OAKLAND, Calif. -- Keith Smart seriously considered walking away from Indiana well before he hit "The Shot" that won the Hoosiers the 1987 NCAA title, unsure he could deal with demanding, fiery coach Bob Knight.
Turns out, he stuck with it -- an old mentor reminded him he wasn't one to quit. Those experiences under Knight's critical eye, along with many other coaches over the years, went a long way in how Smart handles his own players today.
"Rudy Tomjanovich told me, 'Know the pulse of your team,"' Smart said. "As I kept moving through with different coaches and different styles, I started paying attention to what I was learning from this coach, good or bad, what I was learning from that coach, good or bad."
Golden State's first-year coach walked around the locker room before training camp this fall asking for a handshake from each one of the Warriors, signaling a pact that they would allow Smart to coach them and be involved in their lives. Some looked at Smart in disbelief or didn't look at him at all. Andris Biedrins, for one, acknowledges he hesitated to commit at all before eventually reaching out his hand.
"I was thinking to shake his hand or not," said Biedrins, the Latvian center who also was coached by Smart on the national team in his home country. "He was holding his hand out. I said, 'OK, coach."'
Smart played for the collegiate wins leader in Knight and worked as right-hand man to the NBA's all-time leader in victories, Don Nelson.
Nelson, relaxing these days at his Hawaiian home on Maui, still checks in with Smart at least once a week.
"All young assistants want to have the opportunity to one day work for one of the heavyweights," Smart said.
Smart spent seven years as an assistant with Golden State, passing up opportunities to go elsewhere he knows might not have landed him the opportunity he has now -- with the team that drafted him 41st overall in the second round in 1988. Smart nearly left once, but then-team executive Chris Mullin talked him out of it.
Smart believed in staying in one place, while maintaining stability for his family.
The Warriors are off to a 7-8 start, playing a more traditional style than they did under Nelson with his small-ball lineups. Smart replaced Nelson in late September, the first big change since Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team from Chris Cohan.
"I told them I had everything under control," Smart said of a recent chat with the bosses. "Everybody held their breath for a moment."
Yes, the 46-year-old Smart is the man in charge at last, leading his own team for the first time -- save for a stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers' interim head coach for the final 40 games in 2003 after taking over for John Lucas. Smart spent 10 years in all as an NBA assistant.
Not that you'd notice any change in this down-to-earth married father of two basketball-playing boys. He still tries to get home for a family dinner whenever possible.
His new office is three times bigger.
"It feels no different than what I've always been doing in life. It really doesn't," Smart said. "I just have the title and all that comes with it, but the person is still the same. Never changed a bit. ... I'm going to live longer than I'm coaching, so I have to stay who I am, you know?"
He religiously wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and arrives in his downtown Oakland office by 7 to start a long day of film study, practice and other preparation.
When out and about, the modest Smart swears he's not recognized on the streets.
"I can blend in because I'm just 6-1," he said. "It's mostly the teenagers, the young kids, who recognize me."
Smart's ability to lead and take charge largely began when he was 13. His parents split up for a brief five-month period -- they now have been married 46 years -- and he was thrust into a father-figure role for his three younger brothers.
"I grew up fast," he said.
His mother taught all her boys to clean, cook, do laundry and sew. The brothers aren't surprised to see Smart in a similar role today. Smart is a boss and father figure "to grown men."
"This promotion for him obviously was well deserved," said brother Herb Smart, a high school girls basketball coach in New Hampshire. "It just showed that you pay your dues and you will be rewarded for it. The biggest thing for him was waiting his time and once the opportunity was there he fell right into it."
Yet Smart, who played very little organized basketball in high school before becoming a junior college All-American, had long dreamt of a prosperous NBA playing career. After the Warriors drafted him, he was cut twice in three weeks and wound up in the CBA and overseas, instead. This only a year after he knocked down the baseline jump shot that lifted Indiana over Syracuse for the national title.
Nine years later, during the summer of 1997, Smart reached a new point in his life. He was ready to take the next step, from player to coach.
It took a fire ravaging through his lakeside condominium in Bloomington, Ind. -- and destroying everything, including all the memorabilia from his glory days with the Hoosiers and 20 pairs of new Nike shoes still in boxes he planned to wear the next season -- and leaving him with just his wife, Carol, and young son, Andre, to come to that realization. The entire neighborhood was hit by the blaze.
"You went from just going about your life today to all of a sudden having zero," Smart recalled. "I thought: 'Oh well, it must be a sign. I've lost my shoes.' We had no clothing, nothing. Here I was watching everything we had go up in smoke and it was like a cool peace came over me and just said: 'Look, you're holding the most important things in your life. You can get all that back."'
He did get things back. People offered him photos and mementos of his days as a college star.
For Smart, the ordeal provided new perspective on everything. At Knight's urging, he went to Fort Wayne, Ind., to coach in the CBA rather than taking a job on the Hoosiers staff.
"That was one of the pieces that showed him, 'Hey, nothing is here forever,"' Herb Smart said of the fire.
Nelson groomed Smart for this gig for a while. One night, Nellie told the players that Smart was in charge and would coach them all game -- and Nelson would offer input on occasion, or not. Smart also filled in when Nelson was sidelined with pneumonia for a period early last season. That stretch included a 111-103 victory at Dallas on Nov. 24, 2009, with only six players.
Nelson instructed Smart never to take notes on how he did things but rather just watch him. During the team's 2007 playoff season, Nelson went to talk to volatile guard Stephen Jackson and sat right down on the court beside him.
"No other assistant coach in this league had the freedom I had. He was training me to really run a basketball program," Smart said. "I studied. I always prepared. Coach always told me, 'Prepare because I may get kicked out of the game.' I always prepared like I would have to coach the game."
Now, after quite a wait, it's Smart's turn every night.