School & District Management

Former Knick Leaps From the NBA To Principal for a Day

By Mark Jennings — April 26, 2000 4 min read
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The New York Knicks added Charles Smith to their roster in the 1992-93 off-season, hoping he would be the final piece that would bring success in the team’s elusive quest for a National Basketball Association championship. In his first year, he averaged 12.4 points and 5.3 rebounds as the Knicks raced to a 60-22 record.

But the Knicks’ championship dreams were dashed when the Chicago Bulls defeated them in the 1993 playoffs.

New York basketball fans still rest much of the blame for the failure to win the NBA championship that year on Mr. Smith’s four consecutive missed layups in the waning moments of Game 5, which could have sealed the series for the Knicks.

This month, Mr. Smith, who retired from the NBA after nine seasons and is now the head of a technology corporation, got a chance to teach some New York City youngsters that failure can often be transformed into success.

On April 13, he headed to Abraham Lincoln Intermediate School in Brooklyn to serve as Principal for a Day, one of 1,050 celebrities, business leaders, journalists, and other guest administrators who sampled life in the educational trenches at schools throughout the nation’s largest district. The sixth annual daylong event was sponsored by the nonprofit organization Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning, or PENCIL.

Among the other substitute principals were the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the actor Alec Baldwin, co-founder Nancy Evans, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who divided her day between two Brooklyn schools.

Failure Into Success

The 6-foot, 10-inch Mr. Smith towered over the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in the hallways and classrooms of Lincoln Intermediate, a brick structure in a neighborhood of mostly working-class homes. In talks with students throughout the day, the former NBA star used his experiences as a lesson.

The adversity he faced while with the Knicks helped him focus on life without basketball when nagging knee injuries forced him into retirement, he said.

Today, the 34-year-old Mr. Smith is the chief executive officer of New Media Technology, a computer company in Manhattan. And he operates an educational center in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., that caters to at-risk youngsters.

“After Game 5, most of the journalists said that I failed to make the winning shots, and they blamed me for the Knicks’ failure to get to the championship game,” he said to a group of students in the school’s media center. “But one thing that a pastor of my church told me is that failure is written in pencil, and pencil is erasable.” Mr. Smith returned to that theme in classroom talks throughout the morning: “I’ve been able to turn my failures into success.”

As principal, if only for a day, Mr. Smith wasn’t content to sit in his temporary office. He began the day with a morning announcement, then gobbled a quick bagel. He set out into the hallways, dodging autograph-seeking students as he popped in and out of various classrooms.

By the time his six-hour tenure was over, he had discussed marriage and love, using “Romeo and Juliet,” in an English class; talked about the importance of computers and helped students learn the Microsoft Excel software program. He even wrote a poem about peace in Faith Petersen’s 5th grade language arts class:

Peace is blue It smells like the ocean It looks like a glittering creek It tastes like ice cream It sounds like a waterfall Peace feels like a Jacuzzi

“I thought he really worked well with the kids,” Ms. Petersen said, adding that she also liked the poem.

Mr. Smith concluded his day by encouraging the school’s 8th graders to take seriously the higher standards that the state and city are asking of students. “Try the chess club, try the student government, try the corny things,” he urged them. “When you try something different, you will elevate yourself.”

Letting It All Sink In

Ruth Cohen, the executive director of PENCIL, said the Principal for a Day program is more than a photo opportunity for celebrities who want to do a good deed. She described the program as a year-round commitment to the 1.1 million public school students of New York City.

This year, Mr. Seinfeld and his family have committed to paying for college for five graduates of city high schools, she said. And, an online education company, has made a commitment to mentor students from the Choir Academy of Harlem.

For his part, Mr. Smith extended internship opportunities at his company and promised to help upgrade Internet access at Lincoln Intermediate.

And, at least in the short run, his visit fired up the school’s 1,250 students. After hearing Mr. Smith talk, 8th grader James Alcivar vowed to change his uninspired approach to school.

“I’m going to work on my grades to make them higher by doing my homework, participating in class, and studying,” he said. Of course, James had an extra incentive to pick up his academic game: He and two schoolmates were chosen to accompany Mr. Smith to see the Knicks play the Detroit Pistons last week.

Nevertheless, Victor Rodriguez, who has been the principal of the school for seven years, said he had never seen his students so energized.

“We have had five Principals for a Day, including a state senator, a Wall Street banker, and a CEO from IBM. But to be honest, Charles Smith has generated the most excitement,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Not because he is a basketball player, but because of his delivery and connection with the students.”

Mr. Smith said he, too, learned from his visit, and he vowed to return before the end of the year to check on the students’ progress. “Teachers and students are playing against a stacked deck with outdated equipment and schools,” Mr. Smith said in an interview at the end of his long day. “This visit just gives me more affirmation that kids in the New York City public school system are some of the brightest in the nation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Former Knick Leaps From the NBA To Principal for a Day

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