December 17, 2008
Kenny Smith has become one of the most influential basketball analysts on television over the last decade, which is saying something, especially when you consider that Charles Barkley sits next to him on the "Inside the NBA" set. At some point, the former UNC star will probably get back into the league in a front-office capacity, but for the time being, he continues to enjoy his time on the popular TNT show.
"The Jet" just likes talking basketball. "When Kenny's on another show, everybody who works with him goes, Holy [crap] is he good," "Inside the NBA" senior producer Tim Kiely told me a few weeks ago. "You just don't realize how quick he is, how funny he is."
I found that out almost instantly, during my behind the scenes look at the Inside set. This is the second Q and A in a series of interviews with the show's personalities.
Ball Don't Lie: Did you ever think you'd be doing the "Inside the NBA" stuff for this long?
Kenny Smith: This long? Nah ... I thought I might have moved on, did something [else]. I thought I would have got bored with it, they would have got bored with me. But, it actually got better and better.
BDL: Does it surprise you that this show has caught on the way it has? I've talked to Ernie and Charles and they say that they can't go anywhere without being asked about the other two.
Smith: Oh yeah, I'm in the bathroom and [people] will be like, "Where's Charles?" And I'm like, "He ain't in here." (Smiles) I think overall, the biggest thing that's probably happened is, I always knew that we had something special before even Charles came, we were kind of doing things a little differently. I think he saw that. That attracted him to our show, and the last part of it, when he came, he put gasoline on the fire. We already had the fire going, and he put gasoline on it. [The show] just kind of exploded.
BDL: Are there times when you sit at home and go, "Wow, this show has gotten big."
Smith: I think what makes you appreciate it is the wide range of people who come up to you, from six-year-old kids to 70-year-old women, "I watch you all the time." I'm like, "Really?" [They say] "I never watch the game, but I watch you." I think when I really realized we had something different was when people started saying, "I watch you guys and don't watch the game." That's like [saying], "I'm not gonna go to the concert, I'm going to listen to the person tell me about the concert." No one's gonna do that, they're gonna go to the concert. So, [people are saying] "I'm not gonna watch the game, but I'm gonna listen to what you have to say about the game."
BDL: Does the job ever get old?
Smith: Every year you think it's going to, and then it's just something new every day, because it doesn't feel like a job. If I'm out [on set] for a total of two hours let's say, maybe two of those minutes, three of those minutes, I'm aware that there are cameras. The other [time], you're laughing, you're joking, you're concentrating, whatever you're doing, you're not aware of the cameras. So, it feels like three guys sitting on a couch at home. The conversations I have [on set] are basically [the same ones I have] with my brother at home. It's just now, everyone is a fly on the wall.
BDL: I asked Charles the same question: Do you think the NBA game has gotten stale?
Smith: What do you mean by stale?
BDL: I went to a Hawks game the other night, and there might have been 6,000 people there.
Smith: Who were they playing?
BDL: The Grizzlies.
Smith: (Nods head)
BDL: The point is, do you think the game has to do something to reinvent itself?
Smith: Nah, competition brings out that. When teams become competitive, [grow into] rivalries ... OK, I'll give you an example: [Network executives] always have these meetings. They say, "This game is going to be highly rated." Like tonight, they probably chose these games, they chose this first game [Phoenix vs. Dallas] and it wasn't competitive. I bet the ratings weren't good. The highest rated series we had was when Dallas lost [against Golden State in the 2007 playoffs]. Highest rated series in NBA history. Would you have taken that series in the beginning of the year? ... [it's all about] competition. Competition is going to bring people in, it's going to bring eyeballs in, people in the stands [points up to screen at San Antonio vs. Denver game] Chauncey Billups is bringing energy to this team, there's not an empty seat in that building ... the competition brings that out. You have a bad team, like the Grizzlies, and Atlanta, they haven't been winning [consistently]. So, the fans haven't caught up to how good they are now. Next year, I'd be surprised if there are [less than] 6,000 people [at a game].
BDL: Even for the Grizzlies' game?
Smith: Even for the Grizzlies' game. It takes like a year for the fans to realize [how good the the team is]. Because the casual fan, for someone to say, I'm going to pull my money out, pay for some tickets, sit there to be entertained, there's got to be a reason.
BDL: You've been in rumors forever, it seems, about different ... you already know where I'm going with this
BDL: To go ...
Smith: To go somewhere else and get a job [with a team].
BDL: That's right.
Smith: Honestly, I've been asked a couple times [about taking a front office position]. You look through the peep hole and you see who it is, and you say, "Is that a better situation?" And I said, "No." I can't see myself sitting and being an assistant coach for two years, [the team] promises a job two years later, who knows what will happen in two years? Two years, I don't want to sit there. I don't want to come as an assistant to this situation, general managership, I don't want to do that, I don't want to sit there. The benefits [at Turner] far outweigh [the other stuff]. The one thing, honestly, I would miss more than anything right now is the voice, when people hear me talk. I help formulate their own opinions that they never had.
BDL: You're talking about the platform that you have here?
Smith: The voice, right. I take that very seriously. I think about it every time I say something, and I also know that it formulates people's opinions without them knowing it. I hear people say, verbatim, what I said earlier. They say, "Yeah, I was just thinking that ..." and it's exactly what I said, and sometimes with the same inflections. (Smiles) That's what makes it funnier.
BDL: Just so I'm clear about what intrigues you most, is it a coaching position, a GM position ...
Smith: It's a basketball position. I'm always going to be associated with that because 1. I do "Kenny's Pictures," 2. My analysis is very detail oriented, and it kind of tells people how I'm thinking and what they're thinking, 3. [In this position] I get the luxury of being right. Now, you can just see what this [players] would be like. So, I know what the platform does, but like I said, a couple of the jobs I turned down, a couple of the jobs I actually went on and interviewed, because it's basketball. It's so easy to do basketball, because that's what I am, a basketball [person], in terms of profession, that's what I am.
BDL: So the basketball job is not something you're actively searching for?
Smith: If there's ten calls [from prospective teams] eight of them usually come in, two of them, I [tell my agent] "Check that out, that's interesting."
BDL: You recently stopped your relationship with the Knicks as a TV analyst. They've had a ton of problems over the last few years, are they really that cheap?
Smith: Well, who I worked for was different. I worked for MSG. I didn't work for the Knicks.
BDL: But, from what you've seen ...
Smith: They're not cheap, I'll tell you that much. Dolan is a guy you want to work for, if you really think about it.
BDL: That you would want to work for?
Smith: Think about it ... In terms of coaches, he paid them extremely well. Then doesn't like them, still pays you off. You go ...
BDL: And then you sit on your pile of money.
Smith: Right. And then as a general manager, [like] Isaiah [Thomas], he had off the court problems, he had on the court problems, he had coaching problems, [Dolan] stuck with him. Believed in him. Had to like drag him and pull him out. [Dolan] is a guy who when he pays the money, he believes in you. Honestly, he made some mistakes, don't get me wrong, he made a lot of mistakes.
BDL: Are you talking about Dolan or Isaiah?
Smith: Both. The Knicks and Dolan. But, [Dolan] is the type of person that if [the partnership] works, it can work really well. So, when you look at it that way, you wouldn't mind [having him as a boss]. Because, if he's in your corner, obviously it works, he'll work for you. He's going to work hard with you. But, he made a lot of mistakes. He's the guy who bought the girl flowers, bought her candies, [but] just picked the wrong girl. (Laughs)
BDL: You're saying he's doing all the right things ...
Smith: Just picking the wrong date.
BDL: Switching gears, your Tar Heels look absolutely unstoppable. Do you still follow the college game?
Smith: Yeah. I'm not as [big a follower] as maybe I was four years ago because I had a lot of kids that played on my AAU team that went to college, but I still watch intently. I've seen UConn, watched Carolina, seen UCLA, I've watched the games.
BDL: Do you wish that Turner would start carrying college games?
Smith: I wouldn't do college. My [schedule] would be too much. I do miss doing the draft, because I know we did a really good job with it, and it gives you the window of opportunity to [introduce yourself] to the guys who are coming into the league. I think that window ... if they see you first, or if you see them first, when they [know] "I made it!" and they look up and see you, it's a connection that I think always lasts, and the guys that we did the draft with, that I see around the league, that connection ...
BDL: It always stuck with them.
Smith: It always stuck with them. We have a special relationship ... I think [the draft] was always unique and fun.
BDL: Speaking of other unique events, the All-Star game has gotten criticized over the last few years because people say the game itself has gotten boring.
BDL: Yeah, you haven't heard that?
Smith: Nah, not really, honestly.
BDL: OK, do you feel like All Star Weekend needs to be improved, or do you like it the way it is?
Smith: I just think the All Star game is what it is. It's a showcase of individual talents, and not team talents. So that's what the whole All Star Game is [about], what you've done individually, you're rewarded for, and not your team. So, that's what the whole weekend is about. It's bringing a stage to the best individual players. So, for me, that's how I look at it. It's a dunk contest, a three point contest, a skills challenge, it's an individual showcase, it's not a team concept. People like to see what individually guys do differently, what they wouldn't do in a real game ... I don't find it boring. I haven't heard that though, honestly.
BDL: You really never have?
Smith: I heard the dunk contest had gotten boring, but I had never really heard the game on a consistent basis ... Like, on different years [I've heard people say] "Oh, that game wasn't that good this year," But on a consistent basis, when they were like, "We need to change the dunk contest," and they started doing all the different things ... nothing like that, no.
BDL: I read that your wife is actually a "Price is Right" Model.
Smith: (Smiles) She's actually with Drew [Carey] right now. They went to Seattle and did an appearance in Seattle.
BDL: How come you can't pull some strings so that you guys can host "The Price is Right."
Smith: You know it's funny, they asked Chuck and I not to host it, but to come on [the show]. I haven't told him [yet]. They asked me to do that. It's funny I was in the audience one time when Bob Barker was still there, we weren't married at the time, she was like, "Come to the show," We were engaged, so I'm like all right, I go to the show, I think I'm going to sit in the back, and they're like, "You want to sit in the audience?" They sit me in the audience, and gave me a sticker with my name. So, I'm sitting in like the second row. Every time the camera goes by, I'm trying to get out of the way. Now, granted, I knew they weren't going to call me [up to the stage], because of [the personal connections] but I'm literally (holds out arms) here's the row where you bid, I'm right behind it. The whole show. So anyway, I had a radio show at the time, I get a call in, "Hey Kenny, were you on "The Price is Right"?" [My co-host] Ian Eagle goes, "Get out of here, Kenny wasn't on the Price is Right ..." I said, "Hold on, I was on the show." [The caller] was like, "I was flipping the channel and I saw your face, and I turned back and the camera was gone, but I thought it was you." (Smiles)
BDL: Did you end up watching that show?
Smith: Yeah, I watched it. I was on there. If you watched the show, you'd see me because I'm right behind there.
BDL: So what's your favorite "Price is Right" game?
Smith: I used to like the guy that goes up [the board] the yodeler, [attempts to yodel]. (Laughs) And he falls off ...
BDL: What about Plinko? You like Plinko?
Smith: Ahh Plinko, it's all right ... I've spun the wheel before.
BDL: Oh yeah, what happened?
Smith: I didn't get the dollar. I just did it, the show was over, and I just spun the wheel. I mean that's a big deal isn't it?
BDL: No question.
Smith: (Smiles) The wheel is an American icon. That wheel is an iconic figure in American television.
BDL: Getting back to your own show, when Inside the NBA finally stops ...
Smith: We'll stop before the show stops.
BDL: You think so?
Smith: Oh, yeah. What will happen is he [points to Barkley] or I will be gone. There's something that will take us away from the mix, and then all of a sudden the match will fall out. That's what will happen. As long as we're together, the three of us, every day there's something different. There's a new interest that all of us have, that will always keep that fire burning. When [Charles] is low I can put the gasoline on, when I'm low, [Charles] can do it, Ernie can do it. I know what buttons to hit ... it's gonna take one of us, [Charles] becomes the Governor of Alabama, I become the President of a team ...
BDL: What team?
Smith: (Smiles) That's when you're gonna go, "OK, the show's over."
BDL: You guys have become famous for the "Gone Fishing" segments during the playoffs. When the show finally ends, do you think you guys will actually go fishing and drink some champagne on the boat?
Smith: I'd have to set that up. You know I came up with that [Gone Fishing stuff]? It was pretty funny. We used to play the Phoenix Suns, the Phoenix mascot [was] The Gorilla. We were playing, it was game six in the playoffs, The Gorilla comes out, he used to do this thing, he comes out to "The Andy Griffith Song," Doo do doo do doo doo" and he had a fishing pole, and he had all the teams that they had knocked out, and then the last thing, he opens it up and it says "Rockets." I was like, "We ain't going fishing man, ain't no way." That's how I came up with [the Gone Fishing stuff] because of the Phoenix Suns' Gorilla did that bit. So, I just remembered it when I got to TNT and that's how it started.
BDL: So at some point you guys will just ride off into the sunset?
Smith: And go fishing ... See when you go fishing something bad happened. This ain't gonna be bad. When we go fishing, when we go out, it ain't gonna be [like] "Gone Fishing," We're gonna still go clubbin', 'cause "Gone Fishing" is a negative connotation of what your career was that year. We will never have that.
BDL: So you're gonna get on the boat and ...
Smith: (Smiles) We're gonna get on a yacht and it's gonna be poppin' on the yacht.