TNT’s Kenny Smith Says It’s ‘Inevitable’ He’ll Leave TV For Front Office

    • Co-star of ‘Inside the NBA’ created a ‘virtual’ basketball academy during the pandemic.
    • Smith hopes to sign up 1 million customers worldwide for the new ‘Jet Academy.’

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Kenny “The Jet” Smith has always been entrepreneurial. Rather than taking it easy during the coronavirus pandemic, he created a “virtual” basketball academy for kids featuring real NBA and WNA stars. His new online basketball camp, “The Jet Academy,” is set to take flight July 20.

The co-star of Turner Sports’ “Inside the NBA” will host live weekly online sessions with NBA stars Kemba Walker, Trae Young, and Victor Oladipo as well as the WNBA’s Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner. 

These stars will participate via instructional videos, coach talks and Q&A’s. Pricing ranges from $89 for a single month to $349 for a yearly membership.

The two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets has also been a rumored candidate for general manager jobs with the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings.  

From Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr in the NBA to Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock in the NFL, sports television is a fertile recruiting ground for coaching and executive talent.

Front Office Sports asked the 55-year old Queens native about possibly leaving TNT for a front office gig and other pressing topics as the NBA prepares to resume play July 30 in Orlando. 

Smith’s Emmy Award-winning ‘Inside the NBA’ returns July 9, with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson. Excerpts:

Front Office Sports: Your name comes up often as a possible GM. Do you see yourself running a franchise someday? 

KS: It’s inevitable from a basketball standpoint I will be moving on. The consumption and production of information that I’ve received, the way I’m able to relay it, and the relationships, it’s inevitable. It’s just inevitable…You’re around things. You’re privy to information for 20 years from runners to agents to general managers and owners that no one else has been privy to. No one else. Every team in the league has told me something they’ve told no one else.

FOS: Is there an NBA club trying to hire you right now?

KS: Right now we’re in a COVID-19 world. But after this 22-game thing, then the dust will clear. Because everyone’s not really sure where they are. They’re thinking, ‘Are we still where we were when we left off? Are we better? Do we have another chance since this is the start of a new season?’ Once that diminishes and goes away, my phone always rings. One day I’m going to answer and they’re going to answer back at the same time…Both parties will say yes.

FOS: Tell us about launching your new international business in the midst of a pandemic.  

KS:  I’m super excited. I had a basketball camp with 700 kids. It got cancelled. A  camp in Europe. Cancelled.  I was talking with my son and my daughter. They said, ‘You should just do it virtual.’ I have a great friend in the tech world. I just started picking his brain about tech and how to do it. So I created the first live streaming basketball camp with the top NBA players and WNBA players. 

They’re basically your personal instructors for two hours every day. Kemba Walker, Trae Young, Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Brittney Griner and more to come. I just thought it was needed…The way everyone has been consuming and producing information is virtually. My kids go to school online now.

READ MORE: NBA Set to Spend $150 Million on Orlando ‘Bubble’

Kids can do this anywhere, on any device. You can do it on your phone, you can do it on your laptop, you can do it on your iPad. You can do it on anything. You can go to the park, put your phone up on the pole, pop it up, and you could do it there. I was like, ‘This is it.’ 

A lot of times when kids and people go to personal trainers, those guys do a great job. But they can’t tell you why to do the move and when to do it. So I told Kemba and Trae, ‘You’ve got to give me your real workout man. You’ve got to pull the covers off when you do the pullback (jumper), Kemba.’ Because that’s going to make it unique and interesting to the membership. So that’s what we’re doing. 

When do you do it? Why do you do it? How do you do it? These are the guys who made these moves famous. 

FOS: How many customers do you expect to sign up? 

KS: We’re limitless. We’re around the world. We’re using the streaming system that Coachella uses, that the NBA’s concert series uses. So it’s around the world. Anyone can sign up. 

Our goal is to have a million kids around the world, working out and being personally trained. You’re in this unique community. You can upload your video – and we critique it in 48 hours. There’s live Q&A. Think of all these social media platforms? I just put them together during the pandemic. I’m like, ‘OK, they do great when it’s live. You can actually chat. OK, we’re doing that.  Oh, so you can upload a video and send it? OK, we’re doing that.’ So it’s all of the things. I just think it’s a sustainable business. 

I just know that if I was 12 years old, if I was 15 years old, if I was 17 years old, I’m not only watching Kemba but I’m thinking, ‘What the heck does Sue Bird do? Let me go check that out. Let me go do a two-hour workout with Sue Bird.’ Nine-time WNBA All-Star and MVP of the league? Let me go work out with her, you know?’

FOS: Has the pandemic given us a window into the home lives of sports celebrities? 

KS: Without question. I’m doing mine from home when I’m hosting – in my backyard. Trae is doing it in a private gym that he works out in. Kemba is doing it in a gym in Boston that he only works out in. Then they’re in the [NBA] bubble in Orlando. They’re going to be live from the bubble area. Those are the types of things you can’t get access to.

FOS: Speaking of the bubble, are you going to Orlando? Or will TNT do your show from Atlanta?

KS: They’re asking us to go to the [NBA] Conference Finals. But I don’t know if that’s 100% yet. They just sent the request to do it. They didn’t give me the stipulations. We haven’t talked about what the safety precautions are. I guess they’ll do that when we go to Atlanta for the whole month of July. It wouldn’t be until September.

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FOS: More NBA players like Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are questioning how the bubble will work. Your take?

KS: It’s all unknown. No one’s going to be an expert on what the safety precautions need to be. We’ve all seen that anyone can get the virus. Anyone. All ages. I know an 11-year old kid down the block who has it. So anyone can get it. 

You just have to create environments for yourself that are a little bit safer. Anyone can get robbed. But if you walk around, flashing jewelry, throwing $100 bills in the air, your odds have picked up. So you’re just trying to reduce your odds in getting it. No one can say that you can’t get it.

FOS: The NBA was the first sports league to shut down. Now it looks like they’ll be one of the first U.S. leagues to come back.

KS: Unbelievable. So I’m just hoping that the same information and confidence that we’ve had in closing, we have in opening. 

FOS: What happens in the wake of the George Floyd protests? Will NBA players take a knee – although the league requires they stand during the U.S. national anthem?

KS: I think that the current players have always, as a whole, led by guys like Chris Paul, LeBron [James], Carmelo [Anthony], Kyrie [Irving], said something. They haven’t sat dormant. So I don’t expect anything different. They’ll continue to send their messages on social awareness. They’re in the pulse of what America is – and in the pulse of American fabric. I do not think that will change because of the pandemic and or social distancing.

FOS: Has the conversation changed when it comes to racism in all its malignant forms?

KS: Some of my friends who aren’t African-American say, ‘I didn’t realize all this was happening to you? That you feel this way?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, this is pretty normal. It’s a normal thing for us.’ 

You know when you’re at the beach, and you see the wave coming, and it hits you in the face? We’ve seen that. Everyone identities with that. What’s being identified now is the undercurrent, which pulls you to sea and drowns you. It’s more deadly. It’s now being exposed and talked about. As White America listens, they say, ‘Wow, I saw that. But I didn’t realize this was a ramification of that. Wow, I didn’t see that coming.’  Then there’s some that’s going, ‘Well, I knew it was that – and I was still trying to keep it that way.’ So we’re finally getting awareness. What I feel is: The Emperor is naked brother. You’re naked…Anybody who’s oppressed or feels suppressed? It’s easy for them to bring it out. But the compassion and change comes when it’s the person who isn’t. That’s when it changes. To me. 

FOS: With no fans in the stands, how do you feel about the TV networks pumping in artificial crowd noise?  

KS: I don’t know if that would help me or hurt me if I was playing. I don’t think it would affect me either way. I think it would help the viewer at home and the few people let into the arena to watch. 

FOS: If you’re Turner or ESPN, will it help or hurt the telecast?  

KS: I think it would hurt. Everything that the fans want is authentic. So anything that’s authentic, I’ll take. Hearing the crowd noise might sound good. But hearing the (on-court player) chatter now – which you couldn’t hear before – might be a new way of looking at things.

You can’t hear that during a normal telecast. But now you’re going to be like, ‘Hey,  they did call 5-Out and the guy didn’t do the play.’…You’re going to hear the coach say, ‘We’re switching everything!’ Then at the end of the game, you’re going to be like, ‘I heard you say we’re switching everything. And John and Kenny did not switch. Is that the reason you lost this game?’

I just think about J.R. Smith’s [blunder with LeBron James in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals]. There’s going to be no doubt now about what was said and done. You’re going to hear all of that. I’d rather hear that than an artificial roar.

FOS: Your reaction to NBA players possibly placing social messages on the backs of their jerseys? 

KS: The product is not going to change based on what you have on your back. This is a predominantly African American, Black league in terms of players. The players that make the most impact in the economy of the sport are African American. This is a multibillion-dollar business. I’m glad we’re allowed to speak out…There’s no sport that has greater African Americans percentages than basketball. How can they not have the biggest voice?  This collection of African Americans, if you put their net worth together, nowhere else does it equal the sport of basketball. So how can they not have the biggest voice?