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 gunnysack 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, Andre, 3, and Jared, 17 months--heard from
him. "I cut the world off," Smart says. "Threw a pity party for
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."
July 30, 2000
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
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
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
Every March, when ESPN Classic rebroadcasts the game, Smart
becomes a student, trying to riddle out his waking dream. With 28
seconds remaining and the Orangemen leading by a point,
Syracuse's Derrick Coleman clanked the first of a one-and-one,
and Indiana had its chance.
With the first option in their motion offense, Alford, bottled
up on the right wing, the Hoosiers looked inside to Thomas or
Dean Garrett, the junior college transfer who along with
Smart--who'd spent two seasons at Garden City (Kans.) C.C.--had
vindicated Knight's decision to recruit juco talent for the
first time the previous year. Smart took a pass on the left wing
from reserve Joe Hillman, then fed Thomas in the low post. But
Thomas, pivoting to face the basket, couldn't sight the hoop
through Coleman's long arms. So the senior coolly returned the
ball to Smart. "The last option was for me to create my own
shot," Smart says. "We were always taught, after you pass, don't
stand. Move to another spot."
Smart's defender, Howard Triche, had turned his head slightly to
follow the entry pass to Thomas, and Smart took advantage by
drifting deeper into the corner. Between Smart's springs (he had
a 42-inch vertical) and reach (his sleeve extends 44 inches),
Triche had already lost any chance to contest the shot. Smart was
already in the air, about 17 feet from the hoop--"It seemed like I
took a bounce and was floating"--and releasing the shot of which
Thomas would say, "It was bucket."
By the time the ball had pillowed into the back of the net, with
five seconds left in the game, Smart was well beyond the
baseline, earthbound again, crouched and tensile. That's when
noise returned to his eardrums.
The Final Four has featured other sudden Monday Night Heroes:
Lorenzo Charles tracked one path, and the errant shot of North
Carolina State teammate Dereck Whittenburg tracked another, until
the two met like blips in a video game in 1983, when the Wolfpack
upset Houston on Charles's last-second dunk. In 1989 Rumeal
Robinson won a title for Michigan with a pair of free throws in
overtime. But Smart did more than make the winning shot. He made
his moment possible by fouling Coleman, a freshman and a 69% free
throw shooter. He then preserved the result by intercepting
Coleman's hurled inbounds pass three quarters of the court away
as time expired.
Several weeks later, at the U.S. team trials for the Pan American
Games, Smart found himself paired as Coleman's roommate. "For two
weeks neither of us said a thing to each other about the game,"
Smart says. "Not a word." (Smart made the team, Coleman didn't.)
Smart can trace his choice of career to a moment remarkably
similar to the one in New Orleans. In 1995 he was working as a
counselor at Reggie Miller's camp in Indianapolis. Because a
coach had been called away by an emergency, Smart was pressed
into taking over an assemblage of eight- and nine-year-olds mired
in last place. In Smart's first game on the bench, one of his new
players failed to take a wide-open shot.
Smart called time. "Why didn't you take that shot?" he asked.
"My last coach told me not to shoot. Just to run up and down the
floor and stay out of everyone's way."
"Your mommy and daddy paid good money to send you here," Smart
replied. "You should be having fun. If you're open, I want you to
take the shot!"
Smart, who had written the storyline eight years earlier, took
his team, appropriately named the Bad News Hoosiers, to the camp
championship game, officiated by Miller himself. And the kid once
ordered to stay out of everyone's way found himself toeing the
free throw line with everything in the balance. He shot his coach
a look that said, What do I do?
"Take your time," Smart called out. "Bend your knees. Get it up!"
The camper sent both shots through the hoop to win his team the
camp title. Smart floated away feeling as good as he'd felt in
years, if only because he now knew how he wanted to spend the
rest of his life.
Smart hopes to coach in the NBA someday. But as he was that night
in New Orleans, he's content to let time slow down. He speaks
often with NBA front-office personnel, developing relationships.
He served as an assistant with the U.S. team at the 1999 Pan Am
Games. He's also a participant in the NBA's coaching development
program. "I look at it as a gradual climb," says Smart. "If you
rush through it, you miss so much."
Over time, too, even those incinerated mementos have regenerated
themselves. Dozens of people who read about the fire rooted
through their attics and rec rooms and passed memorabilia his
way. An old girlfriend, living in Houston, had kept a scrapbook
of Smart's career and sent the whole thing along--in part, she
confessed, because her husband thought it was strange that she
had a remembrance book of an old flame.
"That shot forces me to stay ahead of everything," Smart says.
"When people come 'round to do those where-are-they-now stories,
I don't want them finding me in some clinic, depressed. It was a
long road from not making my high school team [as a junior] and
not getting recruited. But I learned you have to do as well as
you can wherever you are. 'Bloom where you're planted,' as my mom
Like a basket that follows from a timely pass and a good look,
life is equal parts what fate throws your way and what you make
of it. "One year you make it," Smart says. "The next year, with a
chance to tie, you don't."
What's important is to take it. Can't make it unless you do.
Knight told Smart, "You've got two minutes to do something. If
you don't, you're coming out."
Life is equal parts fate and what you make of it. "One year you
make it," Smart says. "The next year you don't."