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Always ahead of the game
by David Friedman / March 16, 2007

Kenny Smith is best known now for appearing alongside Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley on TNT’s Inside the NBA, but he played with Michael Jordan for one season at North Carolina and later learned from Bill Russell when the Celtics legend coached the Sacramento Kings. Jordan and Russell each merit serious consideration as the greatest NBA player ever and they both left an indelible impression on Smith.

Jordan was a junior when Smith was a freshman.

“No, I don’t think that anyone could have foreseen that,” Smith says of Jordan winning six NBA titles and five MVPs. “I think that you could see that he was going to be a hard worker and a good player, all of the positive things, but to be the greatest player to ever play in our lifetime? I might have treated him a little differently (Smith laughs). The one thing that I always tell young guys is that the things that used to be his deficiencies became his strengths as his career went on, which is incredible. In college, he wasn’t a great ballhandler, he wasn’t a great outside shooter; he was good. Then those things became his strengths in the NBA – his ballhandling ability and his outside jump shot and his turnaround jumpers and his shot on the baseline and pull-up jumpers. That is just a testament to how hard he worked. I always say that he was probably the first fundamentally sound great athlete.”

Smith was voted a consensus First Team All-American in 1987 after his senior season at North Carolina, during which he averaged 16.9 ppg and 6.1 apg. He set a school record for career assists with 768 (since broken by Ed Cota).

The Kings selected Smith with the sixth overall pick. Sacramento was a bad team and Russell lasted less than a season as the team’s coach. But two decades later Smith still vividly recalls words of wisdom from the greatest winner in the history of North American team sports.

“I could write a book,” Smith says with a laugh. “It was a great experience; any time that you are around greatness it is a great experience. I always said, ‘Coach, you talk like Confucius. Every time you talk it seems like you have a quote that should be written down as a proverb somewhere.’ I think that he took a special liking to me. He was coming in as a coach and he drafted me. I always had to sit next to him on the bus and always had to sit next to him on the plane. So he talked my ear off – anybody who knows Bill knows he is a talker. Even to this day – I went to China two years ago and he expected me to sit next to him. I took my daughter and she was laughing, ‘He likes talking to you.’”

During a recent TNT broadcast, Smith mentioned that Russell would sometimes tell the Kings’ big men, “Just go get the ball.”

Smith noted that for great players the game really is simple – you see the ball and you go get it.

“I think that the one thing you would say is that great players take for granted that they are great and they expect greatness from others,” Smith explains. “A lot of times, when you expect greatness from others, obviously, you are not going to receive that. I think that was probably a big aspect of what was frustrating at times for a lot of guys on our team. For me, it wasn’t frustrating, honestly. I had been around Coach (Dean) Smith and all these great players at North Carolina. It wasn’t a big misunderstanding, so to speak, about how to decipher what he was actually trying to get out of you – for me it wasn’t.”

Smith tells another story about Russell that he’ll never forget.

“We could be in the middle of a team meeting and he’s telling us what we need to do, what we did wrong, defensively we didn’t do a good job and oh, by the way, Bill and John go see the trainer,” Smith says. “You’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, he just cut these guys.’ It’s kind of a little insensitive but as a great player you’re thinking that he will get a job somewhere. But for a guy who is on the bubble, who is not a great player, that was his one chance to be in the league.”

Smith was in no danger of being cut, of course, and he savored the opportunity to learn the ropes from a great champion.

“For me he was great because he told me all the great stories of how great teams thought,” Smith continues. “He wouldn’t let me sit next to certain guys. ‘Don’t sit next to him. You can’t talk to him, Kenny. This guy doesn’t want to win. He’s never going to be a winner; you don’t want to sit next to him.’”

Smith spent two and a half seasons with the Kings, finishing the 1989-90 campaign in Atlanta before ending up with the Houston Rockets. In 1990-91, Smith scored 17.7 ppg while shooting .520 from the field, .363 from three-point range and .844 from the free throw line. He also averaged 7.1 apg and had a career-high 106 steals.

In some years, those numbers would merit selection to the All-Star team but that honor eluded Smith during his 10-year NBA career.

“I don’t think that I was underappreciated,” Smith says thoughtfully. “I don’t think that I was underrated. I think that when I played, we had guys who were perennial guys. You know, it would almost be like trying to make it to the All-Star Game now as a forward in the Western Conference. Tim Duncan is going to be there. Kevin Garnett is going to be there. Dirk Nowitzki is going to be there. I was in that situation because it was point guard heaven when I was playing.”

The 1991 West All-Stars included point guards Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Terry Porter, John Stockton and Tim Hardaway, plus shooting guard Clyde Drexler.

“I just came up in the wrong time, in the wrong position, and I know that,” Smith says. “It doesn’t bother me as much (now) as probably it did when I was playing. My father asked me one time, ‘Would you rather be a perennial All-Star or win two NBA championships?’ I had never won one at the time he said that. I said, ‘I’ll take two championships.’ Here it is at the end of my career that I have two championships and no All-Star appearances. So I guess I talked my way into it. So I always tell my son, ‘You want to be a perennial All-Star who wins five championships.’”

Smith started at point guard for most of his six seasons in Houston but during the two championship seasons in 1994 and 1995 he split time with Sam Cassell, who was just a rookie in 1994. Cassell often played during key fourth quarter minutes, which meant that Smith sat on the bench. Smith defused what could have become a very awkward situation.

“All of my life I had been ‘that guy,’ so to speak, who ran the show,” Smith says. “I had to start practicing what I had always preached to guys who were coming into the league or guys who were coming to North Carolina. I used to say, ‘First of all, just because you are not playing doesn’t mean you can’t play. Remember that.’ The other thing is, ‘You can never be in competition with me.’ I used to tell guys, ‘Don’t be in competition with me. I’m on your team.’ I pulled Sam aside – because the papers love to say, ‘This guy should be starting’ or ‘This guy’s better’ – and this is when we had no problems, because I said, ‘Sam, you’ll never have to worry about this.’ He said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘That when you’re in the game I’m hoping that you’re doing badly. You’ll never have to worry about that.’”

It turns out that Smith’s words made a greater impression on Cassell than Smith realized at that time.

“You know, to this day he says that was one of the biggest phrases that helped him to relax and become a good basketball player,” Smith adds. “I had him on my radio show maybe three months ago and we were talking about Shaun Livingston – before he got hurt – and he said he had that conversation with Shaun. The reason he did it is because I had that conversation with him. That almost brought chills to me – I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Smith retired from the NBA when he was just 31. He still had offers to play, but they came in the form of one-year contracts.

“I did not feel that those one-year situations were productive for me because of my kids and having to fly around – it wasn’t productive,” Smith says. “I was playing for the love of the game, but I didn’t love the teams that were calling me.”

Just as Smith was beginning to consider retirement, he received an offer from TNT. The timing was perfect.

Being on TNT has provided Smith a platform that he can use to have an impact on society in a variety of ways, most notably by organizing a charity game to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Smith feels blessed that he had the opportunity and the ability to bring so many players together so quickly for such an important cause.

“I think that one thing that I have found – after getting 42 NBA players for the Katrina game, 23 or 24 of whom have been All-Stars and a lot of them perennial All-Stars – is that guys always want to do something (positive) but they are not sure what to do, whether it is charitable or if its societal or if its business. They always want to be involved in something but are not sure how to initiate it or how to be the one to initiate it.”

Smith’s philanthropy consists of a lot more than that game, though. Smith explains that he started the Aim High Foundation “for inner city kids in New York, to help them achieve goals through sports and education. That was primarily what we did (at first), from giving kids coats to wear to school to buying them books to taking them to basketball camps and basketball tournaments. After New Orleans, there became an added part to help Katrina victims.”

When Smith analyzes basketball on TNT, he sounds like a coach designing a game plan or a general manager trying to construct a team. This is not an accident. Smith is very interested in becoming an NBA coach or general manager at some point.

“I think that it’s inevitable, because of what is transpiring from what I say on television,” Smith says. “It’s pretty easy to see my philosophies, how I think about the game and what my thought processes are. That’s the first thing. Then, it helps that people can see your personality and they know what type of guy you are, so to speak. Lastly, the things that have happened in the last year or two show my ability to be a magnet, to bring players together for different events. I think that woke a lot of people up (to the fact) that I can get to this guy. I know that obviously the situation with Katrina had a big part and was divine intervention but also I was put there as a vehicle. So that spoke a lot of volume about (my) ability to make things happen.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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