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Steve Smith talks preseason basketball and his journey to the small screen

As the NBA charges into preseason, the player-turned-analyst looks forward to showdowns, protests — and getting better

Steve Smith is one of the busiest men in sports media — and one of the most respected studio analysts for college and pro basketball during the regular season, playoffs and league finals. Smith is one of nine co-hosts — along with people such as Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Shaquille O’Neal — of NBA TV’s hit show Open Court. The Olympic gold medalist and 17-year pro got his ring as part of the San Antonio Spurs’ 2003 championship season, started out playing basketball at Michigan State and was drafted by the Miami Heat in 1991’s first round. After retiring in 2005, the Great Lakes State native began his broadcast career as an Atlanta Hawks announcer and a Big Ten college basketball analyst. From his home in the suburbs of Atlanta, he talked with The Undefeated about the upcoming season, his journey to broadcasting, and the creativity he brings to his day job.

How did you prepare for your broadcast career?

I never thought I’d be on this side of the business, but I had a lot of broadcasting heroes. There are certain guys I really respect, like John Saunders — rest his soul. Mike Tirico, Ahmad Rashad and Mitch Albom were all guys I studied. When you’re young, you think, I didn’t go to school for this, but my first job was as an analyst for the Hawks for three years. And that was great training, because when a team is bad, that’s when you really have to become a broadcaster. [Laughs.]

How do you prepare for your pre- and postgame segments?

Working with Ernie Johnson, you learn that being overly prepared is the only way to work. To see him get to the studio early before work and stay there late into the night after every game — that puts things into perspective. You have to work just as hard as you did when you were on the court.

“If an athlete thinks I’ve been fair and true, then I’ve done my job.”

What’s the biggest difference between being a player and a broadcaster?

I want other players to say, ‘He was fair, he was truthful and he was right … ‘

Ahmad [Rashad] gave me a lot of hints on how to do one-on-one interviews. He told me to learn how to listen. A lot of people have their next question in their head, but someone’s answer can lead you to a great follow-up. Ernie Johnson gave me tips on the importance of being prepared and how that helps you to go to your next question. It also allows you to read people’s body language.

Are current players more leery of the media than in your day?

A lot of athletes are very leery of the media. Obviously, we’re in an era when social media is there to shock you. People are looking for the shock news and controversial news. As a journalist, you have to report your story, good and bad. If an athlete thinks I’ve been fair and true, then I’ve done my job.

Rick Kamla and Steve Smith of NBA TV ask questions to Nets General Manager, Billy King on set during NBA-TV's Real Training Camp in Durham, North Carolina.

Rick Kamla and Steve Smith of NBA TV ask questions to Nets General Manager, Billy King on set during NBA-TV’s Real Training Camp in Durham, North Carolina.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s your interaction with fans now that you’ve transitioned from player to analyst?

I played for 17 years in the league, so now the thing I hear most is, ‘How can you say that about …’ whoever it is they’re upset about. ‘You were a Blazer!’ or ‘You were a Spur!’ I’m a former Spur and a former Blazer now, and I’m speaking as a journalist, but I can give you some insight into the organization when I was there. Some of the players I played with are still there, like Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili], but not many [laughs]! It’s crazy to have played with these guys when they were young — like Tim [Hardaway], and Rasheed [Wallace], and now they’re retired, and we’re covering their kids. I remember when Steph [Curry] was like 7 years old running around the court with [his father] Del. The next thing I know … you look up and Steph is a great college player and then the MVP. And now my little cousin, Kay Felder, is playing for the [Cleveland] Cavaliers, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, I am a true veteran as a player and a journalist!’

“In this new age, we want controversy. The guys have to understand that.”

Are you looking forward to seeing the Warriors play this year?

I am so looking to seeing them! That’s where we get our storylines — other than the actual games — from the off-court drama. People have strong opinions about them being a supposedly unbeatable superteam, but I don’t mind the controversy. You may not like KD [Kevin Durant] or LeBron [James], but the fact is, we’ve always had superteams — they were done organically through the draft … It’s a business and some older guys aren’t happy about that. I’m totally looking forward to seeing the storyline of KD play out over the course of the season; I can’t wait for the first game where Golden State plays Oklahoma. That’s the biggest story of the year. Just seeing the dynamic between Russell [Westbrook] and KD, and the Warriors winning 73 games in the regular season — that will be a great game no matter what. After that first game is played, things will calm down. Then there will be other first games: when DWade [Dwyane Wade] plays with Chicago in Miami [against the Heat]. Or when Derrick Rose plays with the Knicks for the first game in Chicago. In this new age, we want controversy. The guys have to understand that.

Some very good players seem to have missed the huge money train. What is the psychological effect of thinking you’re underpaid in the NBA?

Some players can’t hold it together — they give in to frustration by saying to themselves, ‘Let me be a beast by buying something.’ Money exists as a distraction every day at this level. Others understand the business of basketball and of being a professional athlete, and they tend to do much better while they’re playing in the league, and when they get out of the NBA. Sometimes you’re under- or overpaid as a player. But the bottom line is: You’re still living a dream. Don’t do anything to mess up your brand so that you can make money after your retire.

“Sometimes you’re under- or overpaid as a player. But the bottom line is: You’re still living a dream.”

What do you make of athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade taking a strong stand on issues of social justice?

Having LeBron, Chris Paul, Melo and DWade make their speech at The ESPYS coincided with Colin Kaepernick because of the flag and national anthem — you haven’t had that many athletes use their platform to bring awareness to what he believes in.

Do you expect NBA players to protest at games this year?

I expect they will, but I would tell them — you’ve got to go to your teammates before you do anything publicly. Tell them what you plan on doing, because it will impact the entire team and it will become a distraction from what you’re trying to accomplish on the court. You don’t want them to be blindsided. NBA players of this generation are following in the footsteps of athletes like Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali. Ambassador Andrew Young once told me that athletes should be careful about taking on the role of full-time activists – it’s not something you can jump in and out of. That really opened my eyes.

Jill Hudson is the senior style writer for the Undefeated. She is an evolved nerd, a caffeinated shoe fanatic, and a maker of long lists and perfect martinis.