Kenny “The Jet” Smith On Archie Goodwin, Joe Johnson and Michael Jordan’s Game in Pine Bluff

Kenny Smith has been on the sideline for plenty of basketball games in Arkansas. Mostly, it’s been as a coach of his Aim High AAU team in the Real Deal in the Rock tournament during the last few years. The Los Angeles-based team has had its share of wins and losses.

But for Smith, who won two NBA championships before becoming an NBA analyst for TNT, his first game in Arkansas – as a North Carolina Tarheels point guard – will always be the most aggravating.

Although the year was 1984, his Tarheels were living out a Utopian vision for the start of a college basketball season. North Carolina had bolted to a 21-0 start, a No. 1 ranking and looked well on its way to securing the second national title in star junior guard Michael Jordan’s college career.

Smith, then a freshman, had earned the starting job – and a moniker of “The Jet” – with speed and hops rarely seen in floor generals of that era.

“I was able to get the ball from free throw line to free throw line in three seconds,” he recalled on Friday at Embassy Suites Little Rock. “It made it impossible to guard guys like Michael in the open court. You know, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, those guys in the open floor – it made it impossible to guard them at times.”

On an attempted dunk against LSU in January, 1984, Smith broke his left wrist after a hard foul. Still, it appeared North Carolina wasn’t going to miss a beat. Reserve guard Steve Hale stepped in, and the Tarheels beat LSU by 11 before reeling off five more decisive wins.

“We never expected to lose,” Smith says.

The Razorbacks thought otherwise.

North Carolina was scheduled to fly into Pine Bluff to play Arkansas on February 12. The Hogs were unranked but had been led to an 18-4 record by center Joe Kleine and  guard Alvin Robertson.

“We knew who they were,” Smith recalls. “But when you’re ranked No. 1, you’re not concerned who they were… I don’t think we were concerned that we couldn’t do the things we normally would have done throughout the year.”

 More than 7,500 fans jammed into the Pine Bluff Convention Center to watch David try to take down Goliath on this Sunday afternoon nationally televised game.

“It was an electric atmosphere. You know, when we came out it always was semi-electric, but I would say this was on a higher scale for sure,” Smith says. “It was like a conference game more than a non-conference game.”

Smith watched from the bench as Arkansas played the game of its season. Robertson, along with forwards Leroy Sutton, Darryl Bedford and Charles Ballentine, scored in double figures. Joe Kleine, though, stood out with 20 points and a 10-for-10 performance from the free throw line.

“Kleine was unconscious” Smith said. “I don’t think he missed a job from that free throw line, which was a little bit different. You look at his build, his size and his frame – you wouldn’t think he’s a jump shooter.”

With seconds left in the ballgame, Ballentine hit an eight-foot jumper to put Arkansas up 65-64. Steve Hale’s ensuing shot rimmed out as the buzzer sounded and just like that one of the greatest upsets in Hog history was over.

For Smith, the loss was a wake-up call. He realized how vital he was to his older teammates’ title hopes [UNC only lost to Arkansas in the regular season but eventually lost in the NCAA tourney’s second round].

“I always felt I was along for the ride until then… That was the first time I felt like ‘Wow, I’m a pretty good player because I think they need me tonight.’”

Smith gives credit to the Hogs’ effort – “Overall, they played just a great team game” – but he can’t help but think his participation in that game would have made the difference.

In the decades since then, “The Jet” has proved a difference maker in fields beyond basketball  – namely broadcasting, music and charity. He combined three of his four interests on this weekend’s trip when he participated in a karaoke fundraiser for the Real Deal in the Rock tournament and his own AIM HIGH Foundation.

Evin Demirel sat down with Kenny Smith to discuss the tournament, non-Hog ties to Arkansas and, of course, the NBA.

Q: Besides for the Real Deal, what are some other times you’ve been to Arkansas?

A: My ex-wife used to be a newscaster here. Her name’s Dawn Reavis. She was the weekend anchor [at KATV 1990-92]

Q: How did you and your AAU team get involved with Real Deal and its co-founder Bill Ingram?

A: From being in [amateur travel ball] tournaments, this is always one of the best tournaments for youth basketball. We have a pretty good basketball program inside our foundation, so we decided to come out here and participate… it was quality and we formed a relationship.

Q: Explain your AIM HIGH non-profit’s past and what it does.

A: We’ve been doing it for over 25 years. We started out in New York City, where I’m from – with my brother Vince, who kind of ran it. Our foundation raises money for charities, so different charities solicit us at different times or create events ourselves… our biggest fundraiser that we did was for charities in Hurricane Katrina. We raised about $2.5 million during one year for that… Our basketball team is one of the components of our foundation. It’s a nice component because it brings some attention and the [high-profile] people who come out of it, but it’s just one component.

Q: As far as you know, who’s the first current or former NBA player to sponsor his own AAU team?

A: I don’t know, that would be a good question… when I was playing [in the NBA 1987-1997]  I cannot remember an NBA player who was a part of it, or seeing one on the circuit. Maybe I am the first.

Q: Some coaches blame summer circuit basketball for the decline in fundamentals in college and pro basketball. They say some of the time spent traveling and time spent playing games in AAU could be better spent on practicing skills. Your take?

A: Yeah, there are probably some [summer circuit] teams that probably underdevelop their players. There are some colleges that do that, there are some pro teams that do that. You’re a college coach – you have a kid three hours a day for four years… in the amount of time you have the kid you should be able to develop them, not AAU.

Like, I have these kids on my team for half a month in April, then I’ll have them for the month of July. And then I won’t see them again at all. I won’t [practice] with them at all.

To me that doesn’t make any sense – when you have a kid three hours a day for four years, and you say he’s coming [into college] not ready to play. That doesn’t make sense.

Q: Did you grow up a New York Knicks fan?

A: I did.

Q: I just wrote about how Bernard King, who had a devastating offensive game –

A: King’s the reason I wore #30. He was my favorite player.

Q: Really? OK, so I was thinking Sidney Moncrief seemed to be as good a defensive player in his prime as Bernard was an offensive player.

A: I would agree with that.

Q: Do you think Sidney Moncrief should be in the Hall of Fame?

A: Yeah, I do. What he was able to do for the Milwaukee franchise – he and Marques Johnson, but more him – he was the face on the team that was always one step away.

If Larry Bird had twisted his ankle one year, the Milwaukee Bucks would have been in the NBA Finals and maybe be an NBA champion one year.

So he’s a couple ankle sprains away from being thought of as maybe one of the greatest players ever.

Q: Let’s talk about Joe Johnson. Johnson had been struggling with injuries since the All-Star game and his production suffered. Do you expect Joe will fully recover and complement Deron Williams down the stretch?

A: Joe’s a solid pro, and he’s been an All-Star, he’s been a great player at times for a long time. He’s a difficult cover for a lot of guys. His size and his strength at that two guard position is not normal, so he will have success throughout his career and he’s gonna have ups and downs. But he’s gonna have way more ups than downs.

Q: Brooklyn has the fourth seed in the East right now. It looks like Atlanta could get the No. 5 spot. Let’s say those teams match up in the first round of the playoffs. Who wins?

A: If Brooklyn has the homecourt advantage they probably would. I think Brooklyn’s a better team right now.

Q: Next season, in his first year in the NBA, do you think Archie Goodwin projects to be able to contribute playing medium to major minutes?

A: That’s a hard question. When Kentucky won the national championship last year, did you think all their freshman starters were ready [to enter the NBA]? Everybody thought that. But I don’t think any of them contributed to an NBA team on a high level this season, including Anthony Davis.

So when  you ask me if Archie is ready, he might fall into the same boat as those guys, like Kidd-Gilchrist and others. Those guys didn’t make an impact in the NBA. They played. They didn’t make an impact.

Q. Sure, Davis hasn’t been the player – as a rookie – everybody thought he’d be.

A: There’s something that you have to measure in the NBA that no one else ever can measure.

(Smith points to his heart.)

Nobody can ever measure that, and how hard you work and how hard you want it. You’re the only one who can ever measure that. There’s a talent level you have to have, and he’s an NBA-talent player. But after that…

One day, Evin promises himself, he will write, blog or Tweet about something other than basketball. 

Tags: , , , , , ,