It wasn't long ago when Shaka Smart, a 33-year old known as one of the smartest Colonial head coaches for leading VCU on a magical journey, arrived at Siegel Center shortly after 1 a.m. where he was greeted by nearly 5,000 supporters inside the home arena.
It's one thing for a venue to express much gratitude in Mr. Smart, a shrewd head coach whose strategic and motivational blueprints have benefited a refreshing Cinderella tale in sports, but quite another for a cult of optimistic fans to applaud the emergence of talented players. He's a high-profile name in college basketball, simply because he has built a legend for himself by essentially being the focal point of Virginia Commonwealth pulling off one of the largest upsets in tournament history.
This season alone, he declared his citizenship in a town where suddenly the vast majority loves basketball, amazed with a miraculous tale in college hoops, one story that has awed the casual fans and initiated much enthusiasm and emotion in a tournament filled with thrills, suspense and drama. He cherishes it so much, in fact, that he entered the building Monday, gazed at the stands in disbelief and celebrated.
As he walked into view with each arm positioned skyward, for the first time in school history, fans rallied together and erupted a frenzy unlike ever before. By the time he stepped onto the hardwood, for one of the wildest homecoming rallies in bracing VCU for a sensational tourney run which has landed the Rams in the Final Four, the primal screams and cheers reached deafening levels, so loud in which the vast majority probably could have depended on defibrillators. The screams were delivered with aggressiveness, powerful enough to blow off the roof as a raucous crowd rooted in excitement, a wave of felicity sweeping throughout the venue.
Here we thought VCU was the flukiest team in the tournament, or even a program that never was eligible. But, all things considered, Smart and his players fulfilled the unimaginable on the brightest platform before procuring a spot in the Final Four, capturing national spotlight and embarking on a grand opportunity. However, instead of being perceived as the underdogs or the cutest anecdote, VCU is realistically described as a contender, after stunning the world in an upset of Kansas.
The first notion is now, of course, that VCU is no longer afraid to take on a complex match against any team, knowing they can gleam and defeat anybody on any giving night. Secondly, the Rams are worth more than 15 minutes of fame, enthusiastic, electrified and pumped emotionally and physically by Smart showing inspirational videos on a big-screen television, which has routinely become an instrumental plan for VCU's hurried prosperity. And thirdly, the Rams are in position to silence doubters and non-believers, two wins away from shocking the world even greater than the victory over Kansas.
Now, except for one of the smallest schools representing the Colonial Athletic Association, it turns out Dickie V was stunned, just as much as Jay Bilas and the rest of us were blinking our eyes and shaking our heads in disbelief when he sorely underestimated the Rams. His passions and motivations, ironically, are similar to VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez, a 5-foot-10 star player with arguable intangibles to emerge into a superstar. It's not only a reasonable prediction, but a glaring notion that VCU can win it all and can even confidently prevail and endure the joy of winning their first ever title in school history.
It's a discussion most, though not all, are creating a buzz about with the Rams cruising from the First Four to the Final Four. The reality to such a dazzling story is that he is unproven and currently coaches an unidentified program, even though he owns an impressive track record and is 55-20 overall during an awe-inspiring run as VCU's head coach. The so-called Cinderella team is no longer VCU, no longer is Smart ignored but adored in the homeland, particularly respected by the trustees and his players.
After it seems like a mirage, Smart is doing it for the kids, he is doing it for a less noticeable university. That's what Smart wants us to believe, surely. When he takes advantage of the national scene in the Final Four to disclose his proven coaching habits as a well-known coach in America -- selling VCU as one of the noteworthy programs located in Richmond, Va., an overjoyed community waiting and wishing for a miracle come Saturday.
His wife, Maya, is Shaka's biggest fan, a passionate supporter he says, garnering an assumption that he is truly a star in collegiate basketball in his second season of his young career. Why must we not realize how beautiful this story is, even more so, on a day when warmth, celebration and delirium initiated a party in the stands as fans welcomed home the celebratory Rams? The explanation of such a newsworthy season, upon hearing that VCU finished the regular season 28-11 overall boasting a 12-6 record in the Colonial Athletic Association, finishing 4th in the conference, is that Smart is a popular name after all.
So there was Smart in his finest season, particularly when VCU was never projected to advance past the first round but amazingly knocked off the No. 1 Jayhawks. And with that, really, he heard his name chanted "Shaka! Shaka! Shaka!" and also "We want Butler," VCU's next opponent in the Final Four on Saturday night in Houston.
"When we got to San Antonio, we said, 'Why not go to the Final Four?'" Smart said to the crowd. "And now that we're going to the Final Four, we say, 'Why not win the whole thing?'"
It was a genuine privilege for the crowd, cheering and chanting when Smart introduced Jamie Skeen, a clutch performer and the most standout player in the Southwest Regional, and when Rodriguez was announced holding the regional championship trophy above his head.
"All the people that didn't believe in us on Selection Sunday, what are they saying now?" Smart asked the crowd, proceeding in the Rams' rallying since VCU was selected to play in the tournament.
Considering everything, Smart reflected back on the list of teams the Rams defeated in order to reach a convincing climax, all from power conferences, from Southern California of the Pac 10 to Georgetown of the Big East to Purdue of the Big Ten. And suddenly Florida State of the Atlantic Coast Conference was defeated. And then on Sunday, top-seeded Kansas of the Big 12 was pummeled.
Before he takes the floor Saturday night in front of thousands, before he is the center of heavy talk, Smart, is nonetheless the boy wonder at the 2011 Final Four, partly because of his youth and small-college experience. As for Smart, the road to the Final Four, where the Rams will meet Butler, he is raising to greater stakes, already a smart gentleman.
As we had been yearning to, loving a young man with a brilliant coaching style, a strong method, and lastly, a smart mind to guide his VCU players, the Rams have captivated our attention. This was especially a season of fruition, thanks to Smart, now the best available candidate for a coaching vacancy, if familiar with his capabilities to have a large impact on VCU and the university, particularly after qualifying for the Big Dance.
In a youthful sport, it seems, I strongly believe it wouldn't be smart to discount Smart and VCU, a program on a mission, a glorious mission, that is.