Shaka Smart is Wreaking Havoc on College Basketball

He doesn't recruit, defend or train like anybody else. But is this former Cinderella coach the one who can finally bring a championship to Texas?


November 10, 2016

Bleacher Report

Shaka Smart's college basketball coach, Bill Brown, is only half-joking when he boasts, "There's not a home in America that Shaka can't get in." Smart's players testify to his ability to effortlessly switch roles between that of coach, father figure, brother and friend. X's and O's? He'll crouch down and perform defensive slides. Music? Wale is up there. Something to eat? He'll be there in 10 minutes. What are you craving?

Jai Lucas played under Smart when he assisted Billy Donovan at Florida. At times, he'd watch him doze for 10 minutes in his office. "That'd probably be his only sleep for the day," says Lucas, now one of Smart's assistants at the University of Texas.

Once a player enters Smart's orbit, he is there for life.

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Shaka Smart has spent much of his 39 years trying to figure out just who he is. Five years after a transformative run to the Final Four with Virginia Commonwealth, one of the hottest names in coaching—even among NBA circles—is blazing a new trail through Texas. Smart became known for his "havoc" defense, a stifling, aggressive full-court press, and for participating in drills with his players, sometimes throwing an elbow or two. He's even had his team undergo SEAL training. But what may actually define him is a havoc-style life—intensity in coaching, in relationships, in aggressively being who he is.

"I just never really fit in, so it was always trying to create an identity for myself where I didn't have to worry about whether I fit with people around me or the way I was being perceived," Smart says. "That was really, really helpful for me in growing up because it allowed me to learn how to be who I am regardless of circumstances."

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Shaka Smart reacts as his team plays West Virginia at the Frank Erwin Center on February 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Getty Images)

As the bus rumbled hour after hour toward Greenville, Mississippi, an eight-year-old Shaka had no idea what awaited him. This wasn't one of the yearly vacations where his grandfather let him and his brother Josh eat whatever and whenever they wanted and return with bags full of souvenirs.

The air seemed stickier down south than at home in Wisconsin, where their mother, Monica King, had detected a creeping sense of entitlement in her boys. Two weeks in a student-exchange program, coordinated through her job at a community center, should help, she thought.

Shaka and Josh stayed in a mostly black town of 75,000 with a host family who had five children and not much else. The illusion of ease and superiority that had landed the boys there in the first place—the facade their single mother knew to fear—began to crumble right away. Shaka noticed a luxurious country club, fenced off to him. The host family's struggle to provide for its basic needs each day clearly strained the father, who was a minister. He shouldn't have those wrinkles already, Shaka thought. They ate chicken wings for one meal, the kind bought in bulk for just a few dollars. They ate the same at the next meal and the one that followed. There never seemed to be enough to go around, enough to squelch those uneasy twangs Shaka experienced deep in his belly for the first time. He had never really known hunger before.

Neighborhood kids taunted him for his light skin. In Wisconsin, he had been too black. In Mississippi, he was not black enough. Some kids plunged his head underwater at a community pool, holding it there. As the oxygen left his lungs, Shaka feared he would drown. Josh finally intervened and pulled him to safety.

Shaka only stayed in Greenville for a couple of weeks, but it seemed like a year. He will never forget the face of his mother as he exited the bus on his return home: See? It seemed to say.

"The family that we stayed with was very loving...but just financially and in terms of the way they lived, it was very basic," Smart says now. "The food, the living conditions were not what I think any kid should grow up in. For me, it was a great learning experience.

"It was just an unbelievably loving, caring family who took us in for two weeks. Who the hell were we?"

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Shaka Smart does not talk much of that magical time at VCU. Looking back requires confronting and acknowledging change, which he grapples with.

"One of the areas where I've tried to learn and grow is understanding that change is inevitable and change can actually be a good thing," Smart says. "That's a kicking-and-screaming thing because I think we all have a natural type, but it's something that you have to adapt to because, in this job, there's just a lot of different hats that you wear. There's a lot of things that come up, and you have to audible sometimes."

Mike Rhoades, one of Smart's assistants at VCU, who now coaches at Rice, remembers losing to Drexel in Smart's first season in Virginia. Smart entered his office the following day, dejected and quiet. "Hey, do you want me to go down the hallway and cancel the season for us?" Rhoades quipped. They laughed. "From that point on, as pissed as we were, upset we were that we lost when we did, he was great at growth," Rhoades says. "Handle it, grow from it and move on."

One season later, VCU slipped into the 2011 tournament to the chagrin of several national pundits. VCU defeated USC in the play-in game for the Southwest Regional's No. 11 seed and upended the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks to reach the Final Four. The Rams lost to Butler in the national semifinal.

"He wants to be in a place where it's in need of some change where he feels like he is needed, when he's really needed by his players."


"Once that March came around, he has you ready to run through a brick wall, because of how much you believe in him and how much you trust him," Joey Rodriguez, VCU's point guard that year, says. "When people were saying all that stuff about us not being in the tournament, to have a leader like that, to have you that motivated to do whatever you had to do for each other and just not for yourself, that speaks volumes about what type of leader he is."

Every year after the tournament, other schools came calling. NC State offered Smart its job. So did Illinois. There was an overture from Norwood Teague, the athletic director who had hired him at VCU and later left for Minnesota. UCLA offered to double his salary. USC wanted a meeting. An erroneous report led to a TV station broadcasting live from Marquette in hopes that Smart would soon be there to accept a job offer.

Alfie Olson, Smart’s adopted brother, recalls attending a Chicago Cubs game with Smart. The University of Maryland phoned. Smart turned to Olson after the call. "You know what?" Smart said. "If you put a gun to my head and you said, 'You've got to pick VCU or Maryland,' I'd pick VCU."

Olson says Smart had compiled a short list of dream schools, including North Carolina.

"He wants to be in a place where it's in need of some change where he feels like he is needed, when he's really needed by his players," Olson says. "This last team on VCU, he said, 'Nine of my 14 players did not have father figures.' He makes it a point to say that and be there for them. He takes it upon his shoulders sometimes to a greater extent than he should, but it's what drives him."

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Shaka Smart consoles players after VCU's loss to Ohio State during the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament at Moda Center on March 19, 2015, in Portland, Oregon. (Getty Images)

Shaka Smart had always been a brown face in a sea of white in his hometown of Oregon, Wisconsin. As a kid, he was often mistaken for being Asian. His father might have helped him find comfort and pride in his identity and his place in a confusing world. But early on, Winston Smart departed for what he termed a two-week trip to his native home of Trinidad, only to not return, even as Shaka sat at a typewriter, penning teary-eyed letters pleading with him to come back.

Naming him after the Zulu warrior, Shaka says, is about the best and only thing his father did for him. Winston Smart made another cameo when Shaka was in high school, his "two-week" trip to Trinidad finally over. The appearance quickly soured. Winston did not understand basketball and the role it played in Shaka's life, how it provided structure and discipline amid his own absenteeism. Winston told Shaka and Olson to expend less energy on sports and more on household chores and homework—even though they were honor students.

Soon Winston Smart left again, a defection even more lasting than the original.

Shaka's mother somehow managed to fill both parental roles, and her father, Walter King, became a pivotal patriarchal figure. Monica King had a knack for flooding each son with enough attention to make him feel like an only child, even as she worked dual jobs. King, who is white, sought opportunities for Smart to immerse himself in the black community, doing her best to unearth culture in small-town, middle America. She wanted him to know his background, figuring a shielding of his identity would lead to a crisis later in life.

"As difficult as that was to go through, it really solidified Shaka's concept of who he is and what he stands for and what his family is about, even though his family has a lot of white people in it," King says. She would often be the only white person at Ben's Barber Shop on the south side of Madison, where Smart would get his hair trimmed amid spirited debates about sports and politics and games of checkers.

Early in high school, Smart talked to his mother about having the family take in Olson, who had been living with his grandparents and like Smart is half-black. "I was so proud of him, that he reached out and he felt that strongly about it, and that he just told me," King says. "He didn't ask me. He told me, and we did it."

Today, Olson can still remember all of the minority kids in the school district. "Literally, in the whole district, we're talking elementary to high school, there were 10 minority students out of probably 2,000 kids," Olson says.

"What head coach would tell a guy to basically open his recruiting back up? Right from there, I honestly knew he was a genuine guy."


Smart spoke out for others who were picked on and rallied for the school's curriculum to include the history of all races. "To confront people that were not treating others the same way, you rarely see that in kids that age," Kevin Bavery, his high school coach, says.

Smart encountered racism for his efforts. Some kids drove souped-up pickup trucks while waving confederate flags from their windows. Smart and Olson found racial epithets written in locker rooms. "One guy had a knife in his locker," Olson says. "He got expelled because he was going to try to stab us. The other guy had a gun, and he was trying to kill us. All these things we were told after. It was just one thing after another.

"Dealing with those little indignities, you've got to tell yourself you're a person and stick to that. And that helps define you versus I'm black, I'm white, or I'm a jock, I'm a nerd."

Smart learned adaptability. Point guard, where he could dictate the game on his terms, became a natural fit. As a teen, he played for his predominantly white middle school and the Madison Spartans, a travel team on the city's south side with mostly black teammates.

The basketball? That was mostly the same. But the dichotomy forced Smart to pay attention to the different ways people talked and acted. "It was just the type of experience I think everyone should go through, but very, very few people get that type of window into two different cultural settings, going back and forth," Smart says.

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Shaka Smart (right) and Eric Davis Jr. react after defeating the Tar Heels at the Frank Erwin Center on December 12, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Getty Images)

Shaka Smart needed to make sure he could keep Rick Barnes' recruits committed to Texas. Shortly after taking the job last year, he flew to Saginaw, Michigan, and visited with Eric Davis Jr. and his uncle Tony Davis for about five hours. Eric Davis Jr. had caught the eyes of college recruiters shortly after stepping onto Saginaw Arthur Hill's campus. He progressed into one of Michigan's top recruits, committing to Texas and Barnes. But in March 2015, the university fired Barnes after 17 seasons. The teen considered reopening his recruitment.   

Smart told him to sleep on the decision and that he would not hold it against him if he wanted to look elsewhere. Well, does he want him? Tony Davis thought. Does he think he'll fit into his program?

"I was actually confused," Eric Davis Jr. says. "What head coach would tell a guy to basically open his recruiting back up? Right from there, I honestly knew he was a genuine guy. He wanted what was best for me. That's all I wanted at the end of the day."

He called Smart before he had even arrived back at the airport. He wanted to honor his commitment to Texas. "Here’s what I can tell you," Tony Davis says. "I think if anybody else would have got the job, [Eric] would have explored his options. Shaka was a big asset for him."

The coach who loathes change made a seismic one in leaving the comforts of Virginia for Austin, Texas. Each time schools called about head coaching jobs while he was at VCU, Smart thought of how he felt when Bill Brown, his college coach, left. He hated change.

After high school, Smart enrolled at Kenyon College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio. His grades would have gotten him into almost any school. Smart and his mother visited Harvard, Yale and Brown. At Yale, an assistant drove the pair through New Haven's blight on the way to campus. "Well, don't bother looking over here at this side," King remembers the assistant saying. "We don't bother with that. We have a country club, and you'll have full access to it. You can play golf."

Smart looked at his mother, horrified. He thought back to the first time he had experienced segregation in Mississippi. "Here were these tenements and poor people on the street, homeless people, and he could not even fathom being in that environment of elitism," King says.

He chose Kenyon for Brown, who became a father figure, more than anything else. Brown prioritized connecting with his players outside basketball. Smart lived with Brown's family, and the two often discussed basketball much of the day and the priorities of life deep into the night. Brown envisioned a future for Smart beyond the sport, but the game still consumed Smart. "He carried his basketball around with him everywhere he went, whether it was the library, the classroom, the cafeteria," Brown says. "Probably even on dates."

"He wasn't about the fanfare. He wasn't about the paychecks. He wasn't about the status. He wanted to win."


Smart had returned home to Oregon, Wisconsin, the summer after his freshman year to help his mother recuperate from hip surgery when Brown called. He made small talk before telling Smart he had accepted the coaching job at California University of Pennsylvania. Smart spoke words of maturity beyond his 19 years of age. "Coach, that's really good for you. I'm happy for you."

"Yeah, bud," Brown replied. "But it's not good for you."

"I'll be there for you," Brown promised. "If you need me, you can call me at any time. I'll still stay in touch, and I look forward to reconnecting with you in the future."

Smart debated leaving. His mother wanted him to transfer, he says. Instead, he stayed. He thought of his teammates, his friends and his commitment. But playing at the school had irrevocably changed. "I looked up to him," Smart says of Brown. "I hung on every word that he said. It was unbelievable. I would always be looking out of the corner of my eye to see if he was paying attention. Then in an instant, he was gone."

Brown had asked Peter Rutkoff, a professor of American studies, to seek out Smart on campus. Once, when Smart had finished an honors thesis on the Great Migration of African-Americans to Chicago, he came to Rutkoff's class on the same subject. Smart taught that class. "I realized right away that he was in fact first a teacher, and it happened that he was going to teach the thing he liked most in the world, which was basketball," Rutkoff says.

Smart had the makings of a future head coach. He began by making good on Brown's promise, joining his staff at California University in 1999 after graduating from Kenyon. The University of Dayton called two years later with Oliver Purnell hoping Smart would become his director of operations. Smart bemoaned a second divorce with Brown, but the coach insisted he take the job. "I appreciated his loyalty and work, but it was time to move on, because he was destined to continue to do greater things," Brown says.

For Purnell, asking Smart to come aboard was easy. He had brought in several candidates to work a weeklong camp. Any candidate could feign knowledge and enthusiasm during a one-hour interview, but Purnell could weed out people over a week.

"By the third day of the camp, it was clear to me who I was going to hire, and certainly by the end of the week, it was a no-brainer," Purnell says. "He was just special in a lot of those intangible areas."

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Shaka Smart reacts during a game against Kansas at the Frank Erwin Center on February 29, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Getty Images)

At his next stop, the University of Akron, Smart learned from Keith Dambrot the importance of spending time with players. "It's hard to tell people they're not doing something well if you haven't spent any time with them off the court and they know that you're fighting for them," Dambrot says. He made his coaches spend at least 10 minutes with their players after every practice. Smart originally viewed it as a waste of time.

"I hated it, but it was really, really an ingenious move because what happened was he was able to transform the negative feeling that some of the guys had leaving the practice court," Smart says. "Just by being around them for 10 minutes afterwards, they left the facility feeling better about him and feeling better about themselves, and feeling better about what the team was doing moving forward."

Smart continued climbing coaching ladders. He followed Purnell to Clemson. He joined Donovan's Florida staff two years later, in 2008. Donovan says he challenged Smart to think about recruits differently. "You go into a gym and you watch a guy play and the guy can really handle, pass and shoot and he's a terrific player," Donovan says. "But how do we in recruiting find out what this guy is really about? What's his makeup? Does he have a strong desire to want to be great? Is he unselfish? Is he a team guy?"

They talked of how difficult it is to create a team's chemistry, yet the benefits of trying anyway. Smart stayed for one season before VCU asked him to become its head coach at the age of 32.

Donovan encouraged the move, stomaching the disappointment that Smart had been in Gainesville for such a short time. Smart felt guilty about leaving, Donovan says. He cautioned Smart that he did not know when another opportunity would come. "When you sit there and you see him in the Final Four, thank God I didn't say that to him," Donovan says. "Thank God I wasn't necessarily selfish and said, 'Listen, you can't go.'"

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The Texas regents reportedly agreed to pay Smart nearly $22 million over seven years. Those close to Smart say the money isn't why he moved. "When you end up doing that, you get into a job and you may not have great relationships with the people you’re working with, and it just may not be what you expected it to be, and then you're going to be happy twice a month—when the check comes in," Donovan says. "I don't think Shaka's ever been that way."

Rhoades, the former VCU assistant, jokes that he would be surprised if Smart has a crumpled $10 bill in his wallet. "I'm telling you he's a very simple guy," Rhoades says. "That doesn't motivate him. That's why I think I appreciated him so much. He wasn't about the fanfare. He wasn't about the paychecks. He wasn't about the status. He wanted to win."

"It's hard to tell people they're not doing something well if you haven't spent any time with them off the court and they know that you're fighting for them."


To Smart, the Longhorns seemed primed for a basketball splash. A sports overhaul was underway in the athletic department, beginning with Charlie Strong taking over the football program in 2014. For years, Texas had filtered through NBA-quality players such as Kevin Durant but had never won a championship under Barnes. Smart could be the nudge. He can now recruit with the country's top programs in a basketball-rich state.

Also, beyond basketball, his family likes Austin.

"Some of the other places were just not in the running," King, his mother, says. "No way were they going to move to L.A."

Smart's wife, Maya, is an accomplished journalist and Harvard graduate. The pair have a young daughter, Zora.

"You always factor that in with your family," Smart says. "I have a daughter who just turned five, so that was a really big deal for us with her. My wife is very involved in a lot of different community activities, so we wanted to find a place where she could be that, and this certainly checked that box."

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To Tony Davis' surprise, his relationship with Shaka Smart continued after his nephew kept his commitment and enrolled at Texas. Smart often calls or texts, telling him about Eric Davis Jr.'s strengths and areas of improvement. "A lot of times once the coach gets the kid, it's almost like the job is done," Tony Davis says. "Like, 'I've got the product now. I no longer have to deal with you, unless I see you.' Coach Smart keeps you informed to the point where he makes you feel like your kid is safe."

He does the same with the families of all his players, present and past. Rodriguez, his point guard during VCU's Final Four trip, is now an assistant at Rice. He and his wife recently miscarried. Rodriguez hadn’t told Smart, but he found out on his own and called to offer support.

Smart responded, when asked, that he is not sure how he manages to maintain all of those relationships. "I'm not very good at time management because there's so many different areas of both my job and my life that I want to explore and do better," Smart says. "There's only 24 hours in a day."

The coach who once despised spending 10 minutes with his players after practices has learned the difference he can make by extending himself to them, especially—like for Rodriguez and his wife—in their darkest moments.

"I do think that all of us have a certain capacity for whatever it is we are trying to do," Smart says. "Some coaches have an unbelievable capacity for watching tape. They can watch tape for hours and hours and hours. ... For me, hopefully, where I have maybe a higher capacity is just on the relationship side. No matter who you are, there's a point where your cup overflows and when you're pouring something in and then something's coming out. I really enjoy the relationship side. I wish even a larger percentage of our time could be spent on that. I just think that's where you really move the needle with people is getting to know what they're about, helping them know that you care about them and that you see things in a similar way that they see things."

It is how he will try to get the best out of his players. It is how he got the best from himself.

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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