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Smart’s vision started early


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Smart’s vision started early


Even early on, he won folks over


By Mike Finger


OREGON, Wis. — The morning after the first bombs of Operation Desert Storm fell on Iraq, an eighth-grade girl named Noelle Akrabawi stood crying in front of her parents, terrified.


Half a world away from the Persian Gulf War, in the sleepy Wisconsin village 10 miles south of Madison where her Jordanian father had moved the family two years earlier, she knew what the missiles meant for the only Arab-American student in town.


The slurs were about to get worse. The harassment was about to become even more physical. And she couldn’t count on anyone to protect her.


“It was a horrific time for me,†Akrabawi said. “I was so scared to go to school.â€


Twenty-four years before he was hired as the men’s basketball coach at Texas, a scrawny teenage boy named Shaka Smart picked up on that fear and proved himself unwilling to ignore it.


In an awkwardly quiet classmate he barely knew, he recognized the need for someone who understood what it was like to be an outsider. The need for someone who’d endured the pain of being denigrated by the ignorant. The need for someone with more smarts than any kid in school, and with more backbone than many of the adults.


The need for someone like Smart.


“Shaka always knew how to connect with people,†said Smart’s mother, Monica King. “He took it upon himself to step in. He wanted Noelle to know she wasn’t alone.â€


But it was more than that. These days, the events of that winter seem like “a lifetime ago†to Akrabawi, but she said she’s still moved by the memory of Smart telling the bullies to back off.


And when she read last week that the boy who once made her life just a little bit easier was about to make $3 million per year to lead young men? She — like many others who knew Smart during his early years — said she believed all along he was worthy of such a job.


“He wasn’t Batman,†Akrabawi said. “He didn’t swoop in and beat up the bad guys. He just did what he could do. Not many people do the right thing. He did.â€


It wouldn’t be the only time someone took notice.


'Voice of reason’


Will Smith never will forget the first time he saw Smart. After all, he couldn’t have missed him.


It was 1993. One morning, Smith’s father pulled him out of school on the east side of Madison, where the 15-year-old had been running with the wrong crowd, getting into trouble and heading down a dangerous path.


His dad had a job at the prison near Oregon, and he’d made a decision. From that day on, that’s where his son was going to live and attend high school.


On his first trip down the main hallway, he was a bit overwhelmed.


“I’d never seen so many white kids in my life,†Smith said. “Then I saw Shaka. We didn’t say anything, but we locked eyes. It was like, 'Oh, there’s another brother in this school?’â€


Of the approximately 1,200 students at Oregon in those days, fewer than 10 were black. They included Smith, Smart (whose Trinidad-born father left the family when he was 2 years old), and Smart’s adopted brother, Alfie Olson.


Those three quickly became inseparable. Smith and Smart were the stars of the basketball team (“the best one-two punch I ever had,†former Oregon coach Kevin Bavery said), but their popularity didn’t make them immune to hatred.


Racial slurs were painted on bathroom walls, Smith said. King, Smart’s mother, said the boys heard threats from people claiming to have ties to a nearby faction the Ku Klux Klan. (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, newsletters for the United Northern and Southern Knights were distributed throughout a neighborhood in nearby Monroe, Wisconsin, as recently as 2006.)


Smith, enraged by the taunts, said he “always wanted to fight.†Sometimes he did. But more often than not, Smart was there to calm everyone down.


“Shaka always was the voice of reason — he made sense of things,†Smith said. “He’d say, 'What are we going to do? Fight them 2-on-20? And then we’ll be the ones to get in trouble? If you stop and breathe, we’ll be better off.’â€

When the racial tensions in Oregon drew outside media attention, Smart and Akrabawi spoke up, sometimes drawing the ire of locals who didn’t want the school to get a bad name. But Smart helped organize a multicultural event at the school, and Bavery remembers teachers talking about how impressive he’d been speaking to the school staff about the need for tolerance.


“There was just a way about him,†Bavery, the basketball coach, said. “He just wins people over. People use the word 'charisma.’ There’s got to be another word that goes above and beyond that. 'Charisma’ doesn’t even begin to describe what Shaka has.â€


Tear-filled times


Yes, it was heartbreaking. King won’t deny that. No mother wants to watch her 5-year-old son type letters to a dad who isn’t there and who never will be.


“But I’m not big on allowing negative influences in your life,†she said this week, flipping through a photo album of Smart’s childhood. “And Shaka isn’t, either.â€


King wasn’t blind to the challenges her son would face. She’d grown up in upper-middle-class Chicago (“White to the hilt,†in her words), but she remembers the police officer who pulled over one night when she was walking down the sidewalk with her black boyfriend.


“Little lady, are you sure you’re OK?†King recalled the officer asking.


She attended college in Madison, got a job teaching health in Oregon, and had a son with Winston Smart, a man with a strong interest in education but little in raising child. He named his boy after a Zulu warrior chief, and Shaka Smart called it “probably the best thing my father ever did for me.â€


After his dad left when he was a toddler, he returned only briefly in 1994, and Smart hasn’t seen him since. But King had help. She had her father and brother. She had Bavery. And she had the willingness to do anything for her boys.

One night, after a particularly ugly incident in Oregon, she sat down with Smart and Olson, her adopted son and offered to move the family away, Smart wouldn’t hear of it.


“I didn’t want to leave my coach and teammates,†Smart said.


More than two decades later, Smart and his mother had another conversation about leaving. This time, he’d received an offer to become head coach at UT, which promised the exposure of a nationally elite program and a wealth of opportunities for his wife and daughter.


For six years, he’d been loyal to Virginia Commonwealth, the school that had offered him his first head coaching job. He’d been a father figure to his players, many of whom related to his own story. But this time, the offer was too good to pass up.


“We all cried,†King said of her conversation with Smart and his wife. “It was such a close group (at VCU). He was such a part of their lives. But he will be at Texas, too.â€


'A vision very early’


How did the skinny kid from Oregon get this far? How did a point guard who played Division III college basketball and started his coaching career at an anonymous Division II outpost land one of the top jobs in the country the same week he turned 38?


It’s no mystery to Bavery. From the moment Smart walked into his seventh-grade social studies class and started peppering him with questions about basketball strategy, about workout routines and about coaching philosophy, Bavery had no doubt where Smart would end up.


“He had a vision very early,†said Bavery, who’s now the coach at nearby Middleton and still speaks to Smart regularly. “He understood not only how to find opportunities, but also how to pursue them.â€


Bavery has countless tales about Smart sneaking into the school gym for workouts. He shot baskets, sure, but he also would toss the ball into the air, deflect it, and dive after it, over and over again. He wore strength shoes. And he dribbled the basketball everywhere he went, even when it snuck into his social life.


Smith, Smart’s friend and teammate, recalls a night when a group of kids gathered at Smart’s house for pizza. Some brought beer. And just when the party was starting to get lively, Smart excused himself to go down to the basement.

“He had this thing where he had to turn off the lights and dribble two basketballs in the dark every night,†Smith said, laughing. “We were like, 'There’s six beautiful females here.’ He didn’t care. Pretty soon you could hear those balls bouncing.â€


A gifted student, Smart took his studies just as seriously, and King said he was accepted at Brown, Harvard and Yale. But when she took him to visit those schools, he was unimpressed.


“He said, 'Get me out of here,’†King said. “That elitism was not for him.â€


Instead, he chose to attend Kenyon College, a liberal-arts school in Ohio where he studied history, became an academic All-American and set the basketball program’s record for assists. He chose that school in large part because of Bill Brown, the basketball coach who later offered him his first job as an assistant coach at California (Pennsylvania) University.


“I had all the people at Kenyon mad at me,†Brown said. “They all thought he was going to be a professor.â€


Said Smart: “It was not even really a decision for me because I couldn’t imagine being away from basketball.â€


From that point, there was no slowing Smart down. He worked at every college summer camp he could, sleeping on floors and couches up and down the East Coast. He turned his first assistant job into one at Akron, then another at Clemson, and then one at Florida before making it to VCU.


When UT Athletic Director Steve Patterson, coincidentally another small-town Wisconsin native, needed to find a replacement for dismissed Longhorns coach Rick Barnes, Smart was the only person he interviewed.

Brown said he’s sure Patterson won’t regret it.


“He’s touched so many people’s lives,†Brown said. “He’s done it because they still see that eager young man who’s trying to be the best he can be.â€


'Make sure they are the Shakas’


Last Wednesday, on a cold, dreary morning in the Midwest, three boys wearing football sweaters walked down Lincoln Street toward Oregon High School. Someone asked them if they’d heard of Shaka Smart.


“No,†one answered. “Who’s that?â€


More than 1,600 miles away, an alumnus had an answer for them. Akrabawi, the girl who cried when the bombs fell over Baghdad, lives in Arizona now. She’s not scared to go to school anymore. In fact, she’s going back.


One day this month, Akrabawi was scrolling through her Facebook feed when she saw a story about the difficulties faced by teenagers who are harassed by classmates. She couldn’t resist typing a reply.


This is what she wrote:


“I’ve thought a lot about bullying the last couple days because recently one of the people who tried to shield me from the bullies is now the biggest story to come from my hometown. He deserves all the fame and success that is coming to him. His name is Shaka Smart and even as a child, he was an amazing person.


“We weren’t close, but he came to my defense many times, with the risk of damaging his own reputation. … It’s been 20 years since high school. I remember those who cared, not those who didn’t. Share this with your kids. Make sure they are the Shakas.â€




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What would qualify Shaka Smart’s first season at Texas as a success?


"Is Shaka Smart's initial regular season coaching performance enough to signify a successful season, or is NCAA Tournament validation necessary?


Much of the reason Rick Barnes is no longer coaching in Austin can be credited to postseason struggles for greater than the past half decade.


Barnes' 2-5 NCAA Tournament record over the past six seasons -- the duration of Shaka Smart's tenure at VCU -- can be credited as to why Smart is now coaching his first NCAA Tournament with the Texas Longhorns.



While at VCU, Smart's 7-5 tournament résumé, which included a Final Four run, in addition to a CBI Championship his first season, had placed Smart on a yearly coaching candidate pedestal before he ultimately became a seemingly ideal hire to replace Barnes.


But VCU isn't Texas, and the expectations, especially in March, are much higher and scrutinized under a significantly brighter light. But after an impressive, yet up-and-down regular season, and a problematic road to tournament success ahead, what would deem Smart's first season in Austin a success?


While there's no factual answer, there's certainly a standard to judge Smart's debut tenure by.


A case could be made that Smart's first effort at Texas is already a success, regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament. In route to compiling a 20-12 record heading into the NCAA Tournament - a slight step up from last season's 20-13 mark - Smart led Texas to one of the nation's most impressive résumés, despite some glaring adversity.


Texas' season began with a 2-3 deficit, but it's worth noting it came during earliest signs of the new-look Longhorns under a dramatically different coaching staff and system. Additionally, all three losses came overseas with Texas falling to Washington in the season-opener in China, and losing to No. 25 Texas A&M and Michigan in the Bahamas. The Horns' would bounce back, rattling off a six-game win streak bolstered by a Javan Felix buzzer beater over No. 3 North Carolina. But just as Texas looked to be finding itself, Cameron Ridley, arguably the Longhorns' best player to that point, fell victim a fractured foot prior to the Connecticut game, forcing Smart to replace Ridley's two-way double-double dominance and rim protection for the remainder of the season.  Consequently, Texas dropped two of its next three games entering conference play in the grueling Big 12.


The odds certainly didn't appear in Texas' favor, but Smart and the Longhorns would rally, and conclude the regular season with 20 wins, including six ranked victories and an NCAA-leading four wins over top-10 competition.


To manage such a feat in a conference that led the NCAA in RPI (.5884), and sent and NCAA-leading 70 percent of it's 10-team conference to the NCAA Tournament is reason enough to believe Smart exceeded expectations during his inaugural season. But considering Barnes' most notable shortcoming at Texas came in March, would yet another early exit for Texas when it's "win or go home" mean Smart fell short in 2015-16?

Considering the likely tournament road in front of Texas, the answer may be no.


The Longhorns open Friday night against a Northern Iowa team that's tremendously well-coached, led by talented veterans, and peaking at the right time. A win would likely pit Texas against a rival Texas A&M squad that's improved impressively since beating the Longhorns, and an upset would expectedly have the Longhorns square off with Buddy Hield and Oklahoma after splitting the season series.


Anything beyond two wins and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen would assure beyond doubt that Smart's first season at the help was a tremendous success, considering Texas hasn't reached that point since 2008. But what if the Longhorns were to fall to the Aggies yet again, this time ending their season? Would the season be a success if 11-seeded UNI upsets Texas during Smart's first NCAA Tournament game at Texas?


It's a discussion worthy of debate, and there's essentially no wrong answer with Smart's initial body of work being an impressive one."

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