Shaka Smart calls himself a nerd who graduated college magna cum laude and was urged to get a doctorate and become a college professor.
He admits it wasn’t a bad idea except for one thing. His burning passion for basketball would not wane.
So he did what he considered the next best thing. He became a basketball coach.
“It enables me to do both because basketball coaches are teachers,” the Wisconsin native said.
Smart, who turned 34 last month, has also become a celebrity after his Virginia Commonwealth basketball team went on its improbable run to the Final Four earlier this year.
His team defied basketball analysts, who said the Rams shouldn’t even have been invited to the tournament.
One of VCU’s most vocal critics was ESPN basketball guru Dick Vitale.
They sparred back and forth through the airwaves, but ironically never met face to face.
That will change Friday when Smart attends Dick Vitale’s gala at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, an annual extravaganza to raise money for cancer research.
Smart harbors no ill feelings and understands Vitale and other analysts were just doing their jobs. He also knows why a team that looked mediocre can suddenly become world beaters.
“It’s getting hot at the right time, but then the question is why you are getting hot,” Smart said. “What happened for us is that we had a group of seniors and older players that were experienced, had won some games and decided they wanted to do something that no one had ever done. They banded together and no one cared who got the credit.”
VCU also had a bevy of 3-point shooters, which Smart calls the great equalizer in college basketball. He was able to put a lineup on the floor that featured five guys who could shoot 3s with uncanny accuracy.
“It’s tough to contest all those shots, and if you get hot you can really stretch the lead over a short period of time. The scoreboard never moves any faster than when the ball goes in from beyond the arc,” Smart said.
VCU lost to Butler in the NCAA semifinal, but life was already set to change for Smart. He received a raise of about 75 percent, pushing his salary to more than $1.2 million, and has been in demand.
“I am busier than ever, and expectations are going to be higher, but that is OK because our expectations of ourselves are very high,” Smart said.
Other colleges sought Smart’s services, but he declined, perhaps denying himself one of those lavish contracts big schools often throw at coveted coaches.
“If I would’ve left, it would’ve diminished what I did,” Smart said. “We wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as much. I wouldn’t have been here and then for other people in our program it would’ve been a downer. And I didn’t want to leave anyway.”
Smart’s wife, Maya, is a Harvard graduate who received a master’s in journalism from Northwestern. He was named Shaka by his father from Trinidad in honor of Shaka Zulu, a chieftain of the Zulu Empire.
Shaka’s run to the Final Four was not without tragedy. His grandfather, Walter King, the man he credits for raising him, died five days before the Final Four at the age of 90.
“My father wasn’t around, and my grandfather was the biggest male figure in my life growing up,” Smart said. “He taught me the value of appreciation and little things like to acknowledge someone when they do something that is nice for you. He taught me humility.”
Shaka, who is biracial, says his favorite time in American history is the Civil Rights movement, and it is from that era that he draws inspiration to motivate himself and his basketball team.
“You had a group of people who were mistreated, and they stood up and fought for their rights. They didn’t necessarily agree on the right way to go about it, but everyone was passionate about it,” Smart said. “What you saw was a nation realizing this was the right thing to do. It is something I use for myself, and it definitely relates to basketball in that there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. The most important thing is to get people to listen.”
In that respect, Smart knows how to trigger passion.
On March 1, after his team went through a miserable stretch of losing to what Smart considered inferior opponents, he took a calendar and burned the month of February.
“It was a symbolic way to say that is over and we are moving on and that March is our month,” Smart said. “More than anything it was to get our players and our older guys to take more ownership of doing what they needed to do.”
This Friday, Smart will feel a special connection. The grandfather he owed so much to died of cancer, and he sees the fight against cancer as a cause that has no boundaries.
“Just about everyone in some way or another has had their lives touched by cancer with either family members or friends or close ones,” Smart said. “The gala is a phenomenal cause, and it’s terrific that Dick and so many different coaches have led the way. I am excited to be a small part of it.”