Kenny Smith was a four-year starter at North Carolina, playing on two teams that went 14-0 in the ACC regular season and ending his career as Carolina’s all-time leader in both assists and steals. (He still ranks 2nd all-time in assists and 4th in steals.) His 87 made three pointers his senior year still ranks tied for 2nd for most treys in a season by a Tar Heel. Equally important, “The Jet” still ranks high (if not at the top) of anyone’s list of “coolest Carolina players ever.”
Smith went on to become the only Tar Heel alum to be the regular starting point guard for an NBA Champion—the Houston Rockets of both 1994 and 1995. His game-tying three at the end of regulation in Game 1 of the 1995 finals against Orlando set the tone for an eventual four-game Rocket sweep. Since retiring in 1997, Smith has become perhaps even more famous as the only person who can talk back to Charles Barkley and get away with it, in his role as a regular commentator on the NBA for TNT.
He is currently commenting on the NCAA Tournament for CBS, while also doing promotional work for Coke Zero. In light of Kendall Marshall’s injury Sunday and the fact that Smith had a similar injury his freshman year, the New York native’s views are particularly timely.
Inside Carolina: Take us back to what happened on the play you got injured against LSU in 1984.
Kenny Smith: You want me to rehash the bad memories? I made a steal out of our zone towards the end of the game and was going in for a dunk. John Tudor made a play at me and the ball at the same time. I think he was trying to block me from dunking [by] being a little physical and at the same time going for the ball. When I fell I honestly didn't think I had broken my wrist, I thought I had broken my jaw because I had hit my head and my jaw on the floor so hard. I actually had like six stitches because of that. So I was actually more concerned about that and then realized I had broken my wrist.
IC: When you came back, what was the difficulty in trying to play with a cast?
Smith: Well mine never healed. It [the wrist] never healed. I didn't get a chance for it to heal. So I played with a cast, like a rubber cast. The openings I saw to go left, I couldn't get to all the time, that's the difference. And at certain times, it hurt, when guys would make plays on the ball at times it would hurt. Or defensively I'd make a steal ... and it would hurt. I wasn't the same player.
IC: Until your sophomore year?
Smith: Until the summertime. By the summertime it didn't bother me at all. Then I got what Kendall did, I put the screw in. By the end of the summer I was back to my normal self, since then.
IC: Did you ever hear from John Tudor after that play?
Smith: I didn't hear him from him personally. But I heard that he got a lot of grief [chuckles]. I heard he got a lot of grief. I'll leave it at that.
IC: Looking at the situation Carolina is in now, if Marshall can't play do you think it would be better to go with a true point guard like Stilman White who has less experience, or would you instead just try to put your best five available players out there and get them to try to make it work?
Smith: You know, as inexperienced as Stilman is for game situations, to me he's playing against the best point guard in the ACC every day in practice. Who's getting that kind of on-the-job training? You're playing against the best. You're not just playing against a guy who's pretty good, you're playing against the best point guard in the ACC every single day. So I'm sure there are things that he's seen and he sees that Kendall is able to do, even though they are different sizes and things of that nature. The position is the same at Carolina. Some of the things Jimmy Black did, I did. Some of the things I did, Derrick Phelps did. What Derrick Phelps has done, now Kendall's doing. There's a lot of [overlap] inside the offense. I'm sure he's learned some things...and you know, he's not playing with chopped liver either! He's playing with four guys who were arguably the top four guys at their position at times, when they step on the court. Especially on the front line. The front line I think is, without a doubt, the best front line in college basketball.
IC: Do you think it's going to be harder to get the ball into Zeller without Marshall's penetration?
Smith: No--I don't think it will be harder. It's just that what Kendall brings is an understanding of how to have a balanced attack. I think his ability to score over the last three weeks has been vital, and his distribution is just superior. Those guys are still good players even if they're not getting it with the regularity or the ease that Kendall brings. You could still clear a side for Harrison Barnes, get the ball inside to Zeller--and, you know, maybe they've got to take two or more dribbles [to do that]. I just don't know if we'll be as fast as we've been. We've been scoring something like 80 points a game or close to it. Maybe we're not in the 80s anymore, but those guys know how to put the ball in the basket.
IC: People often forget that your sophomore year the team you played on, you lost Steve Hale in the tournament in the first game--how can a team adjust to losing a starter while you're already in the tournament, because you went on to win a couple of games after that.
Smith: Well, I think the one thing that you do is you don't think about it. There has to be a resolve of, "we can still get it done", so there's not a panic of "wow, this guy is missing." If the guys don't panic...there's always a belief that what's on the front of our jerseys means more than what's on the back. So, we should get it done. There's always a belief in that. And, you can't panic, you can't dwell on the fact that somebody's not there, you can't panic, and you can't be deflated that that person is not there. Stilman should be saying, "wow this is an opportunity for me to show what I can do.” Bullock should be saying, “you know maybe I can slide over and show some things I couldn't [before].” You have to have that mentality even though you're missing a guy you'd really love to have on the floor. If you don't have that mentality, you don't win.
IC: I heard a story that when you were at Carolina in the summer, after you had done all the pickup games at Carmichael or Woollen in the middle of the summer, you'd go out to the track at Fetzer and sprint an extra mile just to get the extra edge. Is that true?
Smith: You know, I wasn't the only one, but we all did a lot of those things. My whole thing was, for me when I played pickup ball in New York City, we used to play from 9 a.m. until 6 or 7 at night. So I went to Woollen and/or Carmichael or the Smith Center, we played an hour and a half. I wasn't accustomed to playing an hour and a half of pickup. That was not enough. My day was like, "There's so much more left to do." I'd go lift, I'd go run, I'd do anything else afterward, because I was like, "we're only playing an hour and half of pickup, this is nothing." So yeah, I used to do all those extra things for sure.
IC: Going all the way back to your recruitment out of New York, what drew you to choose Carolina and Coach Smith, and what continuities do you see between the program as it was then and the way it is now?
Smith: Well, a lot of schools would tell me they had great academics, a lot of people would tell me they had great basketball programs, a lot of schools had a great social life. Carolina had it all--when I went down there, I just saw they had it all, there wasn't just one thing. And the second part of it was that when Coach Smith came to my house, he was the first coach that didn't promise me anything in terms of playing time. A lot of coaches would come in and say, "We think you can play 20 minutes, we think you can play 30 minutes, we think you might start." Coach Smith just said, "We play the best five players--I don't know what you're going to play, but we play the best five players, and if you're one of those, you'll be in there." I was like, "That's what I needed to hear." I didn't want anything given to me. The last part of it is, when I went on the visit, it was the first place I went to and I said, "I don't know if I could play here." I was like, "These guys are really good." That was a challenge to me, to be able to say I could go somewhere [like that] and actually play.
IC: How does Kendall Marshall project for you as an NBA player?
Smith: Well, I hate to project guys into the league. He's going to play basketball after he's finished with Carolina, there's no doubt about that. I'll just leave it at that, because going into "what draft pick" and all that--he's going to play basketball after Carolina, whenever that is. Because sometimes when you start saying it now, when people aren't seniors, they start thinking about it, and I don't think he should even be thinking about it, because it's already inevitable that it's going to happen, it's just a matter of when. For now he's got to be focusing on what's going on now and how to be a better player while he's at the university, because he's established himself [as a prospect] already.
IC: We know that things worked out for you as an NBA player and an analyst. But what I really want to know is, what happened to your DJ career?
Smith: (laughs) I'm still a five-six DJ, but now it's on a computer. I have all of those DJ downloads on iTunes and Apple, and on my iPhone. It's all in my headphones, no one can hear it but me.
IC: What's your evaluation of the officiating so far in this tournament, and how do you think the college refs compare to the pro refs in terms of getting things right?
Smith: College refs are just more technical. They're by the book. There's no room for the human thought process as much. NBA refs ref with the human thought process as well as the book. It's just a little bit different. If someone's going in for the dunk on one end of the caught, and a guy is holding a shirt on the other end of the court, it's technically a foul. But do you take away a wide open dunk to call a foul? An NBA ref wouldn't even think about it, it wouldn't even come across his mind to call that foul. A college ref, it sometimes crosses his mind -- should I call this foul, even though it doesn't affect the play that's going on. They're just more by the book and they are taught to be that way, and they are supposed to be that way, by the book. The NBA officials aren't by the book, they add the human element to it. You talk to them differently, you have different relationships [with them], because you have the same referees over the year. Whereas some of these guys [in the NCAA Tournament], it will be the first time they're reffing a Carolina game. There's no relationship there, there's no history, whereas in the NBA, every fourth or fifth game you see the same guy.
IC: Speaking honestly, if Marshall can't play, does Carolina have a realistic chance of making the Final Four?
Smith: Yeah! I mean, you've got the best front line in basketball, man! The best front line in college basketball. There's none better. There are some more talented players at certain positions, but there's none better [as a front line]….See you in New Orleans!
Smith was touring on behalf of his work with Coke Zero. During the tournament, fans can get unique codes from Coke Zero products and from the Watch & Score Instant Win Game (in-game on-screen codes), entering these codes through their My Coke Rewards account at www.enjoymoremadness.com. With each code entry, fans receive the chance to pick a team to advance to the next round; each correct pick will enter that fan into a drawing with a chance to win a variety of prizes such as 2012 and 2013 NCAA Men’s Final Four trips.