Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dwight Howard Good. Kenny Smith GREAT!

People will be talking about Dwight Howard's performance in the 2008 NBA Dunk Contest long after I pass. And rightfully so. Me? Every time I think about that night I'll think about how I witnessed history...and it had nothing to do with a Superman cape.

Do you realize that TNT just put on the best broadcast of a live sporting event in my lifetime? It's true. They threw a perfect game for six hours Saturday night, and I watched every second of it with a giant smile on my face.

The broadcast kicked off with a two-hour special of Inside the NBA, hands-down the best studio show in sports television history. It was its usual fantastic self, even though Magic Johnson was prominently involved. Whatever.

Up next was Airborne, a special about the greatest dunk contests of all time. As expected, TNT knocked that one out of the park, as well. The back story behind Spud Webb's winning of the 1986 contest in his hometown of Dallas left me with the chicken skin. (Can you believe that Dominique Wilkins--his own teammate, and the guy Webb ultimately beat in the final--had never seen the little guy dunk the way he did in the contest? Spud was so focused on learning the game and bettering himself as a player that he never put on post-practice dunking exhibitions. Mike Fratello, Webb's long-time coach, said he never saw him dunk during practice. How is that even possible?)

Three hours in and TNT was as great as I've come to expect.

Somehow, they took things to new heights with their coverage of the Skills Competition. And the reason is Kenny Smith, quite obviously the most underrated analyst on Earth.

I can see why casual viewers of Inside see it as "The Charles Barkley Show." Really, I can. It's defensible on every level, because Barkley is the unquestioned star of the show, and worth every nickel they pay him.

And as much as people used to sleep on the show's host, Ernie Johnson, that simply isn't the case anymore. The guy is an Emmy winner, you know? Plus, he's been called "underrated" so many times that now everyone knows how important he is to the show. For my money, he's the best traffic cop who ever hosted a studio show. As great as James Brown was in the Terry/Howie/Collinsworth days of Fox NFL Sunday I still rate him No. 2 behind Johnson.

Which brings me back to Kenny Smith, and his underratedness (which is a made-up word I could see Smith using to describe Ime Udoka). A few weeks back, Smith was ill and couldn't make it to the show. When Ernie Johnson opened Inside by letting the viewers know about Smith's absence I found myself thinking "you know what, it's no big deal...they still have EJ and Charles." I couldn't have been more wrong. It's the only time I've ever turned off Inside (one of only three shows I TiVo) before it was over. Admittedly, Magic's presence sealed the deal, but the main problem was Kenny Smith's absence. His willingness to get out of the way when Barkley's on a roll shows how ego-free he truly is. And his ability to pile on when Barkley's making an ass of himself points to Smith's comedic timing and complete understanding of the show.

I searched long and hard (about six minutes) to find the perfect video of Smith's reactions during the dunk contest. Whoever made the following video must have known exactly what I was looking for. Please watch and listen to Smith's comments, especially those at the 1:30 mark (about being as happy as one of the kids in attendance), the 2:02 mark ("He blew it out, Chuck!"), his giddy laugh beginning at the 4:00 minute mark followed by his reaction to the Superman dunk and I would also recommend his reaction to Howard's third dunk at the 5:40 mark ("I'm leaving the building! I quit my job! I've never seen anything like that in my life!") Again, please watch. Comments to follow.

Does Kenny Smith remind you of a professional broadcaster or a fan with unadulterated passion for the sport? Is it even possible to listen to Smith's infectious laugh and not get caught up in the moment? And remember, this guy was a star at North Carolina, a two-time NBA champion in Houston and someone who played in the NBA as recently as 1997...he's not supposed to be that excited over a handful of spectacular dunks, and yet he is.

I ask great as Howard's dunks were, would the viewing experience have been anywhere near as enjoyable without the underrated Kenny Smith?

That's what I thought.

-Brad Spieser (