By Barry Janoff
March 16, 2012: This month, Kenny Smith will be, for the second year, part of the CBS Sports-Turner Broadcasting crew covering the NCAA Men's Division I basketball tournament. Smith, aka "The Jet," is well-equipped to handle the task: He had a stellar four-year career at the University of North Carolina (1983-87), during which time the Tar Heels made the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 each year and advanced to the Elite Eight twice. In 1987, he was a first-round pick (No. 6 overall) of the Sacramento Kings, earning that season First Team NBA all-Rookie honors.
Smith played until 1997 with six teams, including winning two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets (1994-95) on rosters that included Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde 'The Glide' Drexler and Robert Horry. He finished his career with nearly 9,400 points and more than 4,000 assists.
In 1998, he joined Inside the NBA, which since has been nominated for and won Emmys, alongside Ernie Johnson Jr. and Charles Barkley (pictured with Magic Johnson). As part of the CBS Sports-Turner deal with the NCAA, all three are immersed in March Madness airing on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV.
For the second season, Smith is also a national spokesman for Coke Zero's tournament activation, "Enjoy More Madness," in which consumers who watch live televised or live streamed broadcasts of the men's tournament can look for Coke Zero alerts and keywords, which can lead them to rewards including a trip to the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta.
"The Jet" landed for a few moments to talk to NYSportsJournalism about the pros and cons of the NBA, professional versus college sports, the beleaguered All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest and his 17-year-old daughter, Kayla Brianna, who recently signed with Interscope Records.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What's your player-turned-analyst's assessment of the CBS Sports-Turner partnership to cover March Madness?
Kenny Smith: I think it's going great. Personally, my role really hasn't changed. I talk about college basketball instead of the NBA. But in terms of insight and what they want me to do, they knew what they were signing me up for. They knew what they were going to get out of me. I am happy to be part of it. It was seamless because Charles [Barkley] was still next to me, and I am accustomed to that. And Ernie [Johnson] was there. So for me, it has been an easy experience.
NYSJ: How have you dealt with the time-compressed workload?
KS: The biggest thing internally, especially for Charles and me, was that, in covering the NBA, usually we do two games a night. But now, we're going from 12 Noon until 12 midnight, for two days straight [Thursday and Friday]. For me, that is very unique. And then come back on Saturday and do another 7-8 hours! So we were in the studio, literally, I would say out of 36 hours probably 28. You arrive in the morning, and when you leave, it's after midnight. We are in the studio in New York, but it could have been Moscow and I wouldn't have known because we didn't get outside! [Laughs.]
"We were in the studio, literally, I would say out of 36 hours probably 28. We are in the studio in New York, but it could have been Moscow and I wouldn't have known."
NYSJ: What stood out for you most from last year's Tournament?
KS: Connecticut, and the way they went on that run and ended up winning the championship. They finished ninth in the Big East Conference, then won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament. That never happened before [in NCAA basketball] and you'll never see it again. Just think how difficult that is. And they took that into the NCAA Tournament and won another six games to win [the title]. Eleven wins in a row in post-season play. That was pretty amazing.
NYSJ: What are the biggest differences for you in covering the NBA versus college?
KS: I analyze the games differently. In the pros, players have a high level of expectation that they should be able reach every game. With college players, they might have a huge game tonight, but then they have a huge final in chemistry the next day. So for them, the process isn't always totally focused on the game. And some of these kids will never play basketball again on a stage like this. They'll get out on a court [after college] perhaps getting out on the court with some friends or later on their kids. I understand that they always need to be learning, and that they are still in the process of learning. But when it comes to NBA guys, I can't understand why a guy hasn't learned this yet. It's a different tone.
NYSJ: What has been the biggest surprise in the NBA this season?
KS: Overall, the injuries that have happened and could happen are going to be the most prevalent story. Usually, because the schedule isn't as condensed, if you have an injury, a twisted ankle, maybe you missed two or three games. Now, because of the shortened season [due to the lockout], there are more games in a shorter span, so you might miss seven or eight games with that same injury. And that can impact your [team's] positioning in the playoffs. You could go from a three seed to out of the playoffs during that span. And when you look at teams this season having back-to-back-to-back games, there's no time for recovery. One thing, though, is when we used to travel we flew commercial, took buses. The guys today have a little bit of an advantage because of the improved and faster ways to travel. And also the team trainers today have more knowledge of injuries and more access to information. But, still, the rigors of the game are not intended to play three games in three nights.
NYSJ: What are your thoughts about Dwight Howard's situation with the Orlando Magic?
KS: There's no doubt they have to keep him long-term. They have to get top players in there with him, guys who they can say, 'Dwight, isn't this someone you want to play with for the next three years?' Or [before his new contract expires] you have to trade him. You can't take the risk of what happened in Cleveland with LeBron [James], when they figured they could pay him what he wanted and he left, and they got nothing. Or what happened with Orlando back [in 1996] with Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal], who left [as a free agent] and they got nothing. They have a new arena, they are building a fan base and have business partners, and they can't let that go down the drain. He's too valuable a player, and you have to make the best moves for your franchise. A guy like him, a true super star, doesn't come along but once every six or seven years.
NYSJ: You host the NBA Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Game, which took a lot of criticism this year because of the lack of star power and the perceived lack of quality dunks. What do you see happening moving forward?
KS: The Slam Dunk Contest traditionally has a year or two where it's down. Then there is an influx of young players who have dreamed about being in the contest, and they'll get in it and do something spectacular. Two years ago, Blake Griffin was hurt and didn't play. Then last year he comes along and plays and we see him do some dunks during games. And then he comes out at the All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest. he jumps over a Kia for a dunk, and we're like, 'What! We didn't know he was that athletic. We didn't know he could dunk like that!' So I imagine you'll see something like that again.
NYSJ: That worked out well for Kia, signing Griffin to an endorsement deal after getting that national exposure.
KS: No doubt about that.
NYSJ: This is your second year as a spokesman for Coke Zero. How is that going?
KS: Great. The [marketing] has changed a little from last season. It is still [themed] 'Enjoy More Madness,' but now we are encouraging more texting and using more social media. We have a “Watch & Score” promotion where fans get keyword alerts when they are watching the games, or if they buy Coke Zero products. If they have or register for a My Coke Rewards account they can go to the Web site or send a text message for a chance to win cool prizes.
NYSJ: Has the increased use of Twitter and social media been one of the biggest changes you've seen in covering sports?
KS: Definitely. We live in a microwave world. Everything is so instant. People want all the information instantly. When I was growing up and watching March Madness, we had to wait, if you missed a game, until the next day. Wait for the newspaper to come to get all the scores from across the country. See who won. Who moved on. Now, there's no way around fans and players getting and sending information in an instant. In a way it's fun to have instant access to players. It brings more casual fans into the mix. And when you get more casual fans in, you get more of a diversity of opinions. But they're not always accurate. Sometimes they just see snippets of a game and then try to talk about the game as if they were there. It's like seeing the sizzle reel of a movie, and then trying to tell me what the movie is all about. But you can't because you really haven't seen the movie.
NYSJ: It was nice of you to pass on your golden voice to your daughter, Kayla, who is signed with and recording for Interscope.
KS: [Laughs.] I wish I could say that. I knew nothing about the music business before she got in it. People say to her, 'Kayla, your dad helped you get with Interscope.' But I told her, 'Tell them there are a lot more people in the world who are more famous than your dad.' She got in with talent. I said to her, 'You are not a YouTube sensation. You don't have a reality show. You weren't on a TV singing contest show. And you have a record deal with a major label. That means you are super-talented.' She just needs to keep working hard. I told her that I would try to find out things I need to know about the music business to help her. But she's already kicked the door in. I love her sound, her style, And she has some great messages. I'm proud of her. Hopefully, I can retire. [Laughs.]