HOUSTON — Twice in the span of a 20-minute interview Thursday, Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart spoke about devastating events in his young life that brought him to tears.
Both had to do with basketball.
The first: When he was 14 years old, and a voice on the radio in his high school gym announced that his hero, Magic Johnson, was retiring from the NBA because he was HIV-positive.
The second: When he was a 19-year-old freshman and grappling with the news that his basketball coach, whom he described as “the number 1, 2 and 3 reason” he enrolled at Kenyon College, had taken another coaching job.
“I remember sitting in my living room, crying, crying, crying, because this man who was the father-figure and a guy I idolized had left,” Smart said. “And really turned my world upside down.”
How much longer Smart, 33, will stay at VCU after leading the 11th-seeded Rams on a wildly entertaining, utterly implausible romp to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four in his second season is anyone’s guess. Along with Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34, who has led the Bulldogs to their second consecutive Final Four, Smart is among the hottest young coaches in the nation, coveted by almost every big-name program with a vacancy.
What’s the secret to his success? How has he managed to reach the Final Four, an unmet goal for so many coaches who earn 10 times his salary and boast multimillion-dollar practice facilities and six-figure recruiting budgets.
In Smart’s case, he didn’t spring from a vaunted coaching tree, toting clipboards for greater men.
In fact, Smart identified his mother, Monica King, as the best coach he ever had. Her lessons were indirect, he explained, because she never coached a sport. But they were no less powerful, teaching him about leadership — she raised four boys on her own — and about the sacrifice of putting someone else’s success ahead of yours.
In the unforgiving world of Division I basketball, Smart is a one-man rebuttal to the archetype of the all-powerful coach who projects an air of invincibility. Instead, he projects humility and humanity, reaching his players not through implied threats but through a blend of empathy, light-heartedness and well-placed provocation.
“It’s kind of like cheating,” senior guard Brandon Rozzell said Thursday. “He is like a sixth player in practice.”
It helps that Smart isn’t far removed from his players’ age and experience, graduating magna cum laude from Kenyon in 1999. As a Division III basketball player, he knew the sting of being overlooked — something VCU players can relate to, having been mocked for simply being included in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
And each time a national basketball analyst takes a swipe at the Rams’ credentials, Smart trots out the footage to stoke his players’ emotions.
“Every practice, he tells us about how we don’t belong,” junior guard Bradford Burgess said. “We still use that as motivation.”
Smart is hip enough to make his instructional points with rap lyrics, if that gets his point across.
“When he talks to us and he motivates us, he uses stories that pertain to stuff we know about,” said senior forward Jamie Skeen, a transfer from Wake Forest. “He relates to us — like stuff like we can understand, maybe a rap song — instead of an old coach who’s 60 and talking about stuff when he was young. We wouldn’t know nothing about that.”
And he’s playful enough to interrupt a halftime talk — as he did after the Rams took a 14-point lead over Kansas in Sunday’s Southwest Region final — to suddenly dive on a basketball that rolled across the locker room floor. The point was twofold: Don’t let up on defense or loose balls now, and keep the mood light.
That said, it’s not as if the Rams embraced Smart the moment he was hired to replace Anthony Grant, who left in 2009 after three seasons for the top job at Alabama.
First, Smart had no appreciable credentials as a player, in their view. Second, at 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, he could nearly fit in their hip pocket.
“When I first saw Coach Smart, I was thinking, ‘Man, who is this little guy coming into the room!’ ” Burgess recalled. “I thought it was a joke at first.”
Joey Rodriguez, the Rams’ star point guard, was so devastated by Grant's departure that he flat-out quit. But not long after Smart launched into spring workouts with the Rams, Rodriguez dropped by the gym and sidled over to the bleachers to watch.
Most coaches would have kicked him out, given that he had quit the team. Instead, Smart just kept working with the players.
“You could tell he was just feeling us out,” Smart recalled of Rodriguez that day. “He didn’t know us. There was no relationship, no trust there.”
In a matter of weeks, Rodriguez asked if he could rejoin the team.
Smart demanded just one thing: That he do so, as he put it, “with both feet.”
“He is a great player’s coach,” said Rodriguez, VCU’s all-time leader in games and minutes played, as well as the No. 2 player in steals and third in assists. “He tried to tell me he is a better passer than me. I just tell him he went to Kenyon College, and we are in the Final Four.”