AUBURN HILLS, Mich.: Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart is such a rock star, rising to the top of the college basketball world, that President Barack Obama mentioned him by name while filling out his NCAA bracket.
But when it comes to a request from University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot, Smart feels small.
That’s why Smart was among those who filmed video messages of encouragement last week as the Zips prepared for the Mid-American Conference Tournament without suspended starting point guard Alex Abreu.
Asked why he did it, Smart said, “Because Keith told me to.”
“You’ve got to understand, when you have worked for someone in this business, particularly for Keith, it doesn’t matter how long you’re a head coach, you’re always his assistant, too,” Smart said Wednesday. “He called and said, ‘Romeo [Travis] and some other people connected with the program in the past had sent a message. I literally did [it] 15 minutes later. I do what I’m told.”
Tonight’s NCAA South Regional second-round matchup between UA and VCU at the Palace of Auburn Hills pits best friends Dambrot and Smart, a UA assistant from 2003-06. They’ve known each other for 10 years, since both worked on the Zips’ staff under coach Dan Hipsher.
Dambrot is 54, Smart 35. When Dambrot beckons, Smart jumps.
But in terms of national notoriety and what they’ve achieved thus far, Dambrot sees himself in Smart’s shadow in some regard, as equals in others. And he isn’t afraid to admit it.
“Anybody that thinks I’m the mentor to Shaka Smart is out of their minds,” Dambrot said. “It’s a co-mentorship. Old people can learn from young people and that guy’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around. He’s taught me as much or more than I’ve taught him.
“I think I’m his protégé in some regards. I’m just older. He’s one of the bright young stars of college basketball.”
He became that in 2011, when Smart took VCU to the Final Four in his second year in charge. It was his second year in charge anywhere. Smart shot past Dambrot like a meteor.
“I’m kind of like the ugly big brother,” Dambrot said. “I’m Danny DeVito and he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’re kind of like the Chevette and he’s the Ferrari.”
Smart doesn’t believe that. He entered the interview room prepared to stick up for Dambrot. He wasted no time taking a shot at a member of the Northeast Ohio media who had labeled Dambrot a “one-star coach” during a season preview for Street & Smith’s magazine after UA hired Dambrot in 2004.
Smart sounded like a bulldog, ready to sink his teeth into the offender’s leg. It made one wonder how many other slights against Dambrot that Smart has filed away.
“He’s come a long way from when certain people thought he was a one-star coach, and now he’s a five-star coach,” Smart said. “I’m really happy for him and the program and the progress they’ve made and the position they’ve put themselves in.”
The admiration-fest didn’t stop there. Smart also recalled a conversation with Dambrot after the Zips lost Abreu after a March 7 arrest on felony drug charges.
“Keith said, ‘We have to reinvent ourselves,’ ” Smart recalled. “I don’t think there’s a better coach in the country to work with this team in such a short span of time to take that on.”
Smart and Dambrot are cut from the same cloth when it comes to passion and compassion. Dambrot has talked to Abreu at least twice since his arrest and also spoken to his mother. VCU junior forward Juvonte Reddic acknowledged that Smart “may be more of a celebrity now because of the success he’s had,” but he’s still “coach Smart” to them.
“He’s like a father figure to most of us, maybe all of us,” senior guard Darius Theus said of Smart. “He does spend time with us off the court. I think that’s what makes him so special, not just as a coach, but as a person.”
Those words could have come from the Zips talking about Dambrot.
Smart brought up his often-told story about Dambrot taking him to Springside Racquet and Fitness Club on his first day on the job at UA in 2003, not knowing they were going to work out LeBron James. Smart said those sessions continued two or three times a week for two months.
What struck Smart later wasn’t just his initial awe of James, the soon-to-be first pick in the NBA Draft, who pulled up in his Hummer. Smart was touched by Dambrot’s gesture.
“It says a lot about Keith,” Smart said. “He didn’t know me from anyone. Why would he include me in that?
“Because Keith’s been fired, been through tough times, he really reaches out and tries to treat people so well who are going through tough times. There’s no way that can benefit him or help him in any way. That’s something I’ve always admired about Keith and that I try to emulate.”
They are also cut from the same cloth when it comes to competitiveness. While VCU is favored because of the problems UA is expected to have without Abreu against VCU’s full-court press, Dambrot won’t back down.
“We’ve got a good chance,” Dambrot said. “We’re better than people think. Relatively speaking, this is the best team I’ve had other than when I had LeBron in high school.”
Dambrot felt the gamesmanship from Smart earlier Wednesday when they ended up sitting together at the coaches’ meeting.
“He sat down next to my jacket. So I said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like that,’ ” Dambrot said.
There is at least one thing about Dambrot that Smart won’t emulate — his choice in T-shirts. On Sunday, Dambrot’s wife, Donna, tweeted a picture of him she took two weeks ago with Dambrot wearing one from VCU that reads “You Don’t Want to Go to War With the Rams.”
When Smart’s wife, Maya, saw it, she wanted Smart to put on a “Fear the Roo” shirt from his UA days.
“I said, ‘No way. I’m not wearing that. Maybe after the tournament,’ ” Smart said.
A rising star like Smart who has entered the basketball-crazy president’s universe wouldn’t dare be caught in a TwitPic flashing Zippy the Kangaroo ears. Unless, of course, Dambrot told him to.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.