VCU coach always proving himself
When Keith Dambrot took over as the men's head basketball coach at Akron in 2004, he inherited a team low on talent. Trying to find an adequate challenge for starting point guard Dru Joyce one day in practice, Dambrot asked his diminutive assistant coach to suit up and play defense.
To 27-year-old Shaka Smart, this was not half-step grunt work. This was another chance to fight the battle of a lifetime.
When the competition between Joyce and Smart got heated to the point of thrown elbows, Dambrot halted the experiment. "I had to pull him off, because they were almost ready to fight," Dambrot recalled with a laugh. "He wanted to prove he was a Division I player."
Smart has always wanted to prove something.
To prove his worth.
To prove a point.
To prove the improbable is attainable.
Today, the proof is in the Houston pudding. At age 33 and in just his second year as a head coach, Shaka Smart has somehow led No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth from the thinnest membrane of the NCAA tournament bubble to the rich reward of the Final Four.
It's one of the most unlikely stories in college basketball history, and Smart's fingerprints are all over it. His poise, selflessness and fearlessness have infected VCU. Most of all, the Rams are imbued with his urgent desire to show the world how dangerous it is to dismiss and disrespect the little guy.
The Rams play, quite simply, with something to prove.
VCU's rise reached its apex Sunday, when the Rams shocked No. 1 seed Kansas in San Antonio. In that game VCU roared to an 18-point lead, watched the Jayhawks reclaim all but two of those points and then regrouped to finish out a 10-point victory.
"The Kansas game is like his whole life," said Dambrot, who is Smart's best friend. "Take the punch, then deliver the punch. Don't quit. Keep fighting. He fought for everything he's got."
There has been much to fight and much to prove in Smart's life.
Born to an African-American father and a white mother, he was too black for some in his hometown of Oregon, Wis.; too white for others. Too socially conscious to sit quietly in the face of intolerance. Too smart to be a jock. Too short to be a big-time basketball player.
His dad left the family when Shaka was a teenager, and the two do not have a relationship. The man he considered a father figure, Kenyon College basketball coach Bill Brown -- the guy who convinced Shaka to turn down Harvard, Yale and Brown and play Division III ball in the middle of Ohio -- moved on after his freshman year.
Another man left Smart this week. His grandfather, Walter King, died in Chicago. Smart was moved to tears talking about him last week in San Antonio on the eve of the regional final game against Kansas.
"He was the strongest male influence in my life," Smart said.
Perhaps because the older males have come and gone so often, Smart has reveled in this opportunity to lead a team and build a bond with the young men he coaches. Even as his individual star has risen in his profession, Smart has seemingly avoided believing his own burgeoning hype.
"Even though he's the leader of the group, he doesn't need to let you know he's the leader," said Boston Celtics assistant Kevin Eastman, another longtime friend of Smart's and something of a motivational guru in the profession. "He's not into all that extra stuff. The office, the car, the salary -- that's not as important to him as doing right by the guys he's coaching."
To do right by the Rams, Smart has tirelessly searched for new methods of motivation. He spent the entire month of March coming up with one gimmick after another.
On March 1, he gathered the team and burned the February page from his desk calendar in front of them. February had been a rotten month for VCU; the Rams lost five of eight games and seemed to have killed their chances of an at-large NCAA tourney bid. So heading into the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, Smart played with fire.
"The assistant coaches gave me a hard time because they said I held onto it," Smart said. "If I would have held onto it one second longer, my hand would have caught on fire. The guys watched it burn. That was symbolic for us of putting the month of February behind us."
In the CAA quarterfinals, forward Jamie Skeen made a spinning layup in the final seconds for a 62-60 victory over Drexel -- if it hadn't been for that, the Rams definitely would not have earned an NCAA berth. The next night they stunned regular-season champion George Mason, which at the time had the nation's longest winning streak at 16. By making the CAA final, VCU had done just enough to make the Dance, though it wouldn't find out until Selection Sunday a week later.
The howls of derision that accompanied VCU's surprise inclusion in the field of 68 gave Smart all the ammo he needed for more motivation. He had videotapes made of all the analysts criticizing the Rams and played them for his team. When anybody picked against VCU, Smart got the tape. Before the Kansas game he even showed his team video of President Barack Obama picking the Jayhawks to win it all on ESPN.
After shocking Kansas, the first words out of Smart's mouth in the press conference showed that the chip is still in place on his slight shoulder.
"Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game," he said. "But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. And that's our theme throughout the NCAA tournament since we were selected."
Standing up for the disrespected has been a theme in Smart's life. The Washington Post ran a story last week detailing his efforts to confront racism and bullying in his hometown and at his high school -- some of it directed at his adopted brother, who like Shaka is half-black.
"I remember all the time dealing with prejudice," Smart told the Post. "And I think that's part of what has fed my competitive drive, because especially when you're a kid, people can be unkind. And it hurts."
Smart thrived at Kenyon, eventually becoming the school's all-time assists leader and graduating magna cum laude with a degree in history. But it hurt when his coach left the school after Smart's first year.
"That broke my heart," he said.
But before leaving, Brown got Smart thinking about coaching. He eventually gave him his first job, as a graduate assistant at California University in Pennsylvania. Before graduating from Kenyon, Smart had already written a column on how to construct individual workouts for Winning Hoops, a coaching trade publication.
A guy whom Dambrot said "is intellectually in the top one-half of 1 percent of all coaches" could have gone on to do almost anything. But he was hooked on coaching.
Smart caught on as the director of basketball operations at Dayton under Oliver Purnell, then went to work as a full-time assistant with Dambrot. After four years at Akron he returned to Purnell's staff, this time at Clemson, before finally joining the blossoming coaching tree of Billy Donovan at Florida.
It was at Donovan's annual coaching seminar that Eastman first had a look at Smart.
"He caught my eye early in the day, the first day," Eastman said. "As I started to watch him, I thought, 'He's a first-class guy.' Then I thought, 'Let's see what happens when he opens his mouth,' because that sometimes ruins it."
Smart put on a presentation on recruiting. He didn't ruin Eastman's impression of him.
"I thought, 'Gosh, this guy's got a chance,'" Eastman said.
After a year under Donovan, Smart got his chance. VCU hired him to succeed Anthony Grant, another former Donovan assistant who left for Alabama.
In his first year, VCU went 27-9 and won the College Basketball Invitational tournament. Then this miracle happened.
Yet as astounded as the rest of us have been watching the Rams roll, you cannot get anyone within the program to admit even a little surprise.
"I thought we could do this as soon as I saw we were in," point guard Joey Rodriguez said.
If anyone mirrors Smart, it is Rodriguez. The Florida native grew up loving the Gators but was not recruited by them, probably because he only stands 5-foot-10, at best. He plays with a fearlessness that is a joy to behold.
The only guy with less fear than Rodriguez is his coach.
Dru Joyce is playing in Germany these days, but he may smile at this: Smart will occasionally try to take on Rodriguez in practice.
"Me and him joke around because he acts like he can still play," Rodriguez said with a smile. "I've got to remind him he played at Kenyon College."
Careful, Joey. The little guy from Kenyon still has something to prove.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.