Despite a fan rally, offers of free donuts and free lap dances for life, the people of Richmond, Virginia, couldn’t convince Shaka Smart, the basketball coach for Virginia Commonwealth University to stay. It seems University of Texas athletic director Steve Patterson had the greatest powers of persuasion, pulling off a hire that several basketball powerhouses—including Illinois, Marquette, North Carolina State, and even UCLA—could not.
Now that he joins the Longhorns, will Smart be the man who finally rouses that sleeping giant of a program—filthy rich in both cash and access to elite nearby talent in Houston and DFW—towards the elite hardcourt status many neutral observers believe should be its due? Can his “Havoc” style of play dominate the likes of Baylor, Oklahoma, and Kansas week-in and week-out to the tune of the 27 wins a year he has been racking up? Or will it prove to be a technique that was only consistently effective against the weaker opponents Smart faced in the Atlantic 10? And which is the more indicative of Smart’s postseason ability: his team’s fairytale run to the Final Four in 2011 or the all-too-Rick-Barnesian early-round defeats he’s met with every year since?
We shall see, but this much is certain: in the Sun Tzu-reading, Shakespeare-spouting, Navy SEAL-training, one-time candidate for a history professorship Shaka Dingani Smart, the Longhorns will have an interesting guy directing their attack.
Smart, who turns 38 next week, was born in Oregon, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison, to Monica King, who is white, and Winston Smart, a native of Trinidad of African descent. Smart has said that giving him his name, which honors Shaka Zulu, a warrior king of the Zulu nation, is about the only positive thing his father has ever done for him. Telling his wife he would be back from Trinidad in two weeks, Winston instead stayed away for years, with no explanation. An attempt at a reconciliation years later ended when King, fed up with Winston, asked him to leave. The younger Smart was 17 at the time.
Another heartbreaking tale from Smart’s childhood is the story of why he learned to type when he was just five or six:
Some of my earliest memories are of me, when I was like 5 or 6 years old, just sitting at that typewriter and writing letters to my dad,” Smart said. “We didn’t even have his address because he had just left us one day, and we didn’t know where he lived. But I’d still type letters, and we’d just send them to his sister, who was in New York; we had her address. So we’d send these letters to her, and the letters were always like, ‘Dad, I miss you. Please come back.’ Just things like that.”
Growing up fatherless and biracial in an overwhelmingly white town, Smart learned to stand up for himself early—and also for others he saw as persecuted unfairly. When the first Gulf War broke out, many of his junior high schoolmates hounded a Jordanian-American classmate so viciously she locked herself in her room, vowing never to return to school:
Unprompted, Smart called the girl and talked her out of her room. With the sense that she had at least one friend, she returned to school. “He had this sense of outrage,” said Monica King, Smart’s mother. “When you’re a black kid and you’re growing up in a predominantly white environment, you grow up with that sense of outrage because you were the object of it yourself.”
Smart later excelled at basketball and became a three-year starter for his high school team. A point guard, Smart graduated with school records for single game, season, and career assists. His dad, then back in his life temporarily, was unimpressed:
He was always so judgmental of me, and it’s not like I was a bad kid or anything. He just didn’t like that I was so into sports. He always wanted me to be just about academics [The elder Smart has four degrees] … and he crossed the line a few times.
It’s not as if Smart’s report cards were subpar. He turned down offers from Harvard and several other Ivy League schools, opting instead to play at Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in Ohio known as a “little Ivy.” Smart was recruited there by Bill Brown, a coach he regarded as a superior father figure to his own stern, frequently-absent dad. One day in early 1996, just after Smart’s freshman season, perhaps the one year in Smart’s life up to that point where he had his emotional, athletic, and academic lives churning on all cylinders, Brown abruptly announced his departure for a job at California University in Pennsylvania. Smart called that day one of the worst of his life.
Unbroken, Smart went on to set the career assist record for the Kenyon Lords. He also took his history degree magna cum laude, writing about subjects like the “Great Migration from the Deep South to Chicago” and race-consciousness on the South Side of the Windy City. USA Today named him a member of the All USA College Academic Team. “He’s a terrific, hard-working, intelligent, diligent student,” said Smart’s faculty advisor at the time. “He’s done just really superior work here ever since I’ve known him.”
Despite overtures from his former professors, who urged him to continue his history studies and join their ranks, Smart jumped right into coaching, reuniting with Brown in 1999 at California University, where he took the first of several assistant gigs and picked up his master’s in his spare time. (Fun fact: He played high school ball in Oregon, Wisconsin, and first coached in California, Pennsylvania.) There followed positions at Akron, Dayton, Clemson, and Florida, where he coached under two-time national title-winner Billy Donovan, and where his stint overlapped with UT football head coach Charlie Strong. (The “Strong and Smart” pairing not only sounds good, but the two men see coaching very similarly: “I know he loves to win and hates to lose, but I think Shaka sees coaching as a more intense form of teaching and mentoring,” wrote his half-brother, the film critic and former Stanford creative writing fellow J.M. Tyree. Charlie Strong has pretty much echoed those very words in describing his coaching philosophy. Both men see their respective sports as subjects of study, just as much as algebra or history, and their roles in their players lives as something close to parental.)
In 2009, Smart became one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball when he was hired on at Virginia Commonwealth University. At his introductory press conference, Smart introduced his style of play thus: “We are going to wreak havoc on our opponent’s psyche and their plan of attack.”
Ever since, “havoc”—an attacking offense and heavy use of the full-court press defense—has been the byword for VCU basketball, and former Smart assistants who become head coaches honor it by naming their similar systems things like “mayhem” and “chaos.” (How’s this for an omen: Shaka Zulu’s tactical battlefield innovation is known as the “bull horn” formation.)
Havoc came roaring out of the gate with a 27-10 initial season, capped off by winning the CBI Tournament. In 2011, the VCU Rams squeaked into the NCAA Tournament and were regarded by most experts as a one-and-done team at best, undeserving of being there at all at worst.
Here’s a sampling of what the pundits had to say at the time of their selection: “You can make a case for any team being in the NCAA Tournament. … I can’t make a case for VCU,” said Hubert Davis. Dick Vitale likened their selection over some other team as being as dubious as Roseanne Barr besting Scarlett Johansson in a beauty contest. And here is Jay Bilas: “I’m not saying I don’t care how these kids feel, but I don’t care how these kids feel. … We talk about the eye test, [but] this one fails the laugh test.”
In the NCAA Tournament, he who laughs the longest laughs the best, and Smart’s Rams guffawed their way all the way to the Final Four, knocking off traditional powerhouses Georgetown, Purdue, and most impressively of all, a quarterfinals triumph over the mighty, top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. ESPN later called that victory the upset of the year, not just in the tournament, or in college basketball, or basketball in general, but in all of American sports in 2011.
Ever since, and in spite of the lack of any subsequent tourney streaks, Smart has been short-listed for just about every high-profile coaching vacancy in the game. And while he flirted with other programs, he remained in Richmond. Many wondered why he hadn’t made the jump from that mid-major school, and Smart stayed mum on the subject until quite recently, when he opened his heart to CBS Sports:
I get asked that question all the time, the school-pride answer is that this is the place to be, that we really, really like it here, that we’ve been to a Final Four, that we’re building this great practice facility, that the program is on the rise. And that’s all true. But, in addition to that, there is also what happened to me in my experience as a player. I cried for three days and felt lost. I still remember what it was like when my coach left.
But who among us can resist a shot at competing at the highest echelon in our respective field? Who among us can turn down a doubling of our salary year after year? And it’s sad but true, but there are likely just as many young men in Houston’s Third Ward and South Dallas and Pflugerville who need a strong parental figure as there are in Richmond, DC, and the Bronx.
A lot has been written about Shaka Smart’s first name, but not so much about Dingani, his middle name. In the Ndebele language of southern Africa it means “One who is searching.” Maybe Smart’s search is now at an end. Steve Patterson’s certainly is.
(Photos: AP Images)