Getting to Know... Assistant Coach Keith Smart
What are some things you’ve learned throughout your coaching career that have stuck with you and helped you?
“First off, having the chance from college in Indiana to play for a great coach in Bob Knight, then having the chance to win a championship. Obviously, moving through my career and coaching in the NBA and having coaches around me, particularly Don Nelson, helped develop me as well. That showed me how to open my mind offensively, to look at the game based on how you can move players and pieces around. Since I’ve had a chance to be a head coach in the NBA, I was able to apply some of those things along the way of learning. Going to work in Miami for a couple of years and understanding their championship approach, how they operate daily when everything is focused on winning a championship, that also helped shape me. You learn from each situation you’ve been in during your career, then build on it during the next step.”
Why did you want to be a part of Memphis’ coaching staff?
“One of the biggest reasons was David Fizdale. He and I have known each other since 2003 when he was a young rookie coach, where he was pretty much under me. I’ve been able to watch him grow as a coach in the NBA – and obviously his championship success in Miami, and his experience in the Finals. Then we got to work together once again in Miami. He’s probably the only person I would leave Miami for to go coach elsewhere and that was because of the relationship David and I have had over the years. He’s grown so much as a coach over the years and this Memphis opportunity was a great one for him. Having been in those positions myself – starting out in a new situation, trying to get it up to speed to where you want it to be, and eventually competing for a championship – you go through those moments in the course of a season as a young coach and a new head coach. Since I’ve experienced those things, I think I can lend to him my experiences as you work through the ebbs and flows. Every team goes through them, super-elite teams even have moments, but for the most part every NBA team goes through those things.”
What is your relationship with Coach Fizdale like?
“He [Fizdale] came to Golden State, where I was coaching as an assistant coach when Eric Musselman was the head coach. We had a nickname for him [Fizdale], we called him ‘Staples.’ At that time, we would use posters and put on plays, our offensive plays and our defensive plays, and we would have them written on these cardboard-type post-it notes, huge post-it notes, and David would be the one who would put it on those boards. When we would go through a particular play, we would hold that card up and so all the players would get to see it. So, pre-practice in our coaches meeting, we would talk about the plays we would go over that day in practice, things we would look at doing, and David would be on the side with pens, colored pens and everything, drawing up all these different plays on the side we were going to color that day. So, we ended up nicknaming him ‘Staples’ because he would always have the pens, the posters and all those type things. But, you saw someone that had a great heart. He has a great heart for people. He really goes out of his way for relationship-dynamic building because he feels, and we all believe, that is how you win. Relationships have to grow to where individuals really care about each other deeply and that’s how you really end up winning big and winning in tough moments because that’s a connection that has to be made. Because of him, the connection, most of the time, will be made. He can function in any environment, but I think the Memphis situation for him, myself and the other coaching staff has a chance to be something special.”
Although you have coached alongside Fizz in the past, what are you most looking forward to about this coaching opportunity alongside him as head coach?
“I’m just looking forward to his first game. As all coaches go through that first game, not the preseason, but that first official game that you start to coach. Now you move over one seat to be the head man, and that’s a small scoot over, but yet it’s a gigantic scoot over. In that first game, when you draw up that first play and the players look you in the eye as they go out on that court for the first time and to play the first half under you, there’s that first play that you’ve drawn up that you want to see executed. And when it happens, the excitement that you have… But you can’t really celebrate it because you’re in a game. I’m looking forward to seeing that moment for him because he’s paid his dues like a lot of assistant coaches in the NBA. I’m looking forward to seeing him now grow into this next role in his coaching career. But also, how he’s going to manage players. That’s where myself and [J.B.] Bickerstaff come in – we’ve been there and we understand it and how to help in any way that we can as far as managing a basketball team because sometimes in the NBA you don’t get a chance to get to the X’s and O’s first or as soon as you want to. It’s all about managing first. You’re managing players, ideas and everything around you first, and you’re trying to get that under control. So, that’s why when you get to that first game, there’s a sense of relief, but yet it’s your first start.”
What are you most excited about in terms of coaching alongside this assistant coaching staff?
“Once again, it’s all new, hungry guys getting the chance to write a chapter in our coaching careers. I’m just as excited as all those guys, as well. I was excited when I went to Miami and I’ve been in the league a long time. You have that excitement of something fresh and new and that’s what we have in Memphis. It’s something new, yet you still have the good pieces there. But it’s something that’s fresh, something that’s going to be new and different. So, the excitement for our coaching staff is that we get a chance now to help imprint and help carry out Coach Fizdale’s plan and his ideas. That’s always exciting because you put your ideals on hold, yet you share, but you try to blend in what you’re capable of doing and to what the head coach wants to be done. That’s the exciting part, because not only is the team going to be growing to new ideas, thoughts and a process, the staff is going to be molded into a process and a structure that can help us be successful.”
When you have traveled to Memphis, what are some of your favorite places to eat?
“As much as you try to stay disciplined during the course of the season, there are definitely certain cities on an NBA schedule that you can’t wait to get to and Memphis is one of them. Obviously, you’re going to hit Rendezvous, for sure. If you come in and have extra time, or an extra day, you’re going to find a good restaurant. The team will go out, sometimes the staff will go out or sometimes you go out by yourself or you may have some friends in town. When you’ve been around the league a long time you end up having friends in different cities. I have guys that I went to college with who live in Memphis. Another place that everyone tries is Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. You try as much as you can to not over-indulge, but sometimes you do. Obviously though, during the season, you don’t eat that way all the time.”
Are there any places you’re looking forward to visiting that you haven’t yet?
“As long as I’ve been around the NBA and coming into Memphis, there’s one place that I have not had the chance to go: The National Civil Rights Museum. I’ll definitely be adding that to my list. When you come in town on an NBA schedule, you really don’t have a lot of time. You come in that night, you go to practice the next morning, you probably have time for a quick meal and then it’s time to get ready for the afternoon and to head to the arena. But now having the chance to live in this city, I’ll get a chance to explore and sit there and really pay attention to all the new things that are here.”
The Grizzlies are known for their special bond with this community and their volunteer work. How do you see yourself fitting into that mindset?
“I’ve always tried to be involved in the community that I’ve been in. I was in Oakland at Golden State for almost 11 years, so I got a chance to be involved in a lot of activities there. Obviously, I’ll have a chance to be here in Memphis and jump right into whatever needs to be done. I’m a cancer survivor – I had an episode of skin cancer. So, I can definitely see myself lending myself to that cause because I know first-hand what the family goes through when you’re dealing with it. As a former athlete, you just go through it and just deal with whatever it is, but when you stop and look around, you see how the family and friends are affected. They see you in state that they haven’t seen you in. So, I totally understand what someone would go through when they have been diagnosed with something like that. Although we have a smile on our face, barely trying to get through it, we’re in a lot of pain and we’re in a difficult place, but with the family and friends around you, you get through it and then hopefully come out on the other side with good news. But, not everyone has that and so I can see myself lending myself to that battle in Memphis.”
When you’re not coaching, what do you like to do in your spare time?
“A good friend of mine introduced me to the world of golf, which is something I thought I would never, ever be involved in. With the grind of the NBA season, it’s a great way to relax. So, if I’m not involved with anything with my family, with the team or any other activities I need to be doing, I’m going to try to find a golf course somewhere to play. For the last three years, I’ve been getting into the golf scene. I’d never thought I would ever have The Golf Channel on in my house. My wife will turn on the TV in the morning and what does she find? It’s on The Golf Channel since I watch it at night. One thing golf has taught and shown me is the details of the coaching aspect. When you’re practicing golf, you’re being precise and being definite in what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. That is definitely what we do in basketball – having a definite plan, a structure… Because you get better when you have a plan and structure going into coaching. So, I think the golf game has really helped open my eyes to coaching because it’s something along the lines of what I do already.”