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."
— MIKE RHOADES, FORMER VCU ASSISTANT
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."
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."
— KEITH DAMBROT, UNIVERSITY OF AKRON HEAD COACH
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.