In 2003, as Michael Jordan bid farewell to his legendary NBA career, the impact he had on aspiring basketball players became even more evident. Among those inspired was Kenny 'The Jet' Smith, who had the unique privilege of being Jordan's college teammate for a single season before they both embarked on their NBA journeys.
Today, Smith finds himself alongside iconic figures like Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Ernie Johnson in a prestigious broadcast studio, reflecting on the days when he aspired to match Jordan's greatness. Kenny Smith's connection with Michael Jordan dates back to their time as University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels.
Smith arrived at Chapel Hill in 1983, and during his freshman year, he had the opportunity to share the court with Jordan, who was in his final season with the Tar Heels. Little did they know, both would soon make their mark in the NBA, with Jordan joining the Chicago Bulls in 1984 and Smith later signing with the Sacramento Kings in 1987.
Jordan's Unforeseen NBA Stardom
While college Jordan displayed promise, few could have predicted the superstar he would become in the NBA. Smith, in a 2003 interview, admitted, "I really didn't think he was going to be as good as he is now." At the time, another UNC teammate, Sam Perkins, was the one garnering the limelight, with his four-year All-American status.
Perkins was even chosen ahead of Jordan as the first overall pick by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1984 NBA Draft. However, it was Jordan who went on to win multiple NBA championships, solidifying his status as the greater Tar Heel athlete in history.
As Jordan's career soared to unparalleled heights, Kenny Smith found himself celebrating two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets during Jordan's first retirement, emphasizing the contrast in their respective careers.
Despite their diverging paths, a memorable interaction between the two during a summer league game continued to resonate with Smith. In 2003, he shared this anecdote, shedding light on Jordan's relentless pursuit of greatness.
During their college days, Smith and Jordan would compete in summer league games. After each match, while other players headed to hydrate, Jordan would consistently stand alone in the middle of the court. Intrigued by this ritual, Smith finally inquired about its significance.
Jordan's response was quintessentially MJ: "Because when everybody is off the court, I want to say that I'm still on the court more than anyone." Inspired by his teammate's determination, Smith adopted the same practice, striving to be like Mike both on and off the court.
Today, Kenny Smith's memories of emulating his college teammate remain a testament to Michael Jordan's enduring influence. Despite the years that have passed since their time together, the legacy of Jordan's relentless pursuit of greatness continues to inspire generations of basketball players worldwide.