Catching up with The Jet: Kenny Smith on broadcasting, UNC and the Dream Team debate

Former UNC star opens up on broadcasting career, the Dream Team debate and his new nickname .

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2012 

— 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, “I’m 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 UNC’s 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 he’s more recognizable than he ever was during his playing days. He is best known for his work as an analyst alongside Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley on TNT’s popular and award-winning “Inside the NBA.”

Smith keeps busy in plenty of other areas, too. He’s the father of an up-and-coming pop singer and, this week, he’s leading his annual basketball camp at UNC. He’s 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. How’d your involvement with this new game, NBA Baller Beats, come about?

When I started I said, nah, I’m not going to be the voice. Let me give you some direction on it. I’m going to help you with it, I’m going to be part of the whole scheme. I’ve never seen a game like it before. We’re seeing interactive games, but you don’t have any of the equipment. So this is the only game that I’ve 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 can’t dribble, anyway. He can’t dribble and shoot free throws. So I don’t think he’s 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 I’ve ever played in. I’ve 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, they’re here. They’re still here. They’re 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. There’s been a national debate recently after Kobe Bryant said the current Olympic men’s basketball team could beat the 1992 Dream Team. Thoughts?

Well if they think they can beat the ’92 Dream Team, they’ve 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. There’s not a better two-guard – Kobe’s great, but he’s not better than Jordan. LeBron is great, he’s 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 didn’t that college team beat them once? That college team, with Chris Webber and Bobby Hurley? They beat them once. But we’re talking about when the stakes and the marbles are there, in an Olympic setting, when it’s 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 you’re playing, the only thing on your mind is basketball. Playing. Being a player. You think you’re Superman – you’re going to play forever. You don’t think that your career is ever going to end. And even at the end of my career, I didn’t think that being an announcer was going to be what I’d do. I kind of fell into it. They asked me to do it. I said, ‘Cool.’ They said, ‘You’re 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, everything’s been unscripted. There is no script. We have a guideline. But there is no you talk, then I talk, then he talks. It’s like, Charles says something silly, I’m going to stop in mid-sentence. I say something crazy, he’s going to stop me in mid-sentence. So for us, it was just kind of three guys sitting on a couch. It’s not, ‘We’re 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 you’re 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 didn’t think I’d be doing now. So I’d probably say yes, and then next time you interview me, 10 years from now, you’ll be like, ‘How’d you win four championships as a coach?’ So who knows? I enjoy what I do … this has been a great ride.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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