Eye of the Tiger
I was jealous of Scottie Pippen. All through our playing days, and even today—I’m still jealous of Scottie Pippen.
The Chicago Bulls were considering choosing me. Their front office brought me in beforehand and asked about Michael Jordan, my old teammate at the University of North Carolina.
“He gets on guys,” they said. “He won’t pass the ball. He’ll scream at his teammates in practice. How would you handle that?”
The question seemed silly. Why would anyone have a problem learning from Michael, no matter how he delivered feedback? Plus, he only got on the guys who needed it. That wasn’t me.
“He wouldn’t do that to me,” I said. “Because he knows I can play.”
They looked at me kind of funny. Soon after, the Bulls chose Scottie. I went to the Sacramento Kings with the very next pick.
In that moment and for many years after, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Michael would have helped me become a perennial All-Star, even a Hall of Famer. His competitiveness would have taken me to another level.
I watched Scottie mature into that, and I felt it could have been me, because I know what type of energy Michael brings into you if you’re open to it. I watched Steve Kerr and B. J. Armstrong play alongside Michael and I thought, I don’t know if they understand what he’s bringing to them.
During the quarantine period of 2020, when the Jordan documentary The Last Dance was all the sports world could talk about, I laughed at the guys who said they didn’t like it when Michael got on them in practice.
If you connect with what Michael is really about, you realize that he’s actually generous. He’s going to share what makes him great and allow that once-in-a-lifetime competitive spirit to rub off on you.
In The Last Dance, they showed the famous image of Michael hugging the NBA championship trophy and crying after he won his first title in 1991.
Most people thought he was crying because he won. But that wasn’t it. He cried because he competed and left it all out there. It was the release of all that competitive energy that made him emotional. He would have cried the same way if he’d lost.
How do I know this? At North Carolina, juniors and seniors had to share a room on the road with freshmen and sophomores. Often as an underclassman I would room with Michael, who was two years ahead of me.
When you’re eighteen or nineteen years old, you have conversations that you don’t have at thirty. You’re still vulnerable and figuring out who you are. This is when he was Mike Jordan, a kid from the South who wore corny clothes and drove a corny car. A kid who liked a girl at school who didn’t really like him back. He wasn’t yet Michael Jordan, American icon.
We’d be lying there in the dark, trying to sleep after a game, well past midnight.
“Smith? You awake?” he’d say from across the room.
“Yeah, I’m awake.”
And we’d spend the next few hours talking about our dreams and fears, developing a bond that would survive through later decades in which we hardly saw each other.
The school bell rang at 2:20 p.m., signaling the end of the day at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, New York. It was 1981 and I was in the eleventh grade.
Desks slid across the floor and lockers slammed. My two best friends and teammates, George Kingland and Chris Sterling, and I dashed out of the school. There was no basketball practice that day, and for kids our age that represented a special few hours of freedom.
If you skipped every other stair as you sprinted out of the building, you could catch the N train that pulled in at two thirty and be home by three. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly exciting waiting for us at home; it’s more that teenagers are in a hurry to get as far from school as they can, as quickly as possible.
Archbishop Molloy was an all-boys school at the time, and the sheer energy and testosterone pouring out of that building every afternoon must have been something to behold. This was a Friday, which brought the frenzy up yet another notch.
We busted out of the school and ran the 334 yards to the Main Street subway station (yes, we had measured it).
As we rushed down the subway steps, we could hear the train pull into the station. Chris, George, and I ripped off our parochial school–mandated neckties, because we didn’t want to be seen in them by either a cute girl or a tough guy who might want to make a victim of a private school kid.
We dropped our tokens in the slot and ran through the turnstile as we heard the automated voice saying, “The doors are now closing.”
We slithered through the doors as they sealed off the kids on the platform who hadn’t quite made it. We turned and laughed at them.
Breathing as if we’d just run wind sprints after practice, we collapsed onto the plastic seats—and that’s when I heard the crackle and pop. It sounded like I’d sat on a bag of potato chips.
My first thought was to look behind me to see if there was indeed something on the seat, so I tried to stand. I couldn’t. My knee had gone extremely wrong, and I couldn’t even straighten my leg.
By the end of the day I learned that my growth plate had broken off and was dislodged inside the joint of my knee. The doctors said surgery was necessary, and just like that all my dreams fell into serious jeopardy. Playing on national television, advancing to college and the NBA—it was all endangered.
When I woke from the surgery, the concern on my face must have been obvious. My dad, standing next to my mom at the side of the bed, saw it and made a perfectly timed comment that reignited the drive in me.
“This injury can stop you and you can become a lamb,” he said. “Or you can work hard to become a tiger. Who’s eating who?”
I decided to work. I decided to be a tiger.
Over the next six months my brother Vince, a basketball savant, devised a custom practice routine that I could handle while rehabbing the knee.
Me, Vince, and my dad ran six miles together every day. We came up with drills: dribbling a basketball up the stairs, dribbling two basketballs as we evaded a dodgeball, shooting over my brother as he held a broom trying to swat our shots.
Within six months I had not only worked my way back from the injury but had gone from having no scholarship offers to being recruited by nearly every school in the country.
A first-team All-American, I narrowed my choices to Duke University, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina. UNC was my final visit of the three.
The legendary coach Dean Smith came to New York to watch me score 41 points against Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School and its star point guard Mark Jackson, who later became an NBA All-Star, head coach, and ABC/ESPN analyst. Mark dropped 39 that night, but we came out on top.
Coach Smith and I then flew down to Chapel Hill together. When I arrived on campus, he assigned two players to chauffeur me around, Buzz Peterson and a sophomore who, a year earlier, had hit the game winner against Georgetown University to capture a national championship. His name was Michael Jordan.
That day I met Mike, not Michael. To a New Yorker like me, he seemed very southern. I was used to seeing colored jeans or gabardine pants, Kangol hats, and Adidas. Mike wore skinny jeans, a light blue tennis shirt, and Converse sneakers.
In New York, style ruled, and hip-hop ruled. Mike listened to R&B and didn’t even know about rap music.
He was not actually a big shot at school that year. Sam Perkins was a four-time first-team All-American, and he ruled the campus. But as great as Sam was, I sensed pretty quickly that Michael had a certain “it” factor—not a skill set, but a mindset.
It started with an ability to be confident but inclusive, aggressive but caring. As he and Buzz showed me around campus, I came down with the flu, with symptoms that worsened as the day went on.
“Can you guys take me back to my room?” I asked.
Mike looked at Buzz.
“Let’s stop by the pharmacy and get city boy some flu medicine,” he said.
This might have been nothing more than a tossed-off comment to him, but it was my first experience with anyone in my male peer group outwardly showing concern.
In New York we had to fend for ourselves. A friend might have said, “Bro, you better think about getting some meds in you.”
That difference, subtle but meaningful, was cool to me.
“Hey, Mr. New York,” Mike added. “Don’t worry, I get a lot of players sick when they come through Chapel Hill.”
That brought out my New York competitiveness, and I got a little defensive.
“I’m not sick,” I said. “My game is sick, sick as in lethal.”
Mike turned to Buzz. Both were smiling.
“We have a real one here!” Mike said. “I like him!”
That evening I went back to my room for a nap. Feeling feverish, I slept through a dinner that the team had planned for me. At one point I felt someone shaking my shoulder; looking up, I saw Mike and Buzz standing over me, checking to make sure I was OK.
By the morning my fever broke and I joined the team at practice.
“Hey, New York, watch this!” Mike yelled as I walked into the gym. “Class is in session!”
That would prove to be one of his favorite lines, and I always loved it. Basketball is a thinking man’s game, a school with different subjects.
This practice was a master class. Mike had an unparalleled understanding of the game. Look at this country bumpkin thinking ahead of everyone else, I thought. His skill set, however, didn’t yet match his intellect. I rated him a B plus. His jump shot and his ball handling needed improvement.
This practice was also the first time I had seen so many seven-footers on one team: Sam Perkins. Warren Martin. Brad Daugherty. Their size intimidated me.
I can’t play here, I thought. I’m not good enough.
This was the first time in my life I’d looked at other players and felt they were simply better. Even on other college visits I hadn’t experienced this. At that moment I knew I couldn’t go to the University of North Carolina. I was scared in the same way as after my knee surgery.
Practice ended and Mike called out to me.
“Hey, city boy,” he said. “We’ll be out in a second. We’ll take you to get something to eat.”
Mike strutted to his blue Monte Carlo, which he had just gotten and was so proud of. Being from New York, the car was corny as hell to me—an old man car. But it was clean and new and I didn’t have a car at all, so I just laughed to myself.
We jumped in. I was quiet. Mike blasted his music as we drove to the restaurant. More R&B.
“What do you think, New York?” Mike said. “You think you’re coming here?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I got to think about it.”
We stopped at a traffic light. He turned to me.
“You’re coming,” he said. “You know why?”
I looked back at him but said nothing.
“You got that eye,” he said. “That eye like I have. It’s the eye of the tiger.”
Then, I kid you not, he popped a cassette into the tape deck. “Eye of the Tiger,” that song from Rocky III, started blasting. We laughed and sang along.
I thought back to a year earlier, when I woke up from surgery and my dad asked if I was a lamb or a tiger. After the knee injury, I’d chosen to run toward what scared me, not away from it.
Though I didn’t announce it until a month later, I decided at that moment to join Mike and play at UNC.
Mike and I got along great the whole year we played together. It was always, “Kenny, you’re going to New York—here’s two hundred dollars. Can you buy me that belt and hat you’ve got?”
He was country and I had all the New York gear. At that time, if you went looking for a pair of Adidas in North Carolina, they only came in one color. In New York, I could get them in orange, blue, almost any color.
“How do you get orange Adidas?” he would say.
“Man, it’s right around the corner. I’ll get you some.”
That stuff was fun, but it was on the court that he really changed my life. Michael forces you to reach in for your greatness. Some people can find it on their own. Some just don’t have it. And some people need to be around someone who can help them bring it out. That was me.
At UNC, Coach Smith created a family atmosphere that was unique at the time. Pros would come back on campus in the fall, and it was like Thanksgiving, getting people back together.
You would see twenty pros walking around. You’re going to class and all of a sudden Al Wood of the Atlanta Hawks drives up and says, “Young fella, you need a ride to class?” As a freshman you could easily get starstruck.
We would also scrimmage in the gym, us versus the pros. My freshman year, Sam Perkins was a senior and Michael was a junior, so they got to be captains. I hadn’t been playing much, so I was shocked when Michael started by saying, “Smith.” I was the first pick.
Oh shit, I thought. I knew he saw something in me, but this was a major endorsement.
“Look,” Michael told me after I jogged over to him. “If we lose, we’re not getting back on the court with all these pros in the gym. So we ain’t losing today. I’m picking you because we ain’t losing.”
I looked around the gym. There was Walter Davis, who played for Phoenix. Phil Ford of the Kansas City Kings (now the Sacramento Kings). Mitch Kupchak from the Lakers. Al Wood.
And Michael thought I gave him the best chance to win? He was pushing all the right buttons to get me motivated.
Copyright © 2023 by Kenny Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.