SACRAMENTO — Keith Smart spent much of his time during the lockout this summer scribbling notes at home, everything from designing plays to deciding what he’d do differently if he ever got another chance to be an NBA head coach.
He never figured that time would come so soon.
More than eight months after the Golden State Warriors let his one-and-done contract expire, Smart, the former Indiana guard best known for hitting “The Shot” against Syracuse to win the 1987 NCAA title, is getting another shot — as the Sacramento Kings coach — and looking to move past his swift Bay Area exit.
“When it happened the way it happened, you say, ‘I hope I get another opportunity,’” Smart said. “You hope you get another opportunity and it’s not, ‘Let’s coach for this year and do all we can and stop developing.’ Well, I can coach now and develop a team.”
The Kings fired Paul Westphal seven games into the lockout-shortened season Thursday, marking the third time Smart has ascended from assistant to the top spot — never seeing a second season each time previously, never really even having a chance to earn that time in either case. While nothing is promised again, Smart is confident he finally has strong support to be the lasting replacement.
The 47-year-old isn’t one to sulk about whether he got a “fair shake” with the Warriors, who ousted the NBA’s career wins leader, Don Nelson, before training camp last year and hastily appointed Smart. Golden State finished with a 36-46 record, a 10-game improvement under Smart from the previous season.
He never stood a chance.
New Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted to make their own hire, if nothing else just for the sake of change, cutting ties with Smart and signing the more flamboyant Mark Jackson — the former Knicks and Pacers point guard and ABC/ESPN broadcaster who had never coached at any level. Smart also had a stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ interim head coach for the final 40 games in 2003 after taking over for John Lucas.
“This opportunity is not how a coach likes to come into it,” said Smart, who spoke with Westphal before signing his contract. “He said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid and reject this. I want you to coach this team.’ He felt it, and I felt that he meant it from the bottom of his heart.”
Smart’s style should mimic the run-and-fun ways Nelson made famous — only with a bigger backcourt.
When players entered the Kings locker room Thursday, Smart followed a precedent he set from his Warriors days: He walked around to each player and asked for a handshake, signaling a pact that they would allow Smart to coach them and be involved in their lives.
Then he wrote on the white board: “Play Hard,” the one request Smart makes before every game without debate.
“What I took from it was everybody was going to be held accountable the same way,” said Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, whose escalating feud with Westphal played a major role in the coach’s departure. “No matter if you’re the star player to the rookie to a role player that doesn’t play at all, we all will be held accountable, and that’s the way it needs to be.”
Smart inherits a roster with perhaps more talent than the one he had at Golden State — albeit even rawer, more unproven and with more difficult personalities to manage.
A young and emerging team in the deep Western Conference, Sacramento finished 24-58 last season and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year, although a late-season surge behind a healthy Tyreke Evans — the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year — provided hope that maybe the Kings weren’t that far off from making the postseason again.
Instead, Sacramento stumbled at the start.
The Cousins-Westphal spat dragged on, the guard trio of Evans, Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette has struggled to find a rhythm amid a constantly rotating roster and new additions John Salmons and Chuck Hayes are still searching for their place.
“Right now, the team is dealing with an identity crisis,” Smart said. “Each guy is trying to push forth his identity. And so when you have that, they’re not playing like they don’t want to win, but each guy is trying to do the things to win.
“And that’s called an issue.”
Sacramento (3-5) was far from playing its best ball when Smart started.
But the team’s potential was evident in Smart’s debut Thursday night, when the Kings overcame a 21-point halftime deficit for a thrilling 103-100 victory over Milwaukee. Cousins gleefully bear-hugged Smart, players high-fived along the bench and smiles filled the arena for the first time since the season-opening victory over the Lakers on Dec. 26.
“The guys are going to respect him because he is going to be straight up,” said Bucks swingman Stephen Jackson, who played under Smart during his seven seasons as a Warriors assistant. “He’s not going to sugarcoat anything.”
Smart is the second exiled Warriors coach to go straight to the Kings job, following in the footsteps of Eric Musselman (2006-2007). Because he was already on the staff, Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie called Smart “the best man for the job” and decided not to prolong a search for an outside hire.
“We think he can do the job here,” Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof said of Smart. “We just got to put everything behind us, all of the negatives and try to push forward and think positive.”
Smart’s stature as a former player will only go so far in the Kings locker room.
Cousins, for instance, wasn’t born until three years after Smart knocked down the baseline jump shot that lifted the Hoosiers over Syracuse for the national title. Smart fizzled out in the NBA after the Warriors drafted him, spending most of his short-lived career overseas and in the CBA.
After serving as a career assistant for more than a decade, Smart has lived in relatively anonymity since. He couldn’t care less if he gets any notoriety.
Just so long as he gets a chance.
“I’ve had my moment to be famous with a championship shot in ‘87. It’s all about them now,” Smart said. “I don’t need the credit, it’s for them. I want them to be good. I want them to have success. And when they have success, everyone around us has success.”