Up Close and Personal with Rockets Legend Kenny Smith
Widely known for his deft insight and perspective into the NBA—alongside co-hosts Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Ernie Johnson—on TNT’s pre- and postgame Inside the NBA broadcasts, Kenny “the Jet” Smith is a true Renaissance man. In addition to winning two NBA championships with the Rockets, he’s enjoyed a successful run on television, dabbled in acting, and now can add published author to his resume.
We sat down with the very busy Smith in between tapings of Inside the NBA to discuss his time in the league, his two-decade-long broadcasting career, his new book, and the formative personal and professional relationships he’s built along the way.
During your 10-year NBA career, you spent six seasons with the Rockets. What kept you here for so long?
What kept me there is I was one of the perfect pieces that fit into that championship mix. Each year I think I was that first piece that the franchise looked at and said, “Hey, we can kind of get back to prominence if we add some more pieces. What made me enjoy the city is [that] it’s a big city. Being from New York, it has that next-door feeling. You know your next-door neighbor, you know the people around you. That’s what I liked about it and that’s what made me stay years afterwards.
You won back-to-back championships with the Rockets (1994 and 1995). Is one more memorable?
Comparing championships is like comparing who’s your favorite kid. I will say the second one was harder. There were more obstacles to overcome. We had elements that didn’t unite us as easily and complacency started to leak out. But we became a team that people were excited to play against.
How did you know it was time to retire, and did you know you wanted to pursue broadcasting?
Retirement [came about] when I started to get a lot of one-year situations. Like every year uprooting your family, moving to a different place became a little strenuous. TNT used to bring in players every year.... After one segment, one of the producers was like, "Hey, if you really want to do this, I think you’re good at it." I thought it was just a parting gift they said to everyone. Toward the end of my career I got a call from one of the producers and he said, "I have an opportunity for you." At that point I made a career decision and here I am 20 something years later.
How is broadcasting different from playing? Do you ever apologize to a player about something you said on air?
I never tread lightly, I never tread hard. I just tread on what I see, which allows me to still have relationships with players. Everything I say I can back up with film. I never question heart, passion, or things I can’t measure. But I can say you didn’t run back on defense fast enough and here’s the film to show it. I’ve played so you can’t fool me. They might not like that you point out those things but they have to respect it because there is some validity towards it.
You walked off the set in 2020 as a show of solidarity with NBA players protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake. Do you think race relations have improved since then?
This is the reason I wrote the book. Once I did that, a literary agent called me and said, “You have a story. There’s a reason why you did that. All those events that happened in your life made you make the decision to walk off the set.” There is a platform, a megaphone, that is now available that wasn’t there before. [Sometimes] it takes the voice of a person who is not being affected to make the change. Then people who aren’t being affected start to really listen and care about social injustice.
Tell us more about your book Talk of Champions. What can readers expect?
It is a tell-all book. I’m telling everything that I learned from great people. What they think, how they think, and how [readers] can get there. It’s a self-help in that regard. You’ll be able to gain access to see how the greatest people in the world—and not just in sports—have moved on a personal basis. Every chapter is named after a specific person.
What was Kobe Bryant like off the court, and what life lessons did he teach you?
We weren’t close but we had a short, very profound meeting. The gym [where] he coached his daughter and her team is where I was coaching my son and his team. We’d practice at the Mamba (and Mambacita Sports Foundation) and Kobe would be there, and you’d see him coaching and I knew what he had to do and what he'd sacrificed. As a parent, I know how difficult that was and the decisions he was making to coach his daughter. That’s a heavy commitment to do that, when you can afford the luxuries of so many other things.
You’ve also done some acting, playing Leon Rich in the 2022 movie Hustle. If you had to choose one occupation, what would it be?
Playing in the NBA—there’s nothing like it. There’s no profession that compares to an NBA player. Twenty thousand people every time you come out, [following] every movement. For 82 games, sometimes you have success in front of them and sometimes you have failure. There’s nothing like the NBA.
The Rockets recently hired former Celtics coach Ime Udoka to be their new head coach. Any thoughts on how the team can get back to contention?
I think there are steps to greatness and there are steps to making young players understand what the league is about. I always feel that young players are at stages in their careers where they need vets around them. If they’re not able to compete with them for their minutes, then these young players typically don’t listen to the vets. But if there are veterans that can actually compete, then young players’ antennas are raised. I think that’s one of the biggest things is finding those veteran players who can actually compete but are not in competition with them.
Any interest in coaching yourself?
Maybe years ago, but right now I get a lot of calls from team management, presidents, and owners. They view me now as a person to call and ask for advice. Which leads me to think that my voice is a bigger voice in terms of an overall picture than just coaching. I think I can do well at this stage in my life as maybe a team president. I’m a confidant, so that’s a realm I would do well in.