By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
SPORTSFormer Rockets guard and current member of the best pregame sports show on television Kenny Smith is a big fan of Houston, calling his ties here "deep-rooted."
"People I consider my best friends in the world are still in Houston," Smith told Hair Balls. "My godchildren are there."
The NBA and its broadcast partner TNT will descend upon the city — along with virtually every hip hop artist and promoter on the planet and more sweet rides than an auto show — for four days during All-Star weekend. This is the association at its most glitzy and Smith is up to his ears in commitments from a celebrity golf tournament to his broadcast duties with TNT. The New York native is also serving as an un-official goodwill ambassador to his second home and the official host of the All-Star after party.
"It's a basketball celebration, a celebration of former, present and future players," he said. "It's like trading cards are walking around in one city."
Smith's career has been a rather charmed one. He got his start on the playgrounds of New York before honing his game under the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina, sharing a backcourt for two years with Michael Jordan. He ended up in Houston winning two championships and eventually found his way into broadcasting, with what is widely considered the best on-air personalities in the business including host Ernie Johnson, fellow former Rocket Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal.
Though he was never an All-Star himself, the three-point specialist surprisingly got into the slam dunk contest for three straight years, even making a final before bowing to one of the great dunkers of all time, Dominique Wilkins.
After all these years and some of the criticism that has been leveled against the contest, Smith still thinks it is more about who is doing the dunking than the contest itself. "Those contests are very cyclical," he said. "When there comes a player or there comes a person that transcends the contest, who dreamed about being in it, a la Blake Griffin, it will take it to another level."
He went on to say that there are good reasons to still love the dunk competition even in down years, "Even years that it's not good, it's still good because it's funny."
As for the game and his former team, he is impressed with first-time All-Star James Harden. "He is a guy you can build your team around," he said adding that Harden's young teammates have been a pleasant surprise. "I thought it was going to be a rebuilding year [for the Rockets]," he said, "And they are fighting for that eighth spot [to make the playoffs] with Portland.
As he prepares for his un-official duties as local goodwill ambassador, Smith says there is little need to talk up Houston to NBA players because so many of them live here. "There are more players who have never played with the Rockets that live in Houston, more than any other city in America," he said.
And if anyone thinks it is all about the lack of a state income tax, think again. "It's a lifestyle. It can be slow. It can be fast," Smith said. "The only negative is that it's really humid and hot."
For now, he's just a visitor and a spectator to one of the NBA's most glamorous weekends, but he's confident his current status as a non-resident will change.
"I will move back to Houston one day," he said.