Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart, shaking hands with a fan in March, has been known to reach out to others since his days as a mixed-race child in a predominantly white part of Wisconsin. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

When it was announced on March 13 that Virginia Commonwealth, a team that finished fourth in the mid-major Colonial Athletic Association, had received an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament’s field of 68, the national pundits howled.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas wrote on Twitter that it was “tough to justify” the Rams’ inclusion. Dick Vitale, also on ESPN, said that if you compared the resumes of VCU and Alabama-Birmingham, two of the last teams in, with that of left-out Colorado, “It would be like a beauty contest, Roseanne Barr walking in versus Scarlett Johansson. No shot, none whatsoever.”

VCU Coach Shaka Smart has heard worse — much worse — in his 33 years. Growing up half-black in Oregon, Wis., he learned at an early age to stand up for the marginalized, especially when that group was his own.

Taking its cues from Smart, the Rams have become only the fifth No. 11 seed ever to advance to the Elite Eight. On Sunday, they will face top-seeded Kansas with a berth in the Final Four at stake. 

“One of the keys to this profession is those guys have to know that you care about them, and I think he got that at a very young age,” said Keith Dambrot, who as Akron’s head coach hired Smart as an assistant in 2003. “I think that’s what he does better than almost anybody in the country.”

A problem solver

Smart’s father, Winston, a native of Trinidad, never was supportive of his son. Winston left the family in December 1994, and Smart has not had a relationship with him since. In need of a positive male role model, Smart occasionally visited his maternal grandfather, Walter King, in Chicago, where he would follow him around town and glean.

“Maybe they’re ripping me off; I don’t know,” King would tell his grandson as he gave money to the homeless. “But the important thing is if you’re able, you reach out.”

When Smart was in eighth grade, the Persian Gulf War erupted, and in Oregon, Wis., a suburb of Madison with a population of roughly 4,500 back then, tolerance was limited, according to people who lived there at the time. A girl of Jordanian ethnicity in Smart’s class was the object of such derision that she one day locked herself in her bedroom, determined never to go to that school again. 

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 predominately white environment, you grow up with that sense of outrage because you were the object of it yourself.”

Smart was among the 10 or so minority students in a high school of 1,000. During his junior year, someone spray-painted racist slogans on the wall in one of his high school’s female bathrooms. A group of boys was known to ride around town wearing T-shirts that read “White Power” in a truck that displayed a Confederate flag. Members of an active Ku Klux Klan chapter in nearby Janesville held a rally in his school’s parking lot.

One night in November 1993, Smart’s adopted brother, Alfie Olson, told Smart that he had been threatened — “You better watch it, boy” – by a tall, lanky white student while celebrating a victory by the girls’ basketball team at their high school. When Olson, who like Smart is also half-black, spotted the kid at a Subway sandwich shop, Smart confronted him.

“Do you have a problem with my boy?” asked Smart, then 16. 

“Yeah, I’ve got a problem,” the guy said. “I’ve got a problem with all of you.”

It was clear the kid’s choice of pronoun encompassed a group that extended well beyond Smart and his crew. 

Olson and their friend, Will Smith, who is black, pleaded with Smart to let it go. But Smart just stood there, as if he couldn’t hear anyone.

“Do you have a problem with us?” Smart asked.

Smart waited for a response.

“You know,” the guy said, “I’ve got friends in the KKK that will put you six feet under.”

There was no fight, only tension — Olson and Smith finally persuaded Smart to walk away — but the incident was emblematic of the responsibility Smart felt.

“He always had a sense of protecting a larger group of people and making a statement,” Olson said. “He sees things through all the way. He doesn’t let things go just because someone says no or someone says it’s not doable. . . . You could tell him there was a huge tidal wave coming: ‘We need to evacuate. We can’t save these people.’ And he’d be like, ‘No, I can save these people.’ And he would say it nonchalantly. And then he would do it.”

Smart led a group of students who organized a multicultural celebration during February of his junior year. They brought in Native American and Hmong dancers to perform at school assemblies. They held workshops on racism and homophobia. Smart even persuaded Stu Jackson, who then was the men’s basketball coach at Wisconsin, to come serve as a keynote speaker.

Change occurred slowly. Some students continued to perpetuate a racially charged slang term for a white person who acts black, despite protestations from Smart and others. One of Smart’s best friends since he was 7 years old, a white kid named Josh, still felt compelled to call Smith a racial epithet during a skirmish on the basketball court. Smith retaliated by punching Josh in the face. When the story later was retold to the school principal, every witness except Smart claimed Smith hit Josh unprovoked. 

“I remember all the time dealing with prejudice,” Smart said. “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.” 

Sources of motivation

Two weeks ago, when the talking heads were nearly united in their sentiment that VCU wasn’t good enough to be included in the NCAA tournament, Smart said he merely smiled. He knew better than to take such words personally. But he also knew he’d been gift-wrapped a motivational ploy to serve his players. After the Rams thrashed sixth-seeded Georgetown by 18 points in their second NCAA tournament game, Smart sat on a dais and said, “I think that stuff’s kind of fading now.” 

Then the Rams pounded third-seeded Purdue by 18 in their third game, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. And on Thursday, a day before VCU’s 72-71 overtime win over 10th-seeded Florida State, Smart said: “It’s still a factor. I saw somebody had us rated 16th out of 16 teams still left in the Big Dance, although I think some of my friends in the media are starting to do it on purpose, just to give us something to use.

“Thank you for those of you who are, because we do use it.” 

Eighteen years after sticking up for his adopted brother in a Subway shop, the setting has changed drastically, but Smart’s motives remain the same. Those close to him aren’t getting the respect he believes they deserve, and Smart won’t stay silent.

Even after all this time, he still doesn’t want to let it go.