Kenny Smith knows his basketball. The current TNT hoops analyst played for some of the most legendary coaches in the game before embarking on a decade-long NBA career that included two championships. Though he’s stepped away from the court, he’s still very much involved with the game.
A former McDonald’s All-American, Smith played four years at the University of North Carolina alongside some of the Tar Heels’ most storied players, including Michael Jordan. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie team in 1988 and had a famous showdown with Dominique Wilkins at the 1990 Dunk Contest. . He joined the Houston Rockets in 1990 and still owns the club’s best three-point percentage over a career. In H-Town, Smith was a part of the back-to-back titles in ’94 and ’95.
SLAM spoke to Smith during a break from one of TNT’s NBA telecasts.
SLAM: You’ve had a pretty active post-playing career. Is it something you gave a lot of thought to while you were still playing?
Kenny Smith: I was always preparing to do different things, and I knew it was going to be within basketball, in some kind of way. I had my own radio show in Houston; I would do things on the news while I was in Houston, but it was all never knowing that I’d get totally into it like I am now. At the end of the season TNT always brings players on to do commentary, especially during the Playoffs. They brought me on and told me that if I really wanted to continue doing it, I could probably do it for a living. I was like, “They must say that to everyone.” When they heard I was going to retire, I got the call.
SLAM: What do you like the most about being on TNT every week?
KS: I like that you can really influence and shape what people from around the country think about basketball.
SLAM: There was a pretty good scrap this week between the Rockets and the Suns. Do you ever remember being involved in something like that?
KS: Nah, no “brawls at the palace,” man. I mean, we never had anything major when I was playing… Well, let me take that back. Vernon Maxwell went into the stands once. I was on the bench; it was a surreal moment as it was happening. I was like, “Is this really happening?” He ran into the stands and there were other guys running behind him. It had me frozen for, like, 10 seconds.
SLAM: Let’s backtrack a bit: You played for Coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy High School [in Queens, New York]. Is that when you came into your own as a player?
KS: I think we all have delusions of grandeur when we first start to play sports. When I picked up a football, I thought I was going to be Joe Namath; when I picked up a basketball, I thought I was going to be Dr. J. It started to become a reality for me, going into my senior year of high school. I think it was then that I probably improved the most in my lifetime, and I probably surprised Coach Curran as well.
I went from being an All-City Honorable Mention guy to being a First- or Second-Team All-American in one summer. It was from working out with my brother, Vincent, and doing drills—that was it.
SLAM: Why did you choose the University of North Carolina?
KS: A lot of schools came to see me and offered me this and that. This one had a great education, that one had a great social life to offer, another one had a great basketball program. But Carolina, to me, had all of those things.
SLAM: Are there things you learned from Coach Dean Smith at UNC that you still think about a lot?
KS: It’s not one thing. I think, overall, there were so many different aspects that he teaches you about, and they are lifelong lessons. I always tell people this, too: The one thing that I take from him is that you’re supposed to treat everyone exactly the same, no matter who or what they are. Same energy level, same respect level, same amount of guidance, all of those things. I always said when I played for him that if you closed your eyes and [listened to] practice, you wouldn’t know who the best guys on the team were by the way he was talking. I told him that it was one of the best things he could have ever done. My mother and father don’t even treat my brothers and sisters all the same. It was such a breath of fresh air.
SLAM: What do you remember the most about the guys you played with, like Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty?
KS: It’s another reason I chose Carolina, because of the talented guys that were there. I walked into the practice, and at every other school I’d already gone to visit, I felt like I could play with them easily. When I got to Carolina, I didn’t know if I was good enough to play there. So that was my challenge from then on. They looked like an NBA team.
SLAM: Looking back, why do you think you were able to leave Carolina as the all-time leader [since passed by Ed Cota] in assists?
KS: It’s because I played with great players. For me, I played better when I played with better players. When I played with teams that really weren’t that good, I really didn’t play well. The better the team was, the better I played. Coming to Carolina was about understanding the game and its nuances. I learned how to play with who, like Jack Curran taught at Molloy, and those were all a part of how I played my game.
SLAM: Legend has it that you used to do this trick where all you needed was three dribbles to travel the entire length of the court. How the heck did that work?
KS: Yeah. Well, I used to do a ball-handling drill when I did clinics. People would bring me to camp and always ask me to do ball-handling drills. Being from New York, I used to do a lot of ball-handling tricks and whatnot. I still used to tell people that the best ball handlers don’t use their dribble to get to places as much; you use it less.
I would take the ball and start at the top of the key, take one dribble and dunk it. I would start at half-court, take two dribbles and dunk it. Then, I would go full-court with three dribbles and dunk it. Granted, I was taking off one step inside the free-throw line to dunk, but you can do it! You can take a long layup from there. My whole point was that you don’t need 20 dribbles to get to the rim; I’m going full-court with three dribbles.
SLAM: The Kings drafted you, but you moved around a bit when you first came into the League. Was there anything that you would say you were struggling with?
KS: The only adjustment I had to get used to was the amount of games. In terms of basketball knowledge, it wasn’t really that much of a difference because of the level of competition that I had played against in school. It’s a little bit different from now. Back then, guys stayed in school for three or four years. You got to play against physical, strong guys who were 22 or 23 years old and still in college. The physicality wasn’t that much of a difference as it probably is now.
SLAM: You were in the 1990 and 1991 Dunk Contests, and you took second to Dominique Wilkins in ’90. Do you think you were robbed in either case?
KS: Oh, yeah, I thought I was, yes. I thought I put on a good enough show to win, but losing to Dominique was not a bad thing.
SLAM: Maybe some advice for the Boston Celtics: What do you think is the most critical part of winning back-to-back titles?
KS: Complacency. I think the one thing that you fight against is complacency. It doesn’t usually come from your veteran players; it comes from guys who are getting a lot of notoriety for the first time. Talking about complacency from the Eddie Houses, the Rajon Rondos, the Big Baby Davis’ of the world—whoever else is on that bench. The guys who used to be hungry to come in and play can’t be caught up going around town, getting their TV commercials. You have to be aware of that.
SLAM: Do you remember the night you hit that big three against Orlando in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals?
KS: It was funny. We were down three, and I was really shooting the ball well that game. Rudy drew up a play to run and pick-and-roll for me to see what happens. I saw they had Penny Hardaway guarding me, and I think Horace Grant was there, so I started going toward the pick. I thought I was shooting the ball so well that they were probably going to double-team me, so I decided I wasn’t going to come off that pick. I faked like I was going over and then I stopped, and I think that froze the defense for a second.
I pump-faked and Penny jumped. Then I felt like I had a little divine intervention, because usually guys jump straight up—Penny was 6-8—and he jumped sideways. It felt like someone moved him over in midair and allowed me to see the rim.
SLAM: I’m going to say a few names, and I’d like you to tell me the first word that comes to your mind when you hear them.
KS: Okay, shoot.
SLAM: Clyde Drexler.
SLAM: Charles Barkley.
KS: Outrageous [laughs].
SLAM: Who do you think the best point guard in the NBA is right now?
KS: If Chris Paul is in the front seat, driving, he can look right and Deron Williams is right in the passenger seat, in the same car.
SLAM: Is there still a chance you will get into coaching?
KS: With this commentating, naturally, I think I’ll get the knock on the door for coaching or general managing sometime soon. I get a few knocks, look through the peephole, and it doesn’t usually look to be too inviting, so I close the door. I think it’s a natural process, and I love what I do here.
SLAM: How do you feel like people are going to remember your career?
KS: I would say [people will remember] my years at Carolina, my Rocket championships and that three-point shot. I think those are my big three.