smart photo 12-3

Marquette coach Shaka Smart talks to guard Darryl Morsell. 

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MILWAUKEE — Among the items on a circular table in Shaka Smart’s office at the Al McGuire Center is a set of marbles, almost all of them clear except for one that is blue.

It’s a visual tool the Marquette men’s basketball coach uses with his players, a way of encouraging them to be different, to stand out. This isn’t a foreign concept to Smart.

He’s eight games into his debut season with the Golden Eagles, and the next one on the schedule represents a homecoming of sorts for the Oregon High School graduate. The 128th meeting between Marquette and the University of Wisconsin comes Saturday at the Kohl Center, and this annual matchup is particularly intriguing because both the No. 23 Badgers (6-1) and Golden Eagles (7-1) are off to pleasantly surprising starts this season.

Smart, 44, was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in the spring of 1977 and lived in Fitchburg and Brooklyn while growing up. He later would excel in both the classroom and on the court at Oregon, where he still holds the Panthers’ single-season and career records for assists, all the while dealing with the racism that came along with being one of the few minority students in the school district.

Smart was among the impactful African Americans who were recognized when Oregon High School principal Jim Pliner and others put together an interactive exhibit for Black History Month in February 2020. He also was singled out by Pliner one day that winter during a morning address to students, a 3-minute, 43-second video that highlights Smart’s success and contributions but also puts a spotlight on the low points.

“Shaka Smart is, without question, a difference-maker,” Pliner told the students. “It’s shameful that his high school experience was marred by ignorance, bigotry and hatred. We cannot change the past here. We must look inward to decide if we’ve changed as a community and as a school. We want to celebrate one of our most successful graduates, but we also want to be certain that students, present and future, do not experience what Shaka had to endure.”

Smart spent most of his formative years living in a one-parent home, with no father to turn to when times were difficult, and that only adds another layer to his incredible display of resiliency. All of these experiences have shaped him into who he is today, yes, but none of it was easy.

And yet to those who know him best, Smart had a way of navigating it all while remaining composed, always looking for a way forward, focused on making things right rather than dwelling on what was wrong.

“He had this ability to take on a whole lot,” said Alfie Olson, a friend who is essentially a fourth brother to Smart, “and be able to handle it.”

‘We have to stay and fight this’

Monica King, Smart’s mother, stood before him and Olson one day during their junior year at Oregon.

Olson was living with the family by that point. His home life wasn’t going well, so Smart decided enough was enough and invited his friend to stay at his place even before asking his mother if it was OK, probably because he already knew she’d welcome Olson.

King, who is white, “can be very aggressive and, at the same time, very understanding and compassionate and empathetic,” according to Olson. When it came to defending her son — and his friend, who like Smart is biracial — King was relentless in calling out injustice.

But she’d finally reached a breaking point. She had taught Smart all along that the best way to handle oppression and ignorance was to fight it. And yet here she was, coming to Smart and Olson with a proposal: If dealing with the racism in Oregon was too much, there were spots waiting for them at Edgewood High School.

“And they looked at me and were like, ‘Hell, no. We can’t do that. You’ve taught us all our lives we have to stay and fight this,’” King said. “So we did. That was the end of it. I never brought it up again.”

Fear and frustration had driven King to that pivotal moment. Smart and Olson were two of five Black students among the 800 at the high school and constantly were harassed as they walked through the hallway — a white student pushing a friend so he’d collide with Smart and Olson as they passed by — and even more overt threats of violence.

Olson once was hustling to take his SAT exam after grabbing a pencil in his locker when he was confronted by a fellow student who was wondering where Olson was going. When Olson told him, the response was disgusting: “I don’t know why you’re taking it, you (expletive) monkey.”

Oregon police and Dane County officials got involved when graffiti was found in a women’s bathroom that proclaimed the school’s only Black female “a nappy (N-word) who deserves to die.” That followed another complaint to the police that, according to newspaper reports from the time, “was a verbal attack toward a different victim” and “the person who was the suspect was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon.”

The graffiti incident, according to a February 1994 story in The Capital Times, “came just two days after the kickoff of a monthlong series designed to heighten multicultural awareness.”

Smart and Olson were part of making those events happen, just as they were at the forefront — along with King — of a push for a multicultural education program being added to the Oregon High School curriculum.

These efforts opened eyes at the school and in the community, but they also made some in the ignorant crowd dig in even deeper. Smart and Olson would walk out after school and see a souped-up truck, Confederate flags hanging from the windows, driving slowly past the building.

Even people Smart and Olson considered allies would let them down at times. Friends Smart had known for years participated in a Homecoming Week event in which they wore baggy pants and used a word that rhymes with the N-word to describe the theme of that Wednesday, apparently completely unaware how much it hurt Smart and Olson to see it.

There were so many cringeworthy moments while conducting interviews for this piece, but it’s Olson sharing this anecdote that leaves me feeling most ashamed: I, too, grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, surrounded by very few minority people, and used the same word while describing a white student who dressed and talked like someone who was Black.

I admitted that to Olson and he was gracious, telling me we all made mistakes as kids and that he even used words he shouldn’t have out of sheer ignorance. What’s important is to learn and evolve and not continue being ignorant.

But all of these stories make me wonder how in the world Smart and Olson didn’t just give in to anger and start swinging at some point. Olson credits his friend for setting the tone, choosing to fight by attempting to change the mindset rather than resort to physical violence. Besides, they were honor students and good athletes and had more to lose than those who lived to get under their skin.

“It was a true testament to his ability to have a thick skin and still be a great person,” Olson said, “still be enthusiastic, still be friendly, still not be cautious or leery of people.”

Defining moments

Smart sat by his mother’s typewriter, a 5-year-old working with King to put words into a letter that she’d type and later mail with the hope it would be read by his father. What Smart wouldn’t find out from his mother until later was that King had no idea even where to send the letter.

Winston Smart left when his son was 2, and a two-week trip back home to Trinidad turned into an absence that extended many years. He resurfaced when Shaka was a teenager but caused more harm than good, creating an aura of negativity because he believed his son’s priorities were out of order.

Not only did Smart’s father believe he was wasting his time on sports — Winston Smart had at least four college degrees, according to Shaka — his short temper sometimes emerged from nowhere. Shaka and Alfie were watching TV one Saturday morning when Winston came in the room with a steak knife and cut through the cable cord, calling them the N-word with “ghetto” in front of it.

King never was married to Winston Smart and eventually kicked him out of the house for good. Shaka hasn’t spoken to his father since December 1994 — he was a senior in high school — but says he holds no ill will and has developed relationships with half-siblings fathered by Winston.

“He was going through a lot,” Shaka said without elaborating. “That’s why I don’t really blame him for not being a good father.”

King did the work of two parents, putting her sons first while sacrificing her own needs. Shaka played on two basketball teams at one point for reasons that had little to do with getting him experience on the actual court. He was the only Black player on his junior high team in Oregon while also being part of the Madison Spartans, a travel team based on the South Side on which all of his teammates were Black.

He describes that time as “an amazing cultural experience” and says it shaped him in a lot of ways.

“I learned one of the great things about sports is that when that ball is up in the air and it’s going toward the basket and there’s 2 seconds left, nobody’s really caught up in skin color or differences or whatever it may be,” Smart said. “But then in between, it does really matter.”

There was another defining moment in Smart’s life that King helped create. When he was 10, she sent Smart and his older brother to Mississippi as part of an exchange program run through a church. Money was tight for King, but she still saw entitlement from her sons and wanted them to see and feel what it was to be really poor.

The boys stayed for two weeks with a couple who had five kids and had created an extremely loving environment, but Smart saw a “different level of poverty” during the trip. He returned after an 18-hour bus ride and had tears in his eyes when he spotted King at the pick-up point in the West Towne Mall parking lot. The reaction from Smart wasn’t sadness; it was appreciation for what he had.

“It was life-changing,” he said.

Positive male role models in Smart’s life did their best to help fill the void left by his father. Family members such as his uncle Dr. M. Bruce King, a professor at UW-Madison, and his late grandfather Walter King were terrific father figures. So were two of his coaches, Kevin Bavery at Oregon and Bill Brown at Kenyon College.

But, Smart admits, he was envious when he’d see friends interacting with their dads, and he’s made a vow to do everything he can to be a great father himself. Smart and his wife, Maya Payne Smart, have a 10-year-old daughter named Zora.

Smart said he communicates with her on a daily basis that he loves her and appreciates her and is proud of her. “Just making sure she knows how much I believe in her,” he said, “and that I’m in her corner.”

He has taken the same approach with his players, whether it was at VCU during a run that included a Cinderella trip to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2011; at Texas, where Smart spent six seasons but struggled to reach expectations in a program loaded with potential; or now at Marquette.

Many of Smart’s players at each of those three stops have arrived with no father in their lives, and he’s tried to help fill that void. After all, he can relate.

Finding his field

Smart could have gone into just about any field after leaving Oregon. He was accepted at Harvard, Yale and Brown, but something about the Ivy League schools felt off when he visited all three during one trip with King. Meanwhile, Kenyon, a Division III liberal arts school in Ohio, felt right, and it helped matters that he and Brown, his coach there, bonded from the start.

Smart going into coaching was no surprise to those around him. Bavery, who’s now at Middleton, would open the gym for Smart on Friday and Saturday nights and sneak in later to watch sessions that were anything but ordinary. Rather than just pumping up shots from 3-point range, Smart would spin the ball out to the perimeter, deflect it and dribble to the opposite end of the court before finishing with a layup, as though he was practicing specific situations in games.

Smart spent his summers working camps run by Bavery, and even that showed he was unique. Other counselors would take off for lunch and wander back just before the start of the new session, scrambling to tie their shoes before the camp started up again. Not Smart, who would grab a quick snack and spend the lunch hour with the kids. He’d get into a one-on-one game with a third-grader … then a fourth-grader would join … and soon Smart was being chased around the gym by an entire group of campers who were trying to steal the ball from him.

“I always called him the Pied Piper,” Bavery said. “He just always had that effervescence and personality.”

Olson shared a room with Smart and did his part to keep things in order. Smart, on the other hand, was messy. Olson came across a sheet of paper in a pile that included a message that had been written by his friend many years earlier: Smart had put into words that he wanted to be a college basketball coach someday.

Now here he is, all these years later, returning home. Smart has multiple ties to UW: He attended camps run by former Badgers coach Steve Yoder; the next coach, Stu Jackson, once spoke at Oregon High School for a Black History event after receiving an invitation from Smart; and former UW assistant Lamont Paris became tight with Smart while the two were young assistants at Akron.

Marquette fans were giddy when Smart was named coach last spring, but nobody was happier than King. Her granddaughter is now a little more than an hour away.

Smart brought Zora back to the Madison area for a visit in August because he wanted to show her around where he grew up. It was a positive experience except that Smart felt somewhat uncomfortable, almost like an outsider: the Marquette coach lingering in UW’s backyard.

It felt, well, different, but that’s nothing new for Smart. He got over it, a blue marble continuing to roll while being surrounded by clear ones.

 

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

This article originally ran on madison.com.