City Sports Report

Wearing the hat : Shaka Smart

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“I never wear hats,” Shaka Smart said, A10 Championship cap on his head, sitting down in the comfy, black leather cushioned folding chairs on the stage of the interview room. He looked exhausted, but who could blame him? Four games in four days avenging losses, and making waves against a tough Fordham team that’s going to look better down the road once they replace former head coach Tom Pecora; a Richmond team that’ll give them hell no matter what day it is; a Davidson team who recently embarrassed them in primetime; and a Dayton team looking to torch a path similar to last year’s war path into the Elite Eight. It was exhausting- I was exhausted, and I’d only been watching the games. To my credit, there were thirteen games and I watched almost every moment of every single one of them, but the tedium of climbing the stairs- eventually learning to settle for the elevator -of Barclays Center back up to the fourth row of the media section with a couple of water bottles and a plate of free snacks isn’t quite the same as coaching back-to-back-to-back-to-back games.

“I never wear hats,” Coach Smart said after he shook hands with Bri, Mo, and Tre as they climbed down from the small stage. He clapped his hands on their shoulders, hugged them. We sat there quiet and respectful, sharing in a moment we were just lucky to be a part of without truly understanding its tenderness. We were detached observers. We only witnessed Briante Weber hobble up the rungs of the ladder to cut down the net. We weren’t there when his teammates promised him this moment after his injury. We don’t know how hard it is for him to sit on the bench, watching his team play without him- for him, but still, without him. We imagine. We take to the page with whimsy and deference for the dream. We make our names off of witty analysis and pithy speculation, raising questions when only silence was required. We don’t take enough time to observe silently. For us, there’s always something at stake.

“I never wear hats,” Coach said as he sat down in front of a couple dozen reporters waiting to congratulate; waiting to interrogate (kindly of course); waiting to draw conclusions before the last word is even spoken. When eventual 2015 Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber went down, there were concerns, questions: who could step up in his place? Who could lead this team onward? Who on their bench could replicate this much needed production? In their next 10 games they went 5-5. A sinking ship, we called it. A squad who’s simply lost too much, we thought, again, always raising questions when only silence was required.

“I never wear hats,” Mr. Smart said as he took his seat in front of the microphone. His is an obligatory presence. His is time owed to us, and of all times not your own, it was also Selection Sunday; an anxious day where a committee tries to get things right, but often questionably so. It’s a day of nervous tics and sweaty, itchy palms. It’s waiting for your name. It’s waiting to know where you’re going from here- if you’re going at all. We want to know if he’s nervous about the Selection Committee; if he can come close to that magical run in 2011; if he can give us something- anything to fill our pages. But he doesn’t seem to care about it. He’s kind enough to us, but he cares about the game. He cares about the players on the court- his players. He cares about Mo Alie-Cox, Treveon Graham, Melvin Johnson, JeQuan Lewis, Terry Larrier, Jordan Burgess, Doug Brooks, Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams, Michael Gilmore, Jared Guest, Antavious Simmons, Torey Burston, and Briante Weber. He cares about the kids in his program. He believes in every role, every minute earned. He carries himself as a man with a firm understanding of himself and where he belongs, and as a players’ coach, it’s by their side. He’s a coach and a mentor. He’s a father and a father figure.  He’s a man who builds relationships with his players, and one that looks to keep them well after.

“I never wear hats,” this man leading me said, his shirt two different shades of blue. The sleeves were patchy in places, but both the front and the back were drenched, save for the collar; sweat, maybe. A Gatorade bath was unlikely, but still possible. The fractured shades stained the dress shirt like a jersey as though he’d just played every minute of the game with them. Fitting for a team like theirs. Shaka’s the epitome of a player’s coach. He’s a fighter. He has an intense passion for every moment of the game. His is a presence felt long after the game has ended. He’ll likely never leave VCU, which, for us at least, is a shame because there are at least half a dozen NBA teams that could use him right now: Denver, Orlando, possibly New Orleans, New York, Brooklyn, even Washington where he’d be closer to home, but he hasn’t been interested. He’s part of that Grass- “Isn’t Always Greener On The Other Side” -roots movement that keeps big name coaches in small bodied schools where they are, but not necessarily where the basketball world perceives they belong.

“I never wear hats,” Shaka said, not yet knowing that despite the hard battles of the weekend;  the vindication of those wins and the confidence they re-inspire; the splendor of walking across the media-filled court, carefully sidestepping fallen streamers and camera cables, Zora clutched tightly against his drenched shirt- despite all of this, his team would only earn a seventh seed. They would be playing D’Angelo Russell and Ohio State, a guard that could give them nightmares worse than those endured with the likes of Kendall Anthony, and Scoochie Smith, both of whom gave the Rams trouble in conference play and the tournament itself. He doesn’t yet know that we’re going to give VCU a meager 26.7% chance to survive past the first round; that his team will reprise the role of the disrespected underdog once more when they literally just finished showing the world how much more they deserve.

“I never wear hats,” Coach Smart said, briefly, but pointedly as he took his seat. Every coach talks about the importance of being able to turn the page; how precious little time there is to celebrate and enjoy your accomplishments before you bring your attention back to the court. It’s hard to tell where his mind is exactly. He doesn’t speak with the same cadence of relief as he did in the days before this. He doesn’t speak in low tones of solemnity. He seems caught somewhere between this moment and the ones markedly different from this the last two seasons. This was their third year in the Atlantic 10, and their third straight shot at the Tournament Championship game, but he hadn’t cut down the net before today. There were no bitter sweet sentiments of pride for his players. There was no lingering disappointment for the sea of yellow-shirted fans roaring from all corners of Brooklyn. He had held the trophy. He had stormed the court. He had shared the victory with his daughter in his arms, and finally, though trivially, had worn the hat.

“I never wear hats,” he said in the strange atmosphere of relief cut with apprehension,  “but they gave us one for winning the Championship, so that doesn’t happen every day.”

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