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LIFE AFTER THE SHOT : Last Season, Keith Smart Gave Indiana the National Title; Now, He's Expected to Give Something Else--Leadership

November 23, 1987|ROBYN NORWOOD | Times Staff Writer

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ever since he made that sweet little 17-foot jump shot with four seconds left in the college basketball season, Keith Smart has heard no end of talk.

"Not a day goes by," Smart says, shaking his head.

It was the year of the movie "Hoosiers" and the spring after the fall-release of the best-selling book, "A Season on the Brink," that chronicled the tumult of playing under Bob Knight the season before. When Smart, a community college transfer who had averaged just 11 points during the season, hit that shot, giving Indiana a 74-73 victory over Syracuse and the 1987 NCAA championship--well, it was almost as good as another Indiana state title for the Milan High Indians.

Michael Jordan, who, like Smart, wore No. 23 when he made a similar shot that helped North Carolina win the 1982 championship, sent word: That shot will change your life.

How Smart knows it.

"With the shot, it's like this," Smart said. "When people mention the shot, they don't do it for convenience. They all do it to say, 'Can you do it again?' "

That would be quite a feat. There's a sign at the Bloomington city limits these days that boasts, with Kiwanian civic pride, "Home of the NCAA champions." If there's a sign like that there this time next year, it will be the first time in 15 years--since the glory days of UCLA--that a team has repeated as national champion.

Indiana, in its past two attempts to repeat after national championships under Knight in 1976 and '81, has failed even to win the Big Ten championship.

This Indiana team, which returns three starters, seems to be as much in the heart of turmoil as ever. Saturday, after Knight received his third technical foul and was automatically ejected from an exhibition game against the Soviet national team, he yanked his team off the floor with him and forfeited the game.

But the more pressing issues involve other things. Don't upset Knight and say the words "replace Alford," but Indiana is searching right now not only for someone to pick up the scoring load of two-time All-American Steve Alford, but also someone to wear the mantle of leadership that he bore.

Smart would be a likely candidate for both jobs, but so far neither assignment is taking. By his own admission, he is struggling.

Knight, in part, blames it on the shot.

"When somebody plays as well or makes a particularly outstanding play like Smart did, sometimes it stays with him a while," Knight said. "He spent from the end of March to early October listening to people talk about that shot. Now, he's getting back to being the best he possibly can be."

Or, in Knight's more indelicate dismissal: "The shot? Hell, even I could make a 17-foot jumper."

Smart, who was the ball-handling guard last season, is supposed to take on the role of shooting guard this season. It has not come easily. Alford's absence has caused tremendous changes on the offense.

"Last year, if you didn't know what to do, you would go and screen for Alford and you couldn't be wrong." Knight said.

Said Smart, in the words of a man who has been wrong: "I had no idea the guy (Alford) worked that hard to get open. I had no idea he had to work the old screens like that."

The leadership role may be one that is far more complex. Every team talks about leadership, but in the sometimes pseudo-military Indiana program, it is of utmost importance. Alford spent four years under Knight. By the middle of his senior year, he may have been approaching what Knight wanted from him.

Smart, along with center Dean Garrett, is a rare type of Indiana player. They are community college transfers, long a sort that Knight avoided in favor of high school players. The first junior college transfer to play for Knight at Indiana was Courtney Witte, who joined the program in 1984. There have been a few others, but Smart and Garrett are the first to contribute so mightily, and the first to be called upon for the kind of leadership that usually takes years to develop.

"It's so hard for me," Smart said. "Here I am, I've just been at Indiana a couple of years. Now I'm in shock. . . . Myself and Dean (Garrett), we've gone from freshmen to seniors in one year's time."

Smart is not a young man suffering from a tremendous case of immodesty. He still wears his brown-and-yellow Garden City (Kan.) Community College jacket around campus. But he is a young man who has a personality that makes him naturally reluctant to lead, and who, because of his short time in the Indiana program, is unsure of just what that means.

"The ones that have been here for three years have everything exactly down," Smart said. "I don't. And I for one--and I know Dean, too--am not that vocal. It's just not me. . . . I'm like, what do I say?"

Garrett, who averaged 11 points and almost 9 rebounds last year, is also struggling to fill the leadership void left by Alford and forward Daryl Thomas, who was the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder.

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