider
the question so he can give the most thoughtful answer possible.
There is a comfort in the way he speaks, not that he is wise beyond
his years or overly confident. It is a calmness and peace that is beyond
his years, a leadership trait that will serve him well in the good
times and the bad.
Smart is different. The door is open to his office. Instead of being
led back and ushered through a closed door, Smart comes to greet
visitors. He is the Anti-Grant when it comes to dealing with people.
His intent is to avoid being off-putting; nor boring with answers a
PR flak could write. Sometimes, Smart will learn, he will have no choice
but to offer clichés, but that time is not now. Instead, he searches
for the answer to questions, and that is refreshing.
That he is a deep thinker became evident to his wife, Maya, very early. This guy was different, and not in a bad way.
"Shaka is an incredibly thoughtful person. He’s constantly writing
lists, cataloging ideas, documenting experiences, analyzing events and
distilling the sum of this knowledge into elaborate philosophies about
everything from racial identity to full-court pressure,” she said.
“I learned of this peculiar trait on our very first date at a
sports-themed restaurant in Akron. A Cavs game played on the television
mounted opposite our booth and a slick play launched us into a
discussion of what Shaka calls ‘winning guys.’
“Over Sprite and mozzarella sticks, he ticked off a dozen
characteristics of winners that were only superficially related to
basketball. His commentary made cursory reference to things like
knowing the score, time on the clock and other aspects of the game, but
its power came from his deeper observations about human aspirations and
folly. I had never heard anyone articulate their value system so
thoroughly and persuasively. And I certainly didn’t expect it over the
din of fans cheering on the hometown favorite.
“But that’s just Shaka. Nearly five years later, I still get the
sense that basketball is merely his chosen medium and he’s really
coaching something deeper – commitment, character, compassion.”
Inside Smart’s office, everything has its place. Neat stacks of paper
sit on his desk. A notebook is open on the coffee table. The 2009 CAA
championship trophy sits just below a video monitor opposite his desk.
There are a few pictures on the walls, but not all the walls have a
picture. Everything may have its place, but not before its time. Smart
has thought about it.
And that open notebook? He’s thought about that, too. It’s open to a
page marked up with ballpoint pen. The page is a hand-drawn free throw
key and basket, with old school Xs and Os amidst arrows depicting where
players cut and screen.
It’s probably the offense to solve one of the zone defenses from his seventh grade notebook.