Sports Nut

My Brother’s a Keeper

What it’s like being related to the hottest name in March Madness.

VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart

“Honey, Shaka’s trending again!”

I realize my brother has moved into a new phase of sports celebrity when his name—Shaka Smart—becomes a trending topic on Twitter, right alongside Rebecca Black. His name is being inserted into spam tweets from China (“ShakaSmart International IQ Test … Play Free Online”), and women are posting comments about … well, you know. A Tennessee Volunteers fan, whose team is in the market for a hot young coach, jokingly speculates on the fact that Shaka wore an “orange tie” against Purdue. (Actually, the tie was golden.) A confused Brazilian asks, in Twitter Portuguese, “Does anyone know what is Shaka Smart?”

In his second year as the men’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, Shaka has become “one of the most talked-about young coaches in the game,” sayeth the AP. This all happened very quickly. First, VCU beat USC in the NCAA Tournament’s “First Four.” Then the Rams demolished Georgetown. Two days later, Purdue met a similar fate, and VCU entered the Sweet 16 as a media darling. By this point, anything Shaka did or said was a newsworthy event. After the Purdue game, a Sports Illustrated writer reveled in a courtside hug between my brother and my mom. When I called mom to ask about it, she said she’d just gotten off the phone with the Washington Post. “The reporter was asking about his early character-building experiences,” she said.

With different dads, different last names, and different ethnic backgrounds, most people wouldn’t assume we’re related. Certainly not when it comes to sports. My younger brother had many great sports mentors. I am not one of them. No, I was the kid who got beaned in the back of the head because he was watching the clouds during baseball practice. I bombed out of high-school basketball as a benchwarmer on the freshman “B” team. The last time I played a serious pickup game I broke three bones in my foot. Yet when I visited VCU’s basketball arena recently, I couldn’t resist shooting around. Shaka, ever the motivator, told me, “You’re improving!” Very funny, coach.

The author (second from left) with his brother, VCU coach Shaka Smart (second from right)

The only example I might have set for Shaka remains pretty dubious: I turned down the University of Chicago to attend Middlebury College. Four years later, Shaka turned down Harvard to study and play basketball at Kenyon. It is possible, though, that the shared love in our family for the documentary Hoop Dreams—a VHS tape worn down by many viewings—may well have played a subliminal role in my becoming a film critic and Shaka becoming a coach. There’s obviously some kind of genetic predisposition in our family for obsessively watching tape. (And since every factoid about Shaka is now of great interest, let me add this: He also likes nature documentaries featuring big cats.)

Videotape is how Shaka got his start in Division I, dissecting games as director of basketball operations for Oliver Purnell’s team at the University of Dayton. He later rejoined Purnell during his brilliant rebuilding campaign at Clemson, afterward moving to Florida as one of Billy Donovan’s assistants. That first job in Dayton started about eight years ago—”only” eight years ago, according to the pundits who emphasize Shaka’s youth (he’s 33). In those eight years, though, I’ve never seen anybody work harder.

As I’ve followed Shaka and the Rams in the NCAA Tournament, I’ve noticed two things. First is the genius of the VCU pep band, which is unstoppable. Second, watching my brother coach is like watching him play basketball in high school and college. He was known as an unselfish playmaker—he’s Kenyon’s all-time leader in assists—and his team definitely takes after its coach. In last week’s game against Purdue, the Rams had an amazing 26 assists.

I’m sure that the good will that surrounds Shaka right now will outlast this year’s tournament, although it’s reached a pretty remarkable peak. His fan base stretches from Dick Vitale (who says that Shaka’s “got the whole package”) to countless denizens of the Twitterverse. “AunteeL,” for one, says, “Do NOT bet against a guy named Shaka Smart. The word ‘smart’ is right there!”

This is the Madness talking, and Shaka tells me he’s been too swamped to check Twitter recently. It’s probably just as well, although I’m saving one note for him. It’s from Jennie Duvernay, a former librarian at Kenyon who remembered Shaka as an undergraduate. “Shaka Smart,” she tweeted, “was outstanding stdnt & freq library user. … Knew he’d be successful!”

In fact, Shaka could have been a university teacher. His college professors pushed for graduate school in American history, and Shaka’s dossier of inspiring quotations (including Thoreau and Shakespeare on Twitter) delighted NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I know he loves to win and hates to lose, but I think Shaka sees coaching as a more intense form of teaching and mentoring.

After I got to San Antonio in advance of Friday night’s game against Florida State, I had to ask my brother about all the hype. While I certainly don’t want to spend my time with my brother acting like a reporter, I’m genuinely curious about how all this works.

“It is what it is,” Shaka says in his smiling voice. He’s only focusing on his team, about to go and watch tape long into the night, as ever.

“And after the hype?”

“Life, but with a little bit less attention.”

That sounds all right.