Keith Smart’s game-winner stings Syracuse 30 years later
Courtesy of Indiana Athletics
Thirty years after authoring one of the signature March Madness highlights, Keith Smart still hears everyone else’s story about his moment.
One fan bought his daughter a horse after Smart’s last-second shot won Indiana the 1987 national championship. Another chirped to Smart about celebrating with Hoosiers in downtown New Orleans after the game. Hotel bellhops routinely identify Smart’s luggage tag and spill their memories to the current assistant coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.
But for every tale that ends in excitement and a smile comes one that ends in heartbreak and a sigh. Smart entrenched his name into basketball lore on March 30, 1987, floating a game-winning baseline jumper as Syracuse stood five seconds from its first-ever championship. Instead Indiana won its third and the Orange finished another NCAA Tournament run as losers, 74-73.
“You wish those other guys would’ve had a chance to experience that,” Smart said, referring to Syracuse winning it all, “but not to my expense. It was a great moment in life for me and propelled me into a lot of things that I’m doing now.”
“The Shot,” as it’s known in some basketball circles, proved to be a launch pad for Smart’s 17-year NBA coaching career. All it’s done in Syracuse is spring SU fans into annual depression as the shot lights up television screens each March. This year is no different, even 30 years and one championship later. Members of the 1986-87 Syracuse team still struggle to comprehend a game that slipped out of their grip in the final minutes.
Unwound by missed free throws and ultimately Smart himself, SU can’t fully shake the burden of being on the wrong end of an instant classic. Players refuse to watch the game. Some won’t even talk about it. The legacy of Smart’s momentous jumper — or dagger, depending on your point of view — still endures in Syracuse today.
“It just was shocking. You’re numb,” said Matt Roe, a freshman guard on the team. “It’s like you lost a loved one. You hate to say it that way, but it was like calling hours inside the locker room.”
A few Orange players and Smart agree: The game doesn’t feel 30 years old. Smart, who scored 12 of the Hoosiers final 15 points, sees and feels every moment of the game when he runs through it in his mind. He even remembers the sound of one high-pitched, squealing fan in the final seconds before it succumbed to thousands of others.
The memories are equally as fresh for Roe and a couple of his teammates, all watching from the bench, all taking a moment in the final couple minutes to think about the championship they were closing in on. Each memory plays out at roughly the same point: Syracuse clinging to a two-point lead with 1:42 remaining, but with possession of the ball headed into a timeout.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘We’re going to win the national championship,’” said Joseph Kohm, a senior walk-on forward. “It’s just incredible. Especially someone like me, I’m nobody. To think that I could actually be a part of something like that.”
In that fleeting moment, Kohm turned to face the stands. He located his mother and fiancé in their seats, counting down the seconds until he could celebrate this with them.
A few spots down the bench sat Roe, who focused on his father in that instant. Roe imagined what it would be like to gift him an NCAA championship ring engraved with his name.
Then there was sophomore forward Herman Harried, who played significantly more than Roe or Kohm, appearing in 33 of 38 games that season. He didn’t play in the championship game, but he admittedly allowed his mind to wander and think of how big a party Syracuse was about to throw.
It took only one shot for their visions to evaporate. What they imagined as a postgame parade back to the locker room instead played out as a silent trudge through the bowels of the Louisiana Superdome. No celebration, no ring, no party.
“Time’s supposed to heal all wounds,” Kohm said, “but for people who like to watch basketball like me, every time I see the Tournament, that’s shown.
“I’m sure all of us would be lying if we didn’t feel like every time we saw that shot, it’s just a little dagger you feel. … You can’t help but just feel a little something in your chest.”
No one shouldered more of the loss than head coach Jim Boeheim, who entered the postseason without a Final Four berth to his name. He finally made it to the last step of the Big Dance, yet came away empty after Smart’s heroics. The two didn’t speak for years.
Once before a Team USA Basketball event in Atlanta, Smart approached the court to greet Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. But after noticing Boeheim standing close by, Smart told his wife it wasn’t a good time for conversation. Smart never talked with the long time Syracuse head coach until 2012, when he was head coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Searching for a scouting report on NBA hopeful Dion Waiters, Smart phoned Boeheim’s office.
“Coach, this is a name from the past,” Smart recalls saying. “I wouldn’t be calling you if you hadn’t finally gotten you a championship. This is Keith Smart.”
“Keith Smart, Keith Smart, Keith Smart,” Boeheim said. “I just want to tell you: It took me a very long time to get over that.”
Boeheim wasn’t alone. At least in a pocket of the country, wherever Syracuse fandom exists, Smart remains the villain. Of course he’s not solely responsible for Indiana winning and the Orange losing, but Smart established himself as the poster boy for SU’s decades-long championship drought.
Syracuse players found little solace in the 2003 championship, still 16 years removed from the gut-wrenching title game loss to IU. A championship they had nothing to do with only made them happy for Boeheim, who finally won “the big one.” Even Smart didn’t care much for SU winning it all. Nothing could change what already happened.
“It’s hard to say you feel like a villain because you did what you tried to do,” Smart said. “… If I missed that shot and Syracuse wins it, it’s their shining moment.”
But Smart didn’t. He’ll continue to hear stories about his shot as the years go on, and they can’t go by fast enough for Syracuse.
Published on April 2, 2017 at 11:51 pm