Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart on the sidelines with Al Harrington.(Pauline Lubens/Mercury News File)
Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart on the sidelines with Al Harrington.(Pauline Lubens/Mercury News File)
OAKLAND — Keith Smart doesn't quite know how to describe it. But there's something about this time of year.

"Every March a feeling comes over me," said Smart, a Warriors assistant. "I feel completely different. When I hit March, I just feel good."

That was certainly the case 20 years ago. Or maybe it's because of what happened that night on March 30, 1987. Smart forever chiseled his name into the lore of the NCAA tournament by hitting a jump shot with 5 seconds remaining that gave Indiana a 74-73 victory over Syracuse in the championship game.

It instantly became one of those magical moments that have helped make March Madness, well, so mad.

Indiana, with Bobby Knight at the height of his domineering power, may have been the bluest of the college basketball blue bloods. But Smart, now 42, epitomized the little underdogs who each March capture the nation's attention.

Here was a guy who struggled just to play junior college basketball. Against all odds, the former fast-food burger-flipper had landed at Indiana.

"I remember a commentator saying once, 'There's a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans out on the floor and one guy who worked at McDonald's,'" Smart said.

And the story got better.

The Final Four that year was at New Orleans' Superdome — where Smart had worked as an usher during Saints games when he was in the Boy Scouts.

When the final seconds ticked down, everyone expected the ball to end up in the hands of Hoosiers' sharp-shooter Steve Alford.


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Instead it was the unheralded, hometown kid putting up the shot.

"The really amazing thing is how I got into that moment in the first place," he said. "It was beyond perfect."

Why do we love the NCAA tournament so much?

It's guys like Smart.

There was a harmonic convergence of all things Hoosiers that season.

The feel-good movie "Hoosiers" had come out in 1986. The book "A Season on the Brink," John Feinstein's behind-the-scenes look at Indiana's 1985-86 season was a best-seller.

And Knight had a good team built around Alford, the All-American with matinee-idol looks. Knight also had gambled by recruiting two junior college players — San Francisco City College's Dean Garrett and Smart.

As an undersized guard from Baton Rouge, La., Smart hadn't done much in high school. He followed a friend to Kansas' Garden City Community College. Smart overcame a broken wrist from a motorcycle accident and, thanks to a growth spurt that pushed him to 6-foot-1, improbably became a star. Knight, who famously didn't like transfer players, was intrigued.

When Knight came to Garden City to see Smart, he saw a kid wearing gold chains who, like his teammates, had shaved designs into his hair. Smart chose arrows.

"Then in walks Bobby Knight," Smart said. "I remember him just staring at me."

Smart turned out to be Knight's kind of player. With Alford taking advantage of the 3-point shot — which debuted that season — the Hoosiers advanced in the tournament with wins against Duke, LSU and UNLV to reach the final.

There they faced a Syracuse team that featured Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas. Before a record crowd of 64,959 at the Superdome, Smart was benched after he made a second-half turnover. But Knight later signaled for him.

"Coach said, 'You want back into the game? Well I'm giving you a couple of minutes. If you're not doing anything, you're not playing the rest of the game,'" Smart said. "So I knew I had to do something right away. And I guess I did."

Smart scored 12 of Indiana's last 15 points. He had entered a mystical place — The Zone.

"I don't remember seeing people," Smart said. "I didn't hear sound. I felt like I was playing by myself. You feel like you have all the time in the world to make plays. The first thing I really heard was an explosion of noise when that shot went in."

Syracuse's Douglas blanketed Alford on that last trip down the court. But Indiana's motion offense was designed to find any open man. Smart was free for a 16-footer from the left baseline.

His heroics weren't done. Syracuse let precious seconds tick off the clock before Smart intercepted Coleman's inbounds pass to seal the win. Smart — who finished with 21 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds — was named the most outstanding player.

The play became known in Indiana as simply The Shot.

But what the tournament gives, the tournament also takes. The next year, Smart missed a 12-footer with 20 seconds left that could have won the game in Indiana's first-round upset loss to Richmond.

He showed how heartbreak, just like elation, is part of the tourney's pull.

Smart, who was a Warriors second-round pick in 1988, never blossomed as a pro and had a nomadic career in the CBA and overseas. But he found his calling as a coach.

The one-time interim head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Smart just might be the guy who succeeds Don Nelson.

Meanwhile, unlike many athletes who prefer not to be defined by a single moment, Smart never tires of people coming up to him to say: "I remember when ..." He also will never have to pay for a meal in Bloomington, Ind.

"When you do something in college, that fan base stays there forever," he said. "They don't forget."

His sons Andre and Jared — ages 10 and 8 — are old enough to know their daddy is part of college basketball history. But apparently they aren't all that impressed.

"Whenever my kids see that game on TV, they joke to me about my shorts and how short they are," Smart said. " 'Look at those shorts you're wearing dad!' And my younger son will also say, 'Hey, Daddy had hair!'"