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How Indiana Got Smart
Bruce Newman
November 18, 1987
When juco man Keith Smart hit the Shot (left), to win the NCAA, Bob Knight looked like a genius
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November 18, 1987

How Indiana Got Smart

When juco man Keith Smart hit the Shot (left), to win the NCAA, Bob Knight looked like a genius

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Three years ago, Bob Knight, who doesn't often do it, changed his mind. After spending years shaping his disdain for junior college players into a kind of philosophy designed to keep those outlaws and academic misfits at bay, he had finally decided it was time to permit some juco infiltration. But first he made a phone call to Quinn Buckner, the leader of Knight's 1976 championship team at Indiana, his first. "He was concerned what some of the former players would think about it," Buckner says, "considering the tradition we had worked to build and what Indiana basketball stood for." Buckner consented to give his blessing to the plan—provided the coach promise to recruit only "good kids" who were willing to go to class.

The plan was still unproved when Dean Garrett and Keith Smart arrived at Indiana last season from City College of San Francisco and Garden City ( Kans.) Junior College, respectively. They were curiosities on campus, looked upon as some kind of grand experiment in social engineering. "Dean and I got tired of hearing about junior college players, like we were orphans or something," says Smart.

But when the Hoosiers defeated Syracuse for the NCAA championship last spring, with Smart and Garrett playing crucial roles, even Knight admits asking himself, "Why didn't we do this before?" Smart had hit the basket—or the Shot, as it is now called throughout the state of Indiana—that beat Syracuse by a single point, and Garrett had battled every big man he faced in the tournament to no worse than a draw. "Let me tell you something," says Brad Duggan, Garrett's coach at San Francisco. "Without Dean Garrett last year, Indiana couldn't have won the Ivy League."

Knight had steadfastly held his line against junior college players until Indiana's traumatic 1984-85 season, when the Hoosiers experienced a 19-14 nightmare—complete with mass benchings, one starter being tossed off the team and Indianans even questioning Knight's coaching for the first time. "People talk about a season on the brink," says Indiana assistant Joby Wright, referring to the best-selling book about Indiana's next season, "but 1984-85 was the real season on the brink." It finally forced Knight to accept the fact that his system alone was not enough. Knight had insisted on recruiting, with rare exceptions, only within Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, but now the talent well had run dry. "We had to get some athletes," says Wright, "players who could jump and were quick enough to play the game as it was evolving with the shot clock. Teams were running the lob-dunk play on us all the time that year, and not only could we not defend it, we didn't have anybody we could lob to."

The Hoosiers' remarkable turnaround is in no small measure a testament to Knight's ability to adapt to a changing environment—and then to dominate it. But it was the adaptability of Garrett and Smart that counted most. "They can't sit there for a year and absorb and learn and then play," Knight says. "That's hard on the kid, and it's hard on the system, too."

Smart had spent his own season on the brink as a junior at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge—on the brink of 5'4" and on the brink of falling off the end of the bench. Though he made the team, he was rarely even allowed to practice. "I remember winter days riding across town on my bike just to check the bulletin board in the gym to see if I got to dress for the game." he says. "I knew I wasn't going to be playing. We beat one team by about a hundred points and the coach didn't clear the bench."

The Panthers won the state championship that season, but Smart was so intimidated by his own talented teammates he was afraid even to dribble the ball in practice. "Every time I touched it I was looking to get rid of it," he says. On one of those occasions, Smart was the middleman on a fast break and dished off to a startled coach standing on the sideline. "I just saw a body there and thought, 'Lord, let me get rid of this thing!' " Sensing that his coach was praying the same prayer for a different reason, Smart quit the team.

By his senior year, however, Smart had shot up to 5'7" and, after rejoining the team, began to receive enough playing time to show what he could do. Three games into the season, however, he broke his right wrist diving for a loose ball and missed the rest of the year. Fortunately, the injury was not to Smart's spatula hand and didn't interfere with what he then did best in his life—flip burgers down at McDonald's. For nearly three years he wore his paper hat proudly. "I was happy flipping burgers," he says.

It appeared then that the only award Smart would ever compete for was Employee of the Month. And if his basketball career wasn't already over, it should have been finished off by a motorcycle accident after graduation that left Smart with a separated shoulder and another broken wrist. But as his bones healed, they also began to grow. He made one final burst to 6'1" and began to think seriously about playing basketball again. Smart had heard about Garden City J.C. from a friend and decided to try out there as a walk-on. "When I left Baton Rouge, everybody said, 'You'll never make it, you'll end up right back here,' " Smart says. "I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to become a statistic."

He piled the stats up fast enough when he reached Garden City, averaging 22.8 points as a freshman. He caught the eye of Wright, who had come to Kansas to look at another player but was so impressed with Smart's quickness and jumping ability that he immediately sent him recruiting letters. But Smart, who had grown up a devoted LSU fan and had not forgotten the time Knight shoved a Tiger supporter who fell into trash can, responded in kind. "I just threw them away without opening them," he says. "I had seen Coach Knight grab a player by the jersey once, and I thought to myself right then, 'No way I could ever play for that man.' "

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