by Irv Soonachan
For most people, Keith Smart’s career is defined by The Shot.
But for Keith Smart, his career has been equally defined by a long-forgotten game that took place two seasons later — in front of only a few thousand people in a gym in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
It was during Smart’s rocky first year as a pro. He was drafted and cut by Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors, picked up by the Spurs, then cut again after playing in only two games. When informing Smart of his release, Spurs Coach Larry Brown told him to continue polishing his skills in the CBA.
“He said ‘If there’s an injury, we’ll come back and get you,’” Smart recalls, sitting in his office atop the Warriors’ practice facility.
But Smart didn’t go to the CBA right away. Crushed, he stayed in San Antonio and holed up in his apartment, not working out and eating his way out of shape. After a month, he finally signed with a CBA team.
Just a few games into his CBA career, at that game in Cedar Rapids, he looked into the stands and saw a familiar face: Spurs assistant coach (and current Suns head coach) Alvin Gentry.
“I said, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I came to check you out.’ Larry held his word. He said he would come back to look at me, and he did.’”
With Johnny Dawkins injured, the Spurs needed an athletic combo guard – someone like Smart.
“I had just got there, I wasn’t in any kind of shape, and then all of a sudden, boom, it passed by,” he says. “I never got a chance to go back.”
Smart does little to hide his emotion when asked if he still thinks about that night. “Yeah,” he nods somberly. “It affects me big time.”
He would spend the better part of a decade chasing another Shot.
Smart logged nearly 100 regular season games each year playing everywhere he could – including the CBA, France, the Philippines, and China. He played a season with the Halifax Windjammers of the WBL, Bob Cousy’s ill-fated league that banned players over 6-5. In South America, he even played 50 games for a team whose home floor was made of concrete. But all that work never resulted in another spot on an NBA roster, despite his obvious potential.
“He was a good guard,” says current Warrior CJ Watson. “He was athletic, powerful, and defensively could create a lot of steals and deflections. He could also run a team. And he had hair back then.”
Watson was only 3 when Smart hit the shot, but like nearly everyone on the Warriors, he’s watched the 1987 NCAA title game. Each year around this time, it’s rebroadcast on ESPN Classic, and each year, around this time, battle-weary NBA players are more apt to stay in their hotel rooms and watch TV than to go out.
Watson watched the game during each of his first two years on the team, and says nearly every first-year Warrior inevitably asks Smart, now in his seventh year as an assistant with the team, about the experience.
But it would be hard to explain to someone who wasn’t around back then just how big it was. Imagine the NCAA Tournament in a world with only three television networks that matter. Where the championship game draws more than 32 million viewers (compared to 19.5 million in 2009) – despite being played at the same time as the Academy Awards ceremony. And where the matchup features college basketball’s current flagship program against a team with three future first-round draft picks. Imagine the flagship program is Indiana, and it’s the same year the film Hoosiers came out.
And in that game, a junior guard for Indiana scores 12 of his team’s last 15 points, including the winning shot in the final seconds — a fading baseline jumper that requires every bit of his 46-inch vertical leap to launch over the defense.
“You have to bring it up first,” Watson says. “He’s not one to really talk about it.”
Smart, now Don Nelson’s lead assistant, is much quicker to discuss his penchant for helping minor leaguers become NBA players. “I want to help every player succeed,” he says. “When I came along, you were there, and no one really looked to help you.”
Upon retiring as a player he became a head coach in the CBA, and in three years helped 21 players – more than any other CBA coach during that time – make it to the NBA, including Moochie Norris and Mikki More.
In Golden State, he has helped former D-League players including Watson, Kelenna Azubuike, Matt Barnes, and no less than three other former D-League players this season alone make significant inroads toward becoming established in the NBA.
“The difference between an NBA player who is drafted to the NBA and a guy from the minor leagues who is called up is that the guy who was drafted knows he belongs here,” Smart says. “The minor league player hasn’t had the realization yet. Once he has that realization, then he becomes an NBA player.”
Forward Anthony Tolliver, who before joining the Warriors had played a total of 21 NBA games with two teams over the past two seasons in between stints with three-D-League franchises, credits Smart for giving sound advice, even during the heat of battle.
“He doesn’t have to raise his voice much,” says Tolliver, who has averaged more than 30 minutes per game for the Warriors this year. “He pretty much stays calm, regardless of the situation.”
Smart’s coaching style, though, isn’t just kind words and gentle encouragement, or the incredible cool he showed in 1987 – when you talk to other Warriors players off the record, it becomes harder to pin down. Smart says that’s part of the plan.
“There are certain guys I can get on,” Smart says. “There are some guys I have to go around a certain way to get to the same point, because if I come at them right away, they will shut down. When I was coaching in Cleveland, I thought I had to get an understanding of the game. But one coach told me, you have to get an understanding of each player.”
In Cleveland, Smart got his first chance to be an NBA head coach – as an interim replacement for the fired John Lucas. It went about as well as his NBA playing career, ending with a 9-31 record and the grand prize in the LeBron sweepstakes.
Smart’s goal today is to be an NBA head coach without an interim tag, and this time he’s determined not to let any opportunities slip away.
Books on coaching, strategy and management are arranged neatly throughout Smart’s office, and it’s obvious – both from the cracks in the binders and the enjoyment he gets from discussing them – they’ve all been read. Nelson has let Smart run practices, take an active role in play calling, and when the 69-year-old coach was ill with pneumonia earlier this season, run the team.
Team insiders say Smart keeps more stats on his team and on opponents than Nelson will ever use, simply for his own edification. Smart doesn’t deny this, or the connection between how he does his job today and his terrible night 20-some-odd years ago in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s preparation,” he says. “I’m always prepared, so when that situation happens, I’m ready for it.”
All Smart wants is one more Shot. And if he’s successful, it will be thanks to the shot he missed.
Warriors D-League call up Reggie Williams doesn’t move well laterally, could be slimmer, and has a flat jump shot. But his coaches don’t want to change the latter – it goes in much too often. The Warriors are bringing him back next year, because he can flat-out score.
There is speculation whether Rodrigue Beaubois, the exciting Dallas rookie, will get much time in the Playoffs. That can be answered in two words: Speed kills.
Sage words from Keith Smart for aspiring coaches: “The one thing that tells you if your team is actively engaged in the game is deflections. Because you have to be where you’re supposed to be defensively to get deflections. It doesn’t have to do with making the steal or getting the rebound. It’s about good team defense.” Hubie Brown said something similar when he was coaching Memphis.
When the Warriors cut the injured Raja Bell, he actually came back to the Arena and thanked everyone.