CHAPEL HILL — Catching up with The Jet is a little bit easier these days. Kenny Smith once moved with so much quickness that a newspaper writer covering one of high school games in New York gave him that nickname.
But now, Smith says with a laugh, Im the Prop Plane.
Twenty-five years have passed since Smith ended his college career at North Carolina. He earned consensus first-team All-America honors in 1987, left school as UNCs all-time leader in assists and steals and then embarked on an 11-year career in the NBA, where he won two championships with the Houston Rockets.
These days, though, Smith admits hes more recognizable than he ever was during his playing days. He is best known for his work as an analyst alongside Ernie Johnson, Shaquille ONeal and Charles Barkley on TNTs popular and award-winning Inside the NBA.
Smith keeps busy in plenty of other areas, too. Hes the father of an up-and-coming pop singer and, this week, hes leading his annual basketball camp at UNC. Hes even the voice of a new video game, NBA Baller Beats, which is like Guitar Hero and Dance, Dance Revolution with a basketball. The game debuts in September.
Smith, slightly sweaty from showing a roomful of his campers a demonstration of the game, recently sat down for a talk about a range of topics. The Jet moves more slowly now, but his words and quips come as quickly as ever.
Q. Howd your involvement with this new game, NBA Baller Beats, come about?
When I started I said, nah, Im not going to be the voice. Let me give you some direction on it. Im going to help you with it, Im going to be part of the whole scheme. Ive never seen a game like it before. Were seeing interactive games, but you dont have any of the equipment. So this is the only game that Ive ever seen that you have a real ball, you actually can get better playing it to the hottest songs that are out today. So to me, this was just no-brainer.
Q. Are you going to challenge Charles Barkley to a game?
I want to bring this on the big screen that I use, and play a video game live and direct right there. Now Shaq cant dribble, anyway. He cant dribble and shoot free throws. So I dont think hes going to be good at this game. But Charles, he had a little bit of handle he might be decent at this game.
Q. Your daughter, Kayla Brianna, is an up-and-coming singer. You saw her perform Thursday night at the PNC Arena. What was that like?
Well, going to watch my daughter perform at the PNC Arena was probably more nerve-wracking than any basketball game Ive ever played in. Ive been in two NBA Finals, Game 7s. But just having no control over it I walked out, my chest was out to here.
Q. How difficult is it to believe that you last played at UNC 25 years ago?
It is amazing. Because like I said, it feels like yesterday. I still go over to the Dean Dome, I go around campus. The same people were here some of the same people who were there when I was there, theyre here. Theyre still here. Theyre still working The Four Corners store is still here. Ye Olde Waffle is still here. All the places I went to eat are right still here. I take my son to the same places. Time Out. I ate there last night.
Q. The basketball camp you host at UNC has become an annual tradition. How many kids do you have here?
We have 300 campers this year, from all over the country, actually. We have an influx of North Carolina kids, but we have kids from as far as Los Angeles, overseas. The Internet is powerful. So we have two kids from Japan this year.
Q. Theres been a national debate recently after Kobe Bryant said the current Olympic mens basketball team could beat the 1992 Dream Team. Thoughts?
Well if they think they can beat the 92 Dream Team, theyve lost their mind. They have literally lost their mind. I mean, the best three players on this current team would come off the bench on the 92 team. They would come off the bench. Theres not a better two-guard Kobes great, but hes not better than Jordan. LeBron is great, hes not better than Jordan. So those guys would come off the bench on that team.
Q. But could the current team win one game against the 92 team?
Well didnt that college team beat them once? That college team, with Chris Webber and Bobby Hurley? They beat them once. But were talking about when the stakes and the marbles are there, in an Olympic setting, when its one game and out they would have lost by 30. They would have lost by 30.
Q. Did you know in college that you wanted to get into TV after you were through playing?
I had no idea. When youre playing, the only thing on your mind is basketball. Playing. Being a player. You think youre Superman youre going to play forever. You dont think that your career is ever going to end. And even at the end of my career, I didnt think that being an announcer was going to be what Id do. I kind of fell into it. They asked me to do it. I said, Cool. They said, Youre really good at it. I said, No. They say that to everyone. And then all of a sudden, here I am, 14 years later, still on TV.
Q. How do you and Charles and Ernie go about creating the camaraderie you guys share on the set?
Well with Charles, myself and Ernie, [since] when we first started, everythings been unscripted. There is no script. We have a guideline. But there is no you talk, then I talk, then he talks. Its like, Charles says something silly, Im going to stop in mid-sentence. I say something crazy, hes going to stop me in mid-sentence. So for us, it was just kind of three guys sitting on a couch. Its not, Were on TV.
Q. Do you guys spend much time together off the set?
We see each other so much during that nine-month period, I think we only see each other maybe twice in the summer time. But during that nine-month period, I spend more time with them than I probably do with anyone else, other than my family we need a break. I need a break from my second wife.
Q. Do you find that youre more recognizable now or when you were actually playing?
I think people recognize me more now. I think as a player, you get caught into a collage of people. But this, you kind of break out into individuals.
Q. Do you see yourself doing the TNT job for another 14 years, or more?
I didnt think Id be doing now. So Id probably say yes, and then next time you interview me, 10 years from now, youll be like, Howd you win four championships as a coach? So who knows? I enjoy what I do this has been a great ride.