- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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HOUSTON -- He left because he wasn’t sure they’d have anything in common and couldn’t trust that he could play for a guy he knew nothing about.
The irony is the coach that Joey Rodriguez initially ran from is actually just like him.
The two sub-6-footers (that’s extremely sub-6-footers) stand more than eye to eye. They stand toe to toe in a life spent proving the detractors wrong and dodging curveballs life has hurled their way.
Neither was considered tall enough to make it in college basketball. Yet when both finally made it, each stood at a crossroad where they thought about giving up.
It is in their coming together -- Smart’s ability to empathize with Rodriguez’s pain amid a coaching change and Rodriguez’s willingness to toss a little blind faith in Smart’s direction -- that Virginia Commonwealth has found its success.
The Rams’ run here to this Final Four certainly goes down as one of the most improbable.
Even more unlikely is that it is Rodriguez who has gotten them here to a national semifinal date with Butler on Saturday night.
“I’ve talked to some of the guys who were kicked off or left our team, and they’re just kicking themselves,’’ Rodriguez said. “That very easily could have been me.’’
The kid most people counted out, the one who was too short to make it in Division I basketball, willed his way into the arena.
What he lacked in height, he made up for with heart, starring at Florida’s Lake Howell High School, earning all-state honors as a senior.
Hesitant to move away from his family -- he’s extremely close with his parents and two brothers -- Rodriguez made the leap to head north to VCU only because of his familiarity with head coach Anthony Grant.
Growing up, Rodriguez was a regular at Florida’s basketball camps and got to know Grant, then an assistant under Billy Donovan, quite well. His trust and bond with Grant helped him overcome a serious case of homesickness during his freshman season. By his sophomore year, he’d blossomed into a regular contributor, the spot-up shooter who kept defenses that concentrated too heavily on keeping Eric Maynor honest.
Then, only 10 days after the Rams lost a heartbreaking first-round NCAA tournament game to UCLA, Grant took the job at Alabama.
“It was real emotional for me,’’ Rodriguez said. “He was like a father figure to me.’’
Three days after Grant left, VCU hired Smart.
There were rough patches for everybody. Smart may have taken the same direct route as Grant -- he, too, was a Donovan assistant -- but he wasn’t the same person.
All the VCU players admitted they suffered a little bit of culture shock -- “It was hard, real hard on all of us,’’ Bradford Burgess said -- but none struggled quite as much as Rodriguez.
During Smart’s first few days on campus, rather than participate in the individual workouts with the coaching staff, Rodriguez would just sit off to the side and watch.
Plenty of people told Smart he was a fool not to boot Rodriguez, that his silent protest would only lead to more discontent on the team.
Smart refused. He understood what Rodriguez was doing. He was trying to figure out who these new people were, whether they merited his trust.
A few weeks into Smart’s tenure, Rodriguez had seen enough. He packed up for home, intent on transferring to Division II Rollins College.
Smart could have done a lot of things. He could have called and begged him to come back. Rodriguez’s departure essentially left VCU without a starting point guard.
Or, he could have banned him altogether, booting him permanently from the team.
Instead, Smart wisely did nothing except remember how he felt when he was in Rodriguez’s shoes.
Every bit as undersized and therefore undervalued as Rodriguez, Smart landed at Kenyon College in Ohio only to lose his head coach after one season.
“He was the No. 1, 2 and 3 reason why I went to Kenyon College and I remember being 19 years old and sitting in my living room and crying, crying, crying,’’ Smart said. “This man who was a father figure and a guy that I idolized left. And it really turned my world upside down. I wanted to transfer.’’
In the end, Smart didn’t and neither did Rodriguez. He had a few heart-to-hearts with his high school buddy, Chandler Parsons, the Florida forward who knew Smart well from his time on Donovan’s bench, and even more conversations with his father, Joe.
Eventually Joe called Smart and asked if his son could return.
“I just had one small conversation with Joey and I said, ‘We’d love to have you back, but I’ve got to know that you’re going to be in the circle with both feet,’ Smart said. “He said, ‘Coach, I will.’ And that was really the last we ever talked about it.’’
In that simple act, the extension of an olive branch without questions, Rodriguez had all he needed. He let down his guard and packaged his trust up with a bow.
Now the two are kindred spirits. If a point guard is supposed to be an extension of his coach, there is not a better match than Smart and Rodriguez. It is almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
They possess, they admit, a little man’s complex. Told for so long what they can’t do, they own an insatiable desire to prove people wrong and will stop at no limits to prove it.
VCU led Kansas by 14 at the half on Sunday, but Smart was worried his team would stop clawing and fighting. In the locker room, he was reminding them of the importance of going after loose balls when a ball a player was holding rolled harmlessly in front of him.
Smart dove on it.
Rodriguez laughed at the crazy-man antics, but it’s a move he’d make on the court just as quickly.
In this NCAA tournament, he is averaging 10 points, but it is the 38 assists to just 10 turnovers that is making all the difference for the Rams.
“We run off him, we feed off him,’’ teammate Jamie Skeen said. “Without him, I feel like there’s no us.’’
Thanks to a coach’s empathy and a player’s willingness to trust again, Skeen won’t have to know about that.
There is an us. There is a VCU because Joey Rodriguez stayed.