Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Late grandfather inspiration for Smart

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart celebrates after his team won the NCAA Southwest regional final against Kansas University on Sunday in San Antonio. Smart’s grandfather died on Tuesday.

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart celebrates after his team won the NCAA Southwest regional final against Kansas University on Sunday in San Antonio. Smart’s grandfather died on Tuesday.


— Before the college basketball world started screaming about Virginia Commonwealth, back when ESPN pundits still considered VCU a four-letter word, Shaka Smart spoke softly to the man who helped give him a strong voice.

Walter King, the grandfather Smart called “the second-biggest influence in my life,” passed away Tuesday in Highland Park from kidney failure at the age of 90. Thanks to a hospital visit from Smart earlier this month, King died knowing his increasingly famous grandson believed in himself as much as he constantly encouraged the boy during many formative summers in Chicago.

“Before the tournament Shaka was able to come and talk to his grandpa one last time,” Monica King, Smart’s mother, told the Tribune from her father’s north suburban home. “He told him everything that was going on with the team and said he would get it done for him.”

Five VCU victories later, with an NCAA Tournament semifinal game Saturday in Houston against Butler, even those who loudly objected to the Rams’ presence in the 68-team field agree Smart has gotten it done.

And America thought VCU was getting motivation from Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale.

Smart now finds himself at a professional peak while enduring a personal valley.

“He taught me humility, appreciation, how to interact with people,” Smart, 33, said of his late grandfather Tuesday at a news conference. “I was raised by my mom, and a lot of times when kids are raised only by a woman you need a male influence who can teach you certain things only a man can teach you.”

Walter King settled in the Chicago area with his wife, Phyllis, and their two children after serving in World War II. King made a nice career as a printing salesman but in retirement took great interest in his grandson growing up in Wisconsin with a unique name.

Smart’s father, a native of Trinidad, named his son for Shaka Zulu, a chieftain of the Zulu Empire. But Smart was raised never knowing the dad who left when he was 2 and hasn’t been around since he was 17.

One day when Smart decided to give up soccer for basketball despite being shorter than most of his peers, it was his grandfather who buoyed his confidence and “told him to go for it 1,000 percent,” Smart’s mom recalled.

“Shaka was a big part of my father’s life,” she said.

They bonded at Wrigley Field, where Smart estimated on WMVP-AM he has seen “between 50 and 60” Cubs games, none more memorable than the day he caught a Ryne Sandberg foul ball. After summer ended, Smart’s grandfather regularly sent him Chicago newspaper reports of Bulls and Bears games. When Smart got into coaching after a career at Division III Kenyon College, his grandfather started mailing him stories about Chicago-area prospects he should recruit.

“Instead of sitting around playing bridge five times a week, he was still trying to help out Shaka,” Monica King said. “We would call it Grandpa’s clipping service.”

Grandpa would be beaming at the news his grandson made this month.

The VCU Final Four run has generated 11 million hits to the university’s website since Sunday, raised nearly $250,000 in donations and forced President Michael Rao to acknowledge he already has begun negotiations to keep America’s hottest coach.

The Rams’ success also has given a growing national audience a new appreciation for Smart decisions.

We found out how Smart, who is biracial, stood up for friends and himself against racism as a teenager in Oregon, Wis. We learned that he graduated magna cum laude and researched race-consciousness on the South Side of Chicago. We discovered he burned a calendar March 1 to stress to players that February was over.

“But what is most impressive about Shaka is how he reads his guys and knows what they need,” said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, whom Smart considers a mentor after working for him at Dayton and Clemson. “He’s cool as a cucumber, but if he needs to be emotional or make it us-against-the-world, he’ll do it. Now it’ll be, ‘Nobody believes we can be national champions.’”

Whatever Smart tells his VCU team Saturday, his mother feels confident what the message will include. According to Walter King’s wishes, his body will be donated to science. There will be a memorial service in April. But it would be foolish to think a grieving grandson won’t pay his respects this week in the most meaningful way possible.

“I actually think this could motivate Shaka and suspect he will share that with his team,” Monica King said. “I think he’ll tell them that on top of everything, you want to beat Butler, but let’s win this one for my grandpa too.”

The most inspired team left just found a little more inspiration.


Jeffery Barrett 8 years, 7 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Hail_To_Thee 8 years, 7 months ago

Why are we publishing articles out of the Chicago Tribune about the coach of VCU just because they beat us? This is KU SPORTS, not VCU SPORTS. If i wish to read about another team, i'll just run on over to their website. Spring football starts soon, how bout some articles on what to expect this year out of the football team, since we seem to have nothing else to publish.

Not that I hate the guy or anything, but who gives a rats about what motivates another coach. Unless its our own, its irrelevent.

John Randall 8 years, 7 months ago

Hardly surprising someone with your attitude would think there actually is a 'highest' number.

This week, we'll just have to settle for (elite) 8.

gchawk 8 years, 7 months ago

Even though we're still suffering the pain of the loss, I still like personal interest stories that are relevant to the game. So I guess that puts me in the category of "I care".

John Randall 8 years, 7 months ago

Yes, so do I. It's a nice, well-done article. Also reinforces one of my core beliefs about people –– none of us ever completely get over "the way we wuz brung up", but the best of us keep improving ourselves as long we can.

Stan Unruh 8 years, 7 months ago

I appreciate all the articles on this site and the hard work of the staff here but the last story I wanted to see is one on the VCU coach. It ruined my breakfast.

bbhawk234 8 years, 7 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

bbhawk234 8 years, 7 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Mike Kendall 8 years, 7 months ago

Wow! Some of the comments on this post are unbelievable!

Well, I liked the article. The guy lost his grandfather, for crying out loud. It wasn't too long ago, that Thomas Robinson lost his mom and a lot of other coaches and players were sympathetic to T-Rob's loss. I would hope that if we are civilized human beings, that some of us would be sympathetic to Coach Smart. The 32-year old coach is going to get offers, though. I think it will be interesting, especially, if the Rams get to the NC game, how he will handle all the media attention.

Hail_To_Thee 8 years, 7 months ago

TROB is a Jayhawk. Smart is not.

Besides, being sympathetic is one thing. But publishing something that is really irrelevant to KU is another. We dont see them publishing articles on other coaches losses across the nation now do we.

Mike Kendall 8 years, 7 months ago

You make a very good point to my thread----I still liked the article. Just MHO.

Dan Harris 8 years, 7 months ago

rubbing salt in the wound much! we just got our hearts ripped out and your shoving another VCU article at us! stop it already!

Hank Cross 8 years, 7 months ago

It's too bad the screennames of those whose posts were deleted didn't remain. We could identify the loons that way.

Grow up. When someone yelled "KU sucks" during the moment of silence for TRob's mother at the CU game, so many here acted as though that person burned the American flag. Who knows what was said about Smart's grandfather.

Grow up. Smart was doing his job. What did you expect him and VCU to do, forfeit? It wasn't Smart that was missing those 3s for KU. It was Self's pets and it was Self that left them in.

Grow up. If you interest in college BB ends with KU's exit, you're not a real fan of the game and you have nothing to add to this board other than homerisms such as "Self is God!!!!" and "KU Rules!!!"

Hail_To_Thee 8 years, 7 months ago

This is a KU board. Publish articles about KU athletics or dont publish anything at all. If we wanted to read about other programs around the nation, we would seek them out.

bbhawk234 8 years, 7 months ago

LJW does not give a crap about anything. They do what the want because they can and they know it. No wonder these scumbags are working for the LJW. These people are slime. Now LJW staff remove this for violation of your precious user agreement.

Mike Kendall 8 years, 7 months ago

oxcaljayhawk---+1. I was going to bring up the CU reference, too, along with the announcement they made at Bramledge but I though I said enough on my original post (see above). I totally agree with you, though. Thanks for your point of view.

bbhawk234 8 years, 7 months ago

If I want to listen to a preacher I will go go church. We all have opinions and this article in my opinion does not belong on this site. Go preach yourself.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.