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Kenny ‘Jet’ Smith an air traffic controller for fellow NBA announcer Charles Barkley

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for about three decades, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Steve Canal, manager of community commerce and partnerships for MillerCoors, is a tall man, and the microphone is set at a short man’s height.

Kenny Smith, the Jet, sits next to the lectern. As Canal speaks, Smith pulls the lower end of the long microphone down so the upper end reaches up. A point guard never stops giving.

Smith, an NBA studio analyst for the TNT Network, played for North Carolina and for 10 seasons in the NBA. He was in Charlotte Wednesday to present a $25,000 check to the Urban League Young Professionals of the Central Carolinas. The money will help restore a basketball court at the Charlotte Housing Authority’s Sunridge apartments. The check is part of Coors Light Full Court Refresh program.

After the presentation at the offices of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas, we go to a smaller room and talk. Smith, who wears a purple sweater, sprawls across a small chair.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Smith, 49, says about the Coors program with which he’s involved and other programs he worked with previously. After Charlotte, they’ll go to Philadelphia and New York for a similar presentation.

“There’s no strings attached,” he says. “This is the right thing to do. We’re in the position to refurbish the courts, which in turn helps people in the community feel different about themselves. People just feel better. And it makes you think differently. The court is the centerpiece of a community a lot of times and it’s very visible.”

You played with Michael Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, at North Carolina. Do you talk?

“Every now and then,” Smith says. “The Bobcats are doing well. Michael’s got them rolling. Been a while since the playoffs have been something they aspired to. Obviously adding Al (Jefferson to the team) was big.”

Point guard Kemba Walker also is, for a 6-foot-1 or so player, big. He’s fearless, too. Are you a fan?

“He has a knack for knowing the moment,” says Smith, who like Walker is from New York. “He has a knack for it. And it seems like in every big moment in the game he’s somehow part of it, good or bad, which is difficult to do.”

Smith and Charles Barkley are working with CBS on NCAA telecasts. Smith and Barkley are the cool guys. Clark Kellogg is the nerd who desperately wants to be one of them.

Smith laughs.

Kellogg “comes from a very analytical point of view where we don’t always come from that,” Smith says. “I think it’s a good mix. And it’s been enjoyable.”

Barkley is one of the most incisive, honest and funny men in broadcasting. Smith is the rare cohort who can keep up and even control the big man.

“I think my point guard skills definitely help,” says Smith. “And I can tell when people come in to our show and even co-workers, people don’t know how to manage him. But he’s like a lot of people I grew up knowing. They just weren’t good basketball players.”

Barkley strikes as the same guy on the air when the cameras are turned off.

“He’s the same,” says Smith. “Actually, he’s more. Hear him before you see him. I always say that he talks like a George Foreman or Mike Tyson. Meaning, he’s going to say something that’s going to knock out you. He’s not a jab guy – Sugar Ray Leonard.”

Who are you picking in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals?

“My wild card was UConn, and they made it,” says Smith. “Wisconsin is a lot better than people know. They’re a pretty impressive team. They’re tough. Those are the teams I kind of rooted for, and that’s what it’s about now, rooting and not analysis.”

He picks UConn and Wisconsin to play for the NCAA men’s championship.

About the reason Smith is in town: He says putting a new court in a neighborhood is like putting a new shirt on your body. You pop the tag and feel differently about yourself.

Refurbish a court, Smith says, and a community can feel differently about itself. It can feel as if people care.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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