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Feb. 28, 2012
This Jet seldom experienced delays or required more than routine maintenance, and he's still in service in a slightly different capacity. He'll barely have to scoot off the runway to appear as North Carolina's ACC Legend for 2012.
Kenny "The Jet" Smith, former point guard and current television broadcaster, is a popular and practical choice. He was a consensus first-team All-American as a Tar Heel senior, and his work as a studio analyst on NBA telecasts has him based about a bounce pass away from the site of this year's ACC Tournament.
From 1983-87, Smith doled out 768 assists, the second-highest career total in ACC history at the time. His leadership and precise guidance helped UNC post an average record of 29-5 in his four seasons, and he's still prominent on an impressive list of great Tar Heel point guards.
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He is further buffered from obscurity by virtue of his TV career, in which he is a foil for the comical, off-the-wall declarations of his Turner Sports comrade, Charles Barkley. Their on-air chemistry is the sort of thing Smith developed on the floor with the legion of future pros along the UNC front line.
In that role, he has the liberty to reference one of the best games of his college career, a 22-point, six-assist performance against Barkley's former club, Auburn, in the 1985 NCAA Tournament. That result put the Tar Heels into a regional final against Villanova. The Wildcats prevailed and continued in winning an improbable NCAA championship.
As a senior, Smith averaged 16.5 points and 9.0 assists over four NCAA games as the Tar Heels again made the Elite Eight and fell just short, 79-75. He recorded 25 points and seven assists in that final game, played against Syracuse. He was named consensus first-team All-America and National Player of the Year by Basketball Times.
He came to Carolina as another of UNC's several outstanding recruits from in and around New York City. Five of those have been highly decorated point guards, and that sub-category includes Larry Brown (1960-63), Jimmy Black (1978-82) and two of Smith's successors, Derrick Phelps (1990-94) and Ed Cota (1996-2000). In other words, Smith arrived in the middle of a stretch in which Big Apple point guards were in charge for 16 of 22 seasons.
Smith brought the confidence and grit of his home turf to the ACC, and he had another undeniable element: speed. A head-and-shoulders fake followed by a devastating first dribble often left opponents compelled to help from the wings or the post. Smith then had the touch to make pull-up intermediate shots or find a cadre of teammates that included Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan. Such are the options every point guard dreams of, and Smith generally made the right choice. Along with a two-to-one assist-turnover ratio, he shot better than 50 percent from the floor in all four seasons. That's exceptionally uncommon for a guard and is even more rare these days, when the allure of the 3-point shot can become an unwise distraction.
Smith only earned first-team All-ACC honors once, as a senior in 1987, but that's a testament to the depth of talent in the league over anything else. He smoothly proceeded to a successful, 11-year NBA career that featured a leading role on two championship teams in Houston. He averaged a shade under 13 points and 5.5 assists per game in the pros and was an All-Rookie selection in 1988.
He became a broadcaster in 1998 and immediately found the TNT studio gig to be another solid fit. Quick witted and subtle, he is essentially the straight man to Barkley's comedy. The repartee is often every bit as entertaining as the games it describes.
Smith, who played for the Hawks on the site of the current Philips Arena, is probably the most recognizable of this year's legends and can reasonably anticipate a warm welcome in his current hometown.