Keith Smart arrives with famous old press clippings and vivid new dreams. He is still best known for his 17-foot jumper that gave Bobby Knight and Indiana its last NCAA championship (1987). But life goes on. After that one shining moment as the tournament theme song goes life went on.
That's what the Kings' new head coach wants people to know. His life went on.
"I've seen a lot of things," he said recently. "There isn't much that surprises me. But I don't want to dwell on the past. I want to start something new and special here."
Smart, who Thursday became the Kings' fourth coach in four seasons, approaches the game from the grass-roots level. There aren't any silver spoons in his suitcase, no five-year contracts and bonus signings changing his tax bracket.
He attended junior college before Knight recruited him to Bloomington. He was waived by the San Antonio Spurs, and then played two seasons in France and another in Venezuela. He returned home and endured the bumpy flights, lousy meals and long bus rides that come with playing and coaching in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association.
His portfolio also includes a decade as an NBA assistant and a cup of coffee as interim head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Most recently he guided the Warriors to a 36-46 record a year ago a 10-game improvement over the previous season only to be dumped when incoming owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber opted for charismatic TNT analyst Mark Jackson.
That's the NBA, that's his life. Bumpy flights and plenty of frequent-flier miles.
Smart, 47, joined Paul Westphal's staff during the lockout interestingly, with team president Geoff Petrie doing the hiring because of his experience but also, undoubtedly, because of Westphal's shaky status following seasons of 25 and 24 victories.
If the bench dynamics became increasingly awkward as the Kings' malaise persisted, Smart refuses to say.
"We aren't going to talk about the past," he said. "We're going to move forward. I have some definite ideas about what I want, but that's going to take some time. It's a matter of getting the guys to buy in."
Smart, who is almost obsessively organized and detail-oriented, offers an interesting approach. There is nothing remotely cool about him on the sidelines. He jumps, he paces, he shouts, he talks. He almost hyperventilated during his first-game news conference, his emotions raw and his thoughts unfiltered, the sweat soaking through his dress shirt.
Well, here's a clue: His coaching mentors are Knight and Don Nelson, complete opposites regarding defensive philosophy and discipline, but two big, booming personalities and similar thinkers when it comes to passing, movement, floor balance and offensive pacing. If events follow the Smart Plan, the fast break will make an immediate and welcome return to Power Balance Pavilion.
Nonetheless, the challenges are significant. Bad habits are hard to break. Dribble, dribble, dribble. Stand, stand, stand. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
The personnel these past seasons certainly hasn't worked together as well as, say, Bonnie and Clyde.
Though the overall talent level has been upgraded with the offseason acquisitions of Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette and J.J. Hickson and the re-signing of Marcus Thornton, the roster is dominated by ball stoppers and dribble-heavy performers. The perimeter shooting is erratic on a good night. The most glaring weakness, of course, remains the absence of a point guard.
Despite all the recent attention devoted to the testy relationship between Westphal and DeMarcus Cousins, Westphal's insistence on utilizing Tyreke Evans as a primary ballhandler and facilitator undermined his job security and his status within the locker room more than anything. Evans' refusal to give up the ball on the basic two-on-one fast breaks and Westphal's tendency to look the other way rather than correct his third-year star grated on members of the front office.
Though Smart is thrust into a scrum of a season, with practice time a rare luxury, he already has hinted at changes: Cousins, who was punished for a team-wide disease of "Me, Me, Me," is back in the starting lineup; players will be pushed to run off misses and made baskets; and in the halfcourt offense, there will be less freelancing and more structure and sets.
Smart also will experiment more extensively with Fredette at point guard and Evans at small forward, employing Nelson's familiar "small ball" attack and, in essence, getting his best players on the floor, the vilified Cousins included.
"Keith is much better than I was at sitting down with guys, speaking quietly about what they need to work on," Nelson said. "I wasn't very good at that. He's also great at working with players on their individual skills. He was a huge influence in Monta Ellis' maturity as a player. I think he was a great hire for the Kings. They'll run, pass, be fun to watch."
The expectations aren't exactly over the moon. Be fun to watch. Take back the home building. And, given the injuries and bizarre, fluid nature of the post-lockout NBA, make a run at that final playoff berth.
Mostly, entertain. We can probably all agree that basketball should be infinitely more enjoyable than watching workers positioning widgets on an assembly line.