Last night I went to the SMU men's basketball tip off dinner where Kenny Smith, a two-time NBA Champion and current TV analyst, was the keynote speaker. He and SMU head coach Matt Doherty were teammates at North Carolina and played alongside Michael Jordan under legendary coach Dean Smith.
Kenny Smith was a fantastic speaker and though his message was directed toward the team, it applied to everyone.
He opened by saying, "The last time I spoke at a university, the team won a national championship."
The crowd seemed to like that one a lot.
Then he told an anecdote from his junior season at UNC. They were playing Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and were down 17 at halftime. He said Dean Smith told the players at that moment that they were "right where we want to be."
They were down by 17 points. How could that be where they want to be, Kenny thought. He said that halftime speech bugged him throughout the game, but made him play harder. The Tar Heels won by five in regulation.
Later that night after the game, Kenny called his coach to ask him what he had meant. He explained that in practice, the team always did 8-minute drills, 7-minute drills, 6-minute drills, etc., so that they'd know what plays to run when they have a certain amount of time left. Coach explained that he knew if his team got to those moments in the game, they'd know what to do and how to execute because they do it in practice all the time.
"I knew if we go there, we'd by okay," Kenny recalled his coach saying. "I took that for the rest of my life. You always have to be in preparation for that moment."
Kenny Smith has one of those stories that involves a high school coach laughing in his face when he first told him he wanted to play in the NBA. He explained he was a "nobody" as a junior at Archbishop Molloy in New York City, but in the six months following, his hard work, dedication and research into the game led him to be an All-America and then recruited by Dean Smith and North Carolina.
As his skill level rose, he needed to take on the pressure of being great.
The most interesting message he sent to last night's crowd was this: "Some great players don't want to be in the spotlight because they don't want to be held accountable."
He explained that sometimes players are uncomfortable being great. He said, "it's easy to go around being normal because you're not extraordinary. The spotlight scares some great players because people are paying attention to them."
He said whoever leads the Mustangs in scoring and rebounding needs to relish his role and lead the team. He challenged the team and said, "Why not you?"
Last year the Mustangs recorded their first 20-win season and first postseason bid since 1999-00. Smith urged them not to settle with a story about LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
When LeBron was still in Cleveland, Smith said he told him he had deficiencies in his game. LeBron thought he was crazy. Smith told him he had a lot on his shoulders and couldn't carry the Cavaliers to a championship (obviously, he was right). This was the same season LeBron won the MVP, so he didn't believe what Smith was telling him.
"It's hard to work hard when you're sleeping in silk robes," Smith said.
Smith told the LeBron story to Bryant, who asked why he told him he had deficiencies. Bryant joked, "Why are you trying to make him better? You're not his coach."
That year, the Lakers won the NBA Championship and afterwards, Bryant called up Hakeem Olajuwon to work on his post moves.
The purpose of Smith telling the SMU crowd that story was to show that even when you're the best, you have work to do.
"You need to do work after you have success," he said.
Great pump-up speech to start the season.