Shaka Smart with California (Pa.) Head Coach Bill Brown at the 2011 Final Four in Houston.

Shaka Smart with California (Pa.) Head Coach Bill Brown at the 2011 Final Four in Houston.

RICHMOND, Va. – You could argue that VCU fans owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Brown.

It was Brown, the longtime California (Pa.) coach, who discovered Smart as an undersized Wisconsin high school point guard who played with “classy arrogance”. It was Brown who recruited Smart to Kenyon (Ohio) College. Although Brown coached Smart for only a year, he left a lifelong impression. Brown encouraged Smart to pursue coaching and promised the future VCU coach a graduate assistant position on his staff. It was Brown who housed Smart under his roof for two years, and who shared lessons on basketball and life.

“We’d stay up until 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning talking basketball,” Brown said.

It was Brown that decided early on that Smart wasn’t like every other basketball recruit, even at Kenyon, which holds a sterling academic reputation.

“I saw him in the Wisconsin All-Star Game,” Brown recalled. “There were several D-I guys in the game, and he blended right in because they listened to him. He got in the big guys’ ears, he got in the All-American’s ear, and everybody listened to him. He has the personality to draw people in. I saw a man who was going to go places and at that time I needed a guy who I could hand the ball to right away, and he didn’t disappoint.”

Brown and Smart turned out to be kindred spirits – sharp basketball minds with a greater sense of purpose, men with strong feelings about family and on life. Even after Brown left Division III Kenyon in 1996 for Division II Cal (Pa.), their bond remained strong. Although Smart admits Brown’s departure was devastating at the time, the two talked often over the next three years. It’s a habit that continues today.

“Coach Brown is very special to me,” Smart said Wednesday. “He’s, to be honest with you, the closest thing that I’ve had in the last 20 years to a father figure. That was someone that, as a guy that was raised by a single mom, something that’s been very, very important to me.”

“He’s like a son to me,” Brown says.

On Friday, Smart’s VCU team will host Brown’s Cal (Pa.) squad at the Verizon Wireless Arena in the Rams’ only exhibition contest of the 2014-15 season. In some ways, Smart sees the pseudo series with Brown’s program (this will be the third exhibition meeting in four years) as an opportunity to give something back to his mentor.

“He gave me my start in coaching and he taught me so much in the two years I worked for him. One of the reasons we play this game is to get a chance to reunite with him and show him a level of appreciation,” he said.

Through Smart, Brown, an occasional guest at VCU practices, has remained close to the program. Every summer, through Global Sports Academy, Brown coaches a team of college players on a European exhibition tour.

Smart says Bill Brown is like a father figure to him.

Smart says Bill Brown is like a father figure to him.

In 2013, Rob Brandenberg and Jarred Guest played on the team as it staged an eight-day tour of Germany and the Czech Republic. In 2011, Darius Theus and Troy Daniels participated in a similar exhibition. You could – and probably should – argue that Brown had some influence on the breakout 2011-12 campaigns of Theus and Daniels.

It’s natural to Smart and Brown, this give and take, this co-mingling of programs and information and life. It flows naturally from the reservoir of their relationship.

Through that bond, both teams appear to benefit. Brown’s squad gets to play at game against VCU’s Havoc, a full-court press better than any they’ll see all year, in front of a sellout crowd.

“It’s a great experience playing at the Siegel Center, with the energy of the crowd. It’s almost like being in a three-ring circus, and our guys aren’t used to that. It’s a great experience. My philosophy is like this: If you can get through that, you can get through anything.”

VCU, meanwhile, will play its allowed Division II exhibition against a program that has often been strong. Brown has won nearly 350 games at Cal in 18 seasons, and his 2007-08 squad reached the D-II Elite Eight.

As much as Friday’s game is about preparing each team for the 2014-15 season, it’s personal for Smart and Brown. It’s a chance to reunite, to share the same basketball court again. It’s a chance to reflect and to appreciate each other.

“That relationship has continued to grow, and sometimes I catch myself just watching how he’s doing, and I have such a proud moment, just being part of his life,” Brown said. “He’s kind of a self-made person. He may give other people credit, but Shaka’s very unique. He has a unique grasp of life. Family is very important to him. His players are part of his extended family. VCU is part of his extended family.”

Brown is family to Smart as well. He was one of the first to spot the VCU coach’s genius and one of the most influential in fostering it. Brown is still one of the voices Smart trusts the most. So when the Cal (Pa.) Coach takes the floor Friday, before VCU fans swing into their usual fervor, they should reserve a round of applause for Brown.

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