CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jason Smith is staring at the monitor. He’s waiting for his cue, someone in the John Paul Jones Arena production room to tell him to look up and flash those pearly whites. But on the court, where some of the top high school basketball players in the country and abroad are about to play, they’re blasting the hip-hop song “Blessings” by Big Sean. The kids dig it, but Smith can barely hear himself talk, let alone the voices in his earpiece. Even though he’s speaking into a stick microphone, the opening segment was barely audible. Smith and his broadcast partner Dave Koehn have to do it again.
This is the fourth take.
He’s got to nail it. Not just because the game’s about to start, but the 31-year-old — who recently finished his first season with the Washington Wizards — didn’t leave his wife who’s eight months pregnant, squish his 7-foot-1 body into a prop plane and pull an all-nighter on the University of Virginia’s campus scribbling a cheat sheet only to mess things up.
He’s taking this week seriously because when his playing career is over, Smith thinks he might want to transition to broadcasting.
“I’m investing in my future,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to do the things to learn a little bit at a time. I know I’m not the best at it. I know I have a lot to learn. I’m not coming in thinking, ‘you can’t tell me anything!’ ”
Smith, a nine-year NBA veteran, feels like a rookie again.
“I have no idea!” he said about what it takes to be a sports broadcaster.
Smith and New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn are taking part in the advanced version of Sportscaster U., a career development program organized by the National Basketball Players Association. While the NBPA hosts the top 100 camp, an event that superstars such as Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant attended as high schoolers, the organization also trains several current players ahead of their post-career lives. During his time at the camp, Smith will call four tournament games — preparing for each as if it’s Wizards vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“You really get an understanding of how hard the people behind the scenes really work,” Smith said following a production meeting in which he went in with a couple of important things to remember and left with 30 more. “As players, you’re the entertainer. But people behind the scenes, they’re working nonstop the entire day, the next day, the day before to make it enjoyable for the crowds to watch. That’s the thing that I’m learning about right now.”
The TV bug first bit him when he played in New Orleans. Fox Sports sideline reporter Jennifer Hale covered the team and one day off the air, Smith said, she encouraged him to consider broadcasting when he’s done playing.
” ‘You have the look for it, you have good charisma, you can talk normal,’ ” Smith said, recalling Hale’s assessment.
Last season in the hallways of Madison Square Garden, Smith was often spotted sharing a laugh with several members of the New York Knicks television crew who enjoyed having him during the 2014-15 season. And before games in Orlando, the Magic’s broadcasters waited outside the road team’s locker room just to catch up with Smith, who played there in 2015-16.
“He’s just so easy to talk to, even when you’re not interviewing him,” said Glenn Consor, the Wizards’ radio color analyst who counts Smith among one of his favorites in his decade on the job. “He’s just like an average guy. To me, he would’ve been one of my best friends in college.”
Fully aware of how he should come off to the public, Smith seemingly uses interviews as audition tapes. He makes eye contact or silly expressions, his voice inflections turn any sentence about a routine Wizards play into an interesting one. Even while talking with print reporters, with no camera in sight, Smith stays on.
But he’s more than just style. When former NBA player and Memphis Grizzlies game analyst Brevin Knight met Smith at Sportscaster U., he was impressed how Smith used the bus ride back to the hotel to quiz the NBPA top 100 team coaches.
“He immediately jumped in asking them questions and learning what their teams are like so he could use it later on in the game,” Knight said. “To see him and Kyle O’Quinn … they are on a path to try and understand what it takes to do the job.”
That’s why Smith — twisting his blue pen in his hand like a fidget spinner — is sitting inside Suite 215B and learning how to pronounce the name “Ayo Dosunmu.”
Matt Park, who in his day job is the voice of the Syracuse Orange and an adjunct professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, has guided the Sportscaster U. program since its start in 2008. Park is unflinchingly honest. He doesn’t crack a smile nor spare feelings when instructing Smith and O’Quinn.
“If you don’t have anything to add — zip it,” Park commanded.
But Park is even more direct when it comes to pronunciations. Park wants to make sure the would-be broadcasters understand they have to learn to say every name correctly.
“The fastest way to lose credibility,” Park warned. “Makes you look like a goof on the air.”
So, for J’Raan Brooks, Smith writes down “Jarron” in his notes. Musa Jallow becomes “Moo-sa Ja-low.” Simisola Shittu is dutifully noted as “Simi Sheet-too.” Also, Smith has to remember that Nazreon Reid prefers to be called just “Naz.” And when in doubt, Park advises, just ask the player.
“I’m going to ask the hell outta all these names,” Smith said to himself.
Smith is assigned the first game between the Heat and Lakers alongside Koehn, the play-by-play announcer for the Cavaliers men’s basketball and football teams. After completing the fourth take of the open, the pair return to the desk where a Post-it note serves as a reminder that the Heat is wearing light uniforms and the Lakers are in the dark jerseys. Once the action starts, Smith leans to the back of his folding chair and looks surprisingly relaxed. Whenever Koehn sets him up for input, Smith takes it like he’s slamming home a John Wall assist.
“There you see Cole Anthony, going out there and showing his versatility,” Smith intones.
Smith feels more comfortable as the game goes on, and the insight flows.
“Lakers keep on attacking the rim, they’re not settling for jumpers.”
“A lot of young players would’ve given up on that play.”
“You can’t teach tall!”
Near the end of the game when a statistician passes a note, Smith shoehorns in: “The Heat are on a 13-2 run.”
The Heat pull off the comeback victory, and Smith conducts the on-court interview with the team’s best player. And here comes that name again: Ayo Dosunmu.
Smith doesn’t butcher the name, but the two stand in silence for what seems like an awkward eternity while Smith waits for the cue.
“Sorry ’bout that,” Smith says to Dosunmu.
Finally, the red light flashes.
“Ayo Dosunmu right here! Sixteen points today,” Smith says to the camera, then turns to face the star. “How’d you guys get a big win tonight?”
“Wooo!” he shouted, his eyes widened for effect. “This is a whirlwind.”
Smith gives himself a so-so rating. He feels he was a bit too timid, delicately balancing not stepping over Koehn while trying to add color. However, Smith will get in more reps before returning home to New Jersey to be with his wife, Kristy, and young daughter Ella Rosa. A new baby is on the way, so this summer will be all about family. There’s still plenty more time before Smith has to focus on life after the NBA, but he might have already found his path.
“I’m dabbling in it. I’m seeing if I have the interest,” Smith said. “Just seems like controlled chaos to me right now. It’s really good to experience it.
“I’ve had a fun time with it so far.”