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Man of the moment
Alexander Wolff
July 31, 2000
For an instant, in 1987, he was the most famous guy in sports. Today Keith Smart toils in relative obscurity, but loves the game
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July 31, 2000

Man Of The Moment

For an instant, in 1987, he was the most famous guy in sports. Today Keith Smart toils in relative obscurity, but loves the game

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The fire began in a flue, then raced through the row of lakeside condominiums near Bloomington, Ind., working its wind-driven way from unit to unit that April evening in 1997. Hurrying to account for neighbors and pets, Keith Smart had no time to retrieve the contents of his own condo before it, too, went up in smoke. Lost was a trove of clippings, trophies, videos and photographs, including two pictures that described the end points of an extraordinary journey—one of Smart playing in the dirt yard behind the house in Baton Rouge in which he grew up, the other of him in the Rose Garden, with President Reagan shaking the hand that launched the shot that won the 1987 NCAA title for Indiana.

At a glance Smart's life since that championship night in New Orleans might seem a comedown. A year later the Hoosiers lost to Richmond in the first round of the NCAA tournament, with Smart, then a senior, missing a midrange jumper that would have tied the game with 20 seconds remaining. His 14-month-old cousin, Brittney, died of sickle-cell anemia that season, and Smart's play suffered as he tried to gunny-sack the pain of her death. After the Golden State Warriors drafted him in the second round in 1988, he was cut twice in three weeks—first by the Warriors, then by the San Antonio Spurs. A 6'1" scorer without a point guard's skills shouldn't have been surprised that the NBA would have a hard time finding a place for him. But after that second snub Smart disconnected the phone, and for six weeks neither his parents nor his girlfriend—Carol Popkin, now his wife and the mother of their sons, Andr�, 3, and Jared, 17 months—heard from him. "I cut the world off," Smart says. "Threw a pity party for myself."

There is nothing pitiable about Smart today. He went on to spend nine years playing for pay in France, the Philippines and Venezuela, as well as in such minor league outposts as Halifax, Cedar Rapids, Rapid City and Fort Wayne. Then this man who took and made the most momentous of last shots began devoting his life to helping others get their last shots, as coach for the past three years of one of the teams he had played for, the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury. Still living and working in Indiana, he seldom gets through a day without that historic baseline jumper—which vanquished Syracuse 74-73—coming up.

"If I hadn't made it?" the 35-year-old Smart asks. "Well, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And the state of Indiana probably wouldn't have allowed me to come back. People would be saying, 'You should've passed that ball to Steve [Alford]!' But I'm grateful for how it's propelled me into a new way of thinking. Your thought process is totally different when you've had a chance to win it all, because you always want to get back to that feeling."

The CBA requires a coach to be as much marketing dynamo and career counselor as game strategist. Smart makes personal appeals to sponsors and season-ticket holders, and he briefly coached Percy Miller, a.k.a. rapper Master P. But more than anything, he says, he deals with "what we call 'down syndrome'—when a guy who gets sent down feels he should be in the Show. I'm the conduit for what the NBA thinks. 'I'm not saying you need to work on X, Y and Z,' I tell him. 'The NBA scouts are saying you've got to work on them.' "

He gauges the success of a season by how many call-ups his team has, and over his three seasons in Fort Wayne, the NBA has summoned 12 of his players. As a result of its reputation for producing promotees, the Fury gets its pick of free-agent talent. "It can be tough on our fans," Smart says. "They want to see a consistent team. This is the only league in the world where a coach preaches a championship ring, and every player would rather have an NBA contract. But I want to see all our guys get to a higher level."

Every now and then Smart will whimsically provide a reminder of the shot, as he did a couple of years ago after a whistle in a game in Rockford. The ball rolled toward where Smart stood at the end of the Fury's bench, deep in the left corner. Picking it up, he couldn't resist: "Same spot, in a suit and tie, I made it. I could probably take that shot today, anywhere, and make it.

"At the time, everything riding on it never entered my mind. I didn't feel a thing. That sounds strange to a fan—fans think of all the pressure. They're not aware that to me, there was no one else on the floor. No other players. No crowd."

Nor are many people aware that Smart might very easily have been sitting on the bench at the end of the '87 title game. Early in the second half, thinking forward Daryl Thomas was about to cut in a different direction, Smart sent a pass sailing over the baseline. Indiana coach Bob Knight sat him down. Three-and-a-half minutes later, with Syracuse having pushed out to an eight-point lead, Knight wandered down the bench. "You've got two minutes to do something," he told Smart, who had scored just six points thus far (he would finish with 21). "If you don't, you're coming out."

From that point, Smart recalls, "I don't remember what was said in the huddles. Everything slowed down. It's the first and last time I've ever felt that—like I had all the time in the world to make the right decisions, all the time in the world to take every shot."

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