Keith Smart

Arkansas assistant coach Keith Smart deliberates with head coach Eric Musselman during a 81-55 win over Elon on Dec. 21 inside Bud Walton Arena. After 22 years of professional coaching experience, Smart joined Arkansas as an assistant head coach in 2021.

Keith Smart will forever be known to college basketball fans as the one who hit “The Shot,” his game-winning jumper in the 1987 NCAA National Championship that propelled Indiana to victory over Syracuse.

After four decades of playing and coaching basketball across the world, Smart came to Arkansas as assistant head coach in 2021 to share his experiences in life and basketball with the Razorbacks in an attempt to help them carve out their own legacy.

Smart’s beginnings in basketball did not have the traditional makings of someone who spends his life around the game. He was cut from the varsity team as a junior at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suffered a season-ending injury after just three games as a senior. He made the Garden City Community College team in Garden City, Kansas, only after an open tryout.

After an impressive sophomore campaign at Garden City, Smart was heavily recruited, and ultimately chose Indiana with its prestigious coach Bob Knight.

“All my coaches, they knew how to teach the game,” Smart said. “They taught the game in practice, and they coached the game during the game. I learned a great deal of that with Coach Knight.”

After Smart’s tenure at Indiana, he was selected in the second round of the 1988 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors, but was cut before making an appearance for the team. San Antonio picked Smart up and he played the entirety of his NBA career — 12 minutes in two appearances — for the Spurs.

Smart then went on to play all across the world over eight seasons, including stints in the Philippines, France and Canada.

“It was a great experience,” Smart said. “I got a chance to meet a lot of the European players and understand the European concept of how they play.”

Smart has since had coaching gigs all across the NBA, including head coaching positions with the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He made the jump to the college ranks in 2021, joining his former coach Eric Musselman and his staff at Arkansas. Musselman was the head coach of the Continental Basketball Association’s Rapid City Thrillers that Smart was a part of in the 1989-90 season.

“His coaching experience is unmatched, being a three-time NBA head coach,” Musselman said in a press release announcing Smart’s hire. “We are getting an incredible coach. He knows how to develop talent and is an excellent ‘X and O’ coach. Our players are going to love Coach Smart.”

Smart came into the job with 22 years of coaching experience, including 19 at the NBA level. He knew what his role was in the staff, but also that his experience at the highest level could be a benefit to Musselman and the Razorbacks, he said.

“I had been a head coach and I played for him as a player,” Smart said. “So I can speak to him with a different perspective. Things I have gone through as a coach, things I have gone through as a player. I’m not trying to change him, I’m just there to try and take things he does and try and make them better for him.”

Even though strategy, wins and losses are what matter to fans, Smart saw the job at Arkansas as an opportunity. He could use his position to affect young players’ lives and impart on them the knowledge and experience they need to get professional play opportunities, whether in the NBA or internationally.

Smart got a chance to put his philosophy into practice when Musselman was bedridden with shoulder surgery and could not be on the bench for the Razorbacks’ Jan. 15 matchup against No. 12 LSU. He led the team in Musselman’s stead to a 65-58 win. The victory was the team’s marquee win, marking the turning point of its season.

“He’s really smart, he knows the game really well,” sophomore standout forward Jaylin Williams said prior to the LSU game. “He’s one of the guys I always talk to about one of our games coming up or we’re talking about one of our past games.”

A recent health scare has driven home that, for Smart, basketball is about people. In 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer that required a 15-hour surgery and 30 radiation treatments. That diagnosis changed his outlook on what the game of basketball and his position in it could contribute to the lives of the young men he coaches, he said.

“Going through that, all I could think was, ‘Did I impact enough people on the way?’” Smart said. “It changes everything. The same group of people that I had treatment with, some of them didn’t get a chance to ring that bell at the end of treatment. That’s just another thing you can use and share that experience with someone.”

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