Voisin: Smart trying to make Kings team from ill-fitting pieces

Feb 20 2012 - 9:05pm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Keith Smart could troll for sympathy votes for this fine mess of a basketball team he inherited. There is no point guard on the horizon, no passers or shooters of note on the roster, and the overall product his boss and his predecessor assembled -- which is young and not without some ability -- fits together like Hatfields and McCoys.

But Smart likes this Sacramento Kings job for a few reasons.

One, because head coaching opportunities are precious and few.

Two, because he loves solving puzzles.

And three, because he has spent almost 25 years writing a sequel to the story about his famous jumper that doomed Syracuse, gave Indiana its last NCAA championship (1987), and pushed a quiet 6-foot-1 guard into a world of possibilities, both here and abroad.

"Somebody mentions the shot every day," Smart said good-naturedly, if a bit wearily.

It's not that the Hoosiers hero fell off the face of the earth, exactly. After being drafted by Golden State and failing to stick with the Warriors or San Antonio, Smart and his wife, Carol, became eager globetrotters. He spent the next nine seasons playing in France, Venezuela and Nova Scotia. Returning to the United States, he played for minor league teams in Worcester, Mass.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Finally, with a nudge from Indiana's Bobby Knight, he joined the Fort Wayne staff and became hooked on coaching. He was an assistant and an interim head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2002-03) before spending five years on Don Nelson's Warriors staff and taking over in 2010-11.

If Sacramento isn't quite the jungle of, say, Venezuela, the Kings present their own tangled web of bruised egos, ill-defined roles, bad habits and personnel deficiencies.

Smart, though, is one of those people who can forget a bad day. He flipped hamburgers at McDonald's after being cut from his high school team, he once revealed, so he won't complain about staying in five-star hotels and flying charters around the NBA.

"You learn from the journey," Smart said. "I've gotten something everywhere I've played and coached, and I just love what I do."

As he travels with his team, Smart repeatedly references his experiences with the "two masters," the Hoosiers' Knight and the Warriors' Nelson. Both men remain mentors and friends.

"Obviously, I think Keith learned a lot about defense from Bobby Knight, and he probably picked up some offense from me," Nelson said, "but he's his own person, and he's tougher than nails. He is not afraid to go at players.

"Maybe most importantly, he has a knack of communicating with young players. You don't want to be their best friends. There has to be some fear there. But it's a delicate line. It's something I wasn't very good at, frankly."

What else about Smart? He is obsessive about organization. He has a mind for detail and a list for everything. He has terrific powers of recall and is an admitted workaholic. A basketball purist at heart, he also has little tolerance when players overdribble, dominate the ball and become lazy on defensive rotations.

Energetic and passionate on the sidelines, often sweating through his suits and shirts, he reacts to mistakes quickly, correcting players on the sidelines rather than during post-game film sessions. To cut down on their chronic dribbling, he offered a deal: Players are allowed two or three dribbles but then have to pass. Otherwise they're coming out.

"We're still figuring things out," said Smart, sounding upbeat, "and trying to get in as many practices as we can. A lot of execution comes down to drill work and repetition, and with the (compressed) schedule, we haven't had enough of that. It's early. We can be a good team. I truly believe that."

 

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