Keeping an eye on the ball with UT’s unorthodox head basketball coach
“You are the madman. The madman cuts the court in half. This is all predicated on having a ball side and a weak side. Your job is to make him throw the ball into the weak side. You’re going nuts. You must be active and as close to him as possible.” — Shaka Smart, 9/30/16, 2:31 p.m.
Every Shaka Smart player is, in essence, a madman. A Smart practice is not unlike a Robert Altman film, an ensemble in which a dozen people are shouting over each other, vibrating wildly within the frame, in an effort to both disorient the opponent and connect with each teammate. The madman, or on-ball defender, at this particular practice and in this particular drill, is five-star freshman recruit and likely starting power forward Jarrett Allen. There are two desirable outcomes for the 39-year-old second-year Texas head coach’s famed defense: a forced turnover on a bad pass or a 10-second violation. Both of these outcomes are generated by a hyperactive backcourt press, where his players smother the opposition, deleting any and all space between them. It’s at once physical, mental, and psychological, and when executed properly, is like watching a five-headed snake coil around the neck of its foe and squeeze.
To the layperson, it’s easy to observe a late-September basketball practice and dismiss it; the important stuff comes between the months of November and (if you’re lucky) March. But to those fully versed in the gospel of Smart, his five core values—or, “non-negotiables” in Smart’s parlance—are required from day one: appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, teamship, and accountability. That last one should probably be underlined six times.
“Basketball happens so fast that most of [the values training] is going to need to be done in practice before the game,” Smart says in his office in Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. “When the game comes, you just hope to have five guys on the floor who are connected enough around a common cause.”
For Smart, practice is the game is practice, and his players will compete with the same intensity whether they’re in Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse or Dozier Court, the team’s practice facility on the south side of the Frank Erwin Center.
To understand that intensity, you must rewind the tape nine months and shift a couple hundred yards into the belly of the arena.
The first thing you hear, or feel, rather, when you step into the Frank Erwin Center on Dec. 12, 2015, is the thumping bass as it vibrates through the building. It’ll only get louder. A thin plume of smoke wafts toward the rafters as the recently released Drake and Future collaboration “Jumpman” hypes the crowd.
It’s a party, but Texas doesn’t actually know what it’s celebrating yet.
The 16,540 fans, many of them in burnt orange but some in Carolina blue, do not know that on this humid Sunday afternoon, just 254 days after then-Texas Athletics Director Steve Patterson jetted to Richmond to snag the hottest young coach in college basketball, they are about to witness the most thrilling and important win in that coach’s life.
Three hours into the game, with the score tied at 82 and the game running out, senior Javan Felix will grab the rebound on an Isaiah Taylor miss and flick a wide-open jumper through the net. If the Erwin Center was loud upon arrival, the cacophony of ecstatic Longhorns who cannot believe Texas just beat No. 3 North Carolina on a buzzer beater is deafening.
Guys in backward caps are flipping out, saucer-eyed and staring, bewildered, at their seatmates, a consensus disbelief still sinking in that Felix, the forgotten senior, just hit a buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina. A lot of other things happened in that game, but this moment when the diminutive, fluffy bearded guard casually flipped the ball through the net as the backboard flashed red—upon review, milliseconds before—will last forever. In 30 minutes, Roy Williams will compare Felix’s game to an old man at the YMCA, which sounds pejorative, but, after this is relayed to him, Felix will slyly grin and reply, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
“Was it perfect?” Smart asks the team rhetorically, in his postgame locker room address. He’s still standing, shifting laterally and jutting forward at random, a ball of controlled nervous energy. It’s like there’s still time left on the clock.
“No!” shout his players in unison, hunched over and sucking wind.
Smart doesn’t scream in ecstasy or lament specific mistakes, at least not yet, even after a win over a top-10 team, a historically vaunted program, and perhaps the greatest adversary he’ll face at Texas in UNC’s Williams.
“We don’t have to be perfect,” Smart says. “This shows that we can beat anybody.”
Minutes later, he’ll tell the press corps that his prevailing emotion is happiness for the players. To be clear, 99 percent of words uttered in front of the press from any coach at any level are hollow, but there is both intellect and elegance injected into Smart’s sentiments. Of course he was happy for his players when Felix’s shot went in, but Smart was deciding whether to immediately celebrate, since the refs had to review it first.
“You’re in limbo,” he says. “The coach in me wanted to talk to our guys about what we were going to do if it went into overtime, but then … I do believe in the power of intention and I didn’t want to intend that to happen. I was caught in-between.”
Imagine that: some nuance from the guy who’ll make almost $3 million on the season in a results-based industry where job security hinges on winning percentages, conference titles, and deep tournament runs.
But win or lose, Smart is a new breed of college coach, as tuned in to the fundamentals as he is a cerebral thinker, insatiable learner, and, perhaps most importantly, a transcendent listener. And he’s quickly transforming Texas men’s basketball, a historically respected but never truly great program, into a juggernaut.
Most Important Position
“Point guard. Most important position. You’re like a centerfielder. If the ball changes sides, you’ve got to get to that side. Sometimes you have to hold in for a minute and protect your teammate, but eventually you’re going to get to that ball side.”— Shaka Smart, 9/30/16, 2:35 p.m.
Smart learned how to make an entrance well before Texas. Before VCU’s Cinderella run through the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Even before he was a shifty point guard at Kenyon College in the mid-90s. No, Smart’s confidence formed on the smallest of stages: middle school.
One of the few people who has known Smart since he was an affable pre-teen in southern Wisconsin is Kevin Bavery. On the first day of his long-term substitute teaching assignment at Oregon Middle School, he felt the electric presence of a boy who would go on to become his greatest player after Bavery was named head coach of varsity.
“This bubbly, actually pretty small guy comes bopping into the classroom smiling, with this big afro, just loving life,” Bavery says of the first time he saw Smart. “He always knew how to make an entrance.”
Named by his father after the famous warrior from Southern Africa’s Zulu Kingdom, Smart, like Shaka Zulu, grew up primarily in his mother’s care, ascended to leadership at a young age, and innovated in his field.
Smart was an undersized but quick point guard who idolized Magic Johnson and, according to Bavery, always had a ball in his hand. He impressed the young high school coach not only in his skillset, but in his work ethic. Bavery says that, living across the street from the high school, he was aware of Smart’s comings and goings. Not only would Smart and teammate Will Smith take turns dunking on the Bavery family 8-foot hoop, they’d also find ways to get into the gym to play whenever they could. Eventually, this earned Smart some looks and offers from Ivy League schools, which seemed like the way to go for the outstanding student, until Kenyon College coach Bill Brown called Bavery.
“Everybody says they have great kids when college coaches call,” Bavery says. “Shaka is example of, ‘I’m gonna break into gym until they kick me out or until they give me a key.’” And those times when Bavery would hear sneakers squeaking on hardwood in the dark, he’d peek in and see an unusual sight. Not fancy dribbling, or free-throw shooting, or half-court heaves.
“He’d be in a defensive stance, throw the ball out, go knock it away, grab the loose ball, and put in a layup on other end,” Bavery says. “Even great players don’t do that.”
Armed with an academic scholarship, Smart enrolled at Kenyon College in 1995 and he went on to set the all-time record in assists.
After graduating in 1999, Smart quickly ascended through the college basketball ranks. He rejoined Brown as an assistant at California University of Pennsylvania, then became director of basketball operations at Dayton from 2001-03. He then got back in the coaching game, joining Keith Dambrot’s staff at Akron for three seasons, Oliver Purnell’s staff at Clemson for two, and finally, Billy Donovan’s at Florida, before earning the head coaching position at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009, a week before his 32nd birthday.
“I was lucky in that they all taught me a great deal about basketball, but they also taught me a lot about how to treat people and how to understand people, especially players,” Smart says. “That’s something those three had in common, the ability to relate with and communicate with those guys.”
This trick came from Dambrot, one that Smart utilizes to this day. After every practice, the hard-nosed head coach made the Akron staff spend 10 minutes in the locker room to, in Smart’s words, “repair relationships.”
“It was a genius act on his part because when we’d go into the locker room there’d be a few guys who were mad or upset because he’d been hard on them or practice had gone long,” he says. “But through spending time with them, they never left the building upset.”
Smart has been unusually willing to erase the traditional space between coach and player. At VCU, he played Call of Duty with Troy Daniels at the player’s Richmond apartment. Before last season, he spent time watching TV and talking about life with Texas players Javan Felix, Cam Ridley, and Prince Ibeh at Felix’s apartment. On the night of Sept. 8, he invited freshman James Banks to attend a lecture from author and racial justice intellectual Michael Eric Dyson at the LBJ School.
“There were a lot of instances where he just showed up at my dorm,” Daniels says. “It was him just caring, wanting to see what I was doing that day. It really stuck with me, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Although Felix, Daniels, and Banks all use the word “cool” when describing their head coach, they are also quick to mention the high expectations he placed at their feet.
“He held me accountable on the court, but it was never personal,” Daniels, now a shooting guard on the Memphis Grizzlies, says.
Felix says that Smart aligns himself with his team by jumping in and participating in drills.
“He has his own unique style of coaching because he’s very hands-on,” he says. “No matter what time of the day it is, no matter how many practices. It’s really uplifting.”
Even though Smart absorbed this bit of coaching from Dambrot, who, in addition to Purnell and Donovan, he thanked in his introductory Texas press conference on April 3, 2015, his propensity to relate to young men has been in him from the beginning.
“People like that are destined to become coaches or leaders in communities,” Bavery says. “That was innate. I didn’t know he would be a basketball coach, but I knew he was destined for greatness.”
No Straight Lines
“We want the ball to get thrown into the coffin corner. The coffin corner is always on the ball side. You must arrive on the catch. We are trapping this first pass. Madman, you cannot go a straight line to the trap, otherwise he’ll split you. You must banana to the trap, close it out.” — Shaka Smart, 9/30/16, 2:36 p.m.
Smart starts his day eating breakfast with his daughter. They’ll talk about the day, and read books, after which he’ll listen to a podcast, like Michael Gervais’ Finding Mastery or vegan ultra-triathlete Rich Roll’s show. He might reflect on some passages from Carol Dweck’s Mindset, or from UT professor Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Perhaps he’ll check in with his friend Professor Leonard Moore at the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
Every morning is a new chance to absorb, to listen, to learn. That’s because Smart’s philosophy on coaching is based on responding the same to success, like the upset over North Carolina, or defeat, like the buzzer-beating half-court shot that ended the Longhorns’ season in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
“When you respond to adversity, or you respond to prosperity, your approach should be the exact same,” Smart says. “But most people take what Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset.’ It says, ‘Whatever just happened, that’s who I am, it’s fixed, it’s determined, it’s not going to change.’ No. That’s not true. The growth mindset says, ‘Whatever happens, I can and will grow from that.’”
In that way, replacing longtime Texas coach Rick Barnes at the age of 37—while becoming the first African-American head coach of men’s basketball—was merely a larger platform upon which he can evangelize.
“One of the challenges of Texas, to be honest, is that this is such a great place with so much success, that this place in a lot of ways is looked at as a destination,” Smart says. “[You think] I made it to Texas. What an unbelievable accomplishment. And in some ways it is. But … what do you want to do after you get here?”
But just because Smart is one of the more cerebral and empathetic coaches in college basketball doesn’t mean he’s a pushover, or that winning is a secondary component to his mission.
The reality is that Smart’s teams have won 20 or more games in all seven of his seasons as head coach, including 26-plus wins in each of his six seasons at VCU. Most famously, in 2011, he took mid-major 11-seed VCU and tore through the NCAA Tournament, even beating No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen before falling to fellow Cinderella Butler. That run put Smart on the minds of athletics directors across the nation, as his so-called Havoc defensive scheme, categorized by the same full-court press he’s currently teaching his Texas charges, displayed both the supreme mental acuity and dogged physical preparation that his opponents lacked. In a sense, he coached his VCU players like they were all that scrappy point guard from Oregon High School.
“We developed that mantra in part because one of the things that happens in college basketball is in a crowded landscape, you have to find ways to differentiate yourself,” Smart says. “We played a more aggressive, uptempo style. It fit well with the school and the style of play, but more than anything, it was an approach, a mindset, a hunger.”
And the scheme formerly known as Havoc—Texas relinquished its pursuit of the trademark on the name shortly after hiring Smart—is steeped in another of the coach’s non-negotiables: communication.
The chatter is non-stop, so much so, that, even as a silent observer, I’m exhausted from watching Smart’s practice. Every defender says something—something simple, like “ball!” or “switch left!”—and if it gets too quiet, he blows the whistle. He uses former Longhorn and Spur LaMarcus Aldridge as an example.
“If you spend time around him, you realize he has a very laid-back, quiet demeanor. He’s a great guy but he’s not very outspoken,” Smart says. “But if you watch the Spurs play, he is talking at a high level. If he can do that as an NBA All-Star, I don’t want to hear from an 18-year-old kid, ‘That’s just not my personality, coach. I’m not a big talker.’”
Standing at midcourt, Smart bends his back ever-so-slightly and leans his head forward as each drill unfolds. His eyes squint as he zeroes in on each delicately orchestrated movement, his eyebrows rapidly moving up and down as the ball swings around the arc. It’s like a tic, but not a nervous one, a staccato rhythm his face is performing without him knowing it. Finally, his whistle pierces through the air.
“Stop! You’re not talking enough. If you’re not talking, you’re not playing.”
“In the trap, there’s 100 different things I can tell you, but I’ll stop at three. Number one: Take away all the space. Number two: active hands. Number three: Be elastic.” — Shaka Smart, 9/30/16, 2:37 p.m.
Smart pulls on the waistband of his shorts. “This is elastic right here,” he says. “You can’t be a statue standing straight up. You have to be elastic and move with him.”
Get as close as you can to your man, but don’t foul him. The shooting guard should try to steal the second pass off the inbound, but only if you’re 1,000 percent sure you will get to it. The madman needs to deflect the inbounds pass, but not before it leaves the opponent’s hands or else it’s a technical foul. Nothing is black-and-white with Smart. You have to be flexible. He’ll be flexible in every area except one.
During games, Smart stalks the sideline like he wants to dive for a loose ball. An unbridled ball of energy—“He can’t sit still for five minutes,” Felix says—he is in constant conversation with his players, pacing back-and-forth.
That’s because Smart never sits down. He didn’t sit in unison with the fans after the first basket against North Carolina, nor at the tail end of a 66-point bludgeoning of UTSA long after the game had been decided the week prior. Even after sliding a dagger into the heart of UNC, even the staunchest of critics would have forgiven the coach if he’d have slunk into a folding chair in the middle of the following week’s game against Appalachian State, his meager reward after his signature win.
Against the Mountaineers, the smattering of fans from that school from Boone, North Carolina, and those who don’t understand tradition sit. Two minutes into the game, Texas forward Connor Lammert hits a jumper from the top of the key and Longhorn fans take their seats, a respite for the white-haired faithful and the youngsters alike. After a large chunk of the first half is gone, Appalachian State coach Jim Fox sits down on his bench. UNC coach Williams sat early and often, and he’s won more games than John Wooden.
Smart stands. He stands at the under-16-minute media timeout. He stands when the game gets boring. Late in the second half, after his team pulls away from the Mountaineers, when there’s literally nothing left to do but sit down and wait for the clock to hit double zeroes, he stands.
When I meet Smart, a man I’ve seen in person dozens of times, in his office, he’s sitting. It’s odd and unfamiliar, like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. His thin frame is visible under a white and orange Longhorn golf polo and pleated khaki shorts. He’s calm, composed, but noticeably vibrant as he gulps down some water from a blue Nalgene bottle and starts talking.
“[Standing] didn’t really start out as a conscious thing,” Smart says. Dambrot never sits, and as his closest friend in basketball, Smart follows suit. “I’ve never sat down during a game,” Smart says. “Ever.”
“Kendal, you never really got this last year. You need to get this, OK? What we’re going to do on that pass back is not allow them to go pop-pop up that second sideline.” — Shaka Smart, 9/30/16, 2:42 p.m.
Smart imitates two quick passes by the opponent across midcourt, which busts the trap and puts much of the defense behind the ball.
It may seem harsh that Smart is calling out senior Kendal Yancy in front of the rest of the team, but perhaps the most important piece of Smart’s puzzle is accountability. If it’ll spring Yancy into action, Smart will worry about his feelings later. With an entire year-plus relationship with Smart under his belt, Yancey’s reaction to this criticism is to listen and execute, not to buckle under the pressure.
On the flipside, near the middle of practice during five-on-five drills, Smart praises the defense into forcing a three-pointer from freshman Jacob Young, the message being that Young has shot poorly from beyond the arc all summer. Young fumes, storming past the huddle at the top of the key before fellow freshman Andrew Jones grabs his arm.
Jones’ eyes widen as he brings Young back into the fold.
“C’mere,” he says, as his left arm unfurls like a tentacle. He snares the drifting guard into his grasp before uttering an unprintable phrase. He brings Young into a full embrace—this team is incredibly affectionate—and says something under his breath to get Young back on the level. Later, Jones tells me he told Young to put the negativity behind him. It does the trick for the time being, but it’s hard to believe he’s over it, especially when, as he’s taking a foul shot, he slams the ball down just a little harder before clanging one off the back of the rim.
As practice winds down, the speed picks up. Smart wants to see if the meticulously diagrammed situations will work at full tempo. This is not to say that all—or any—sequences were executed precisely the way Smart had mapped them out. But when the ball stops bouncing for the afternoon, it’s apparent that a new foundation has been poured.
Before Smart visits individually with many of his players. Before special guest former NBA player Chauncey Billups says a few words of encouragement, and before the head coach himself addresses his team at the tail end of the first full day of practice for the season, Smart offers up a moment of redemption. Once again, he calls out Young. Initially, it seems like he’s going to ream the freshman for talking during a team moment.
“You wanna say a few words?” Smart asks. His teammates push him toward the coach. He pushes back against the tide of outstretched arms, but his teammates want this for him. Smart is, as Dambrot taught him a decade ago, repairing relationships without Young even knowing it.
Apprehensively, Young pivots to the other side of the semicircle, now facing his teammates, grinning ear-to-ear. He thinks it’s a joke.
“For real, for real, say something,” Jones says to Young.
He says something, about coming together as a team, and about completing the first day of two-a-days. It’s off-the-cuff, spoken with the type of nervousness consistent with a teenager being caught off-guard by his teacher.
He says something. But that’s not the point. Smart put him in a position to redeem himself, and that is the first big lesson in a long season.
Photos (from top): Shaka Smart on the court; Smart addresses, from left, James Banks, Tevin Mack, and Andrew Jones; Smart addresses his team; Banks embrases his coach
Photos by Jeff Wilson.
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