Earl Smith Jr. found salvation in his jump shot. Smith could always shoot, and in basketball a shooter can live forever. In college, he clashed with his coach at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, unable to understand why the second team remained the second team, even when they were routinely drubbing the starters in practice. When he’d finally had enough, he confronted his coach, said everything he wanted to say, and stormed off. That was the end of Earl’s college career. But his shot never left him. He frequented Belmar’s Jersey Shore League for the next decade, making cameos in other semipro leagues, popping up whenever a team needed someone who could stretch a defense.
In 1985, Earl passed on his genes, his basketball acumen, and his name to his first son: Earl Joseph Smith III. He placed toy hoops in every nook of the house. He taught the boy to bend with his knees and push with his arms as he shot. By the time the boy turned 3, he could sink free throws on a regular basis. Earl instructed the boy to do push-ups — not too many, but enough to build strength — and to use the form as an inverted model for his jump shot. When another son arrived two years later, the brothers practiced plays coordinated to numbers. They gave and went on one. They picked and rolled on two. They jabbed and back-doored on three.
“Defense was the last thing I taught them,” Earl explained, “because you can make it without defense.”
Earl wasn’t wrong. The elder of the two brothers now admits that his father “taught me every fundamental that I know, especially my shooting technique.” That jumper sustains his NBA career — but it doesn’t define a successful one. You know the boy as J.R. Smith, a perplexing, polarizing player and personality. Smith is one of the last members of the NBA’s much-debated prep-to-pro generation. He’s made money in bunches, more than $25 million in his career, and he will find a team long after his athleticism erodes — like his father, he will always be able to shoot. But he’s also defined by something that isn’t tangible: untapped potential. Eight years into his star-crossed career, coaches and fans still don’t know what to make of J.R. Smith.
Even today, Earl Smith Jr. remains confident that the NBA would have beckoned if only his path had veered a little differently. He measured himself against NBA players like Vinnie Johnson, Eddie Jordan, and James Bailey while holding his own in the Jersey League. His association with those players linked him to a rapidly evolving NBA during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Larry and Magic brought the NBA to the masses. Television ratings swelled, contracts ballooned, players flew first class. Free agency ensured that rosters became less fluid from year to year. Salary discrepancies between stars and bench players had been thrown out of whack. “The new salaries had made it more difficult,” David Halberstam once wrote in The Breaks of the Game. “It had heightened natural tensions between teammates as it increased the differences that always existed.”
That same period laid the groundwork for the basketball philosophies of several other basketball lifers who would shape the education of Smith Jr.’s oldest son. John “Pott” Richardson began his climb to more than 400 wins while coaching the Piners of Lakewood High School in New Jersey. Dan Hurley started honing his game under the tutelage of his father, Bob. Byron Scott capped a successful collegiate career and became a fixture of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers under Pat Riley. Meanwhile, George Karl coached the CBA’s Montana Golden Nuggets, stealing bit by bit from mentors Larry Brown, Doug Moe, and Dean Smith. And Mike Woodson launched his NBA career under the Knicks’ Red Holzman after playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana. They would all eventually cross paths with J.R. Smith. Their inability to make a lasting impression remains the most confounding thing about a confounding career.
Richardson first noticed J.R. Smith when he dominated the Lakewood youth leagues as a 12-year-old. He called him “a court rat.” Smith eventually landed at Lakewood after pit stops at Steinert High and McCorristin Catholic High — a red flag, in retrospect — as people quickly noticed Smith’s body didn’t resemble the body of a typical high school kid. Richardson remembers the Camden High kids, from Milt Wagner to his son, Dajuan, always seeming more physically mature. Like men playing against boys. Now he had one for himself.
“He’s the only guy I ever coached,” Richardson said, “that had that [physical] structure and could play outside, face the basket at six-five, six-six.”
The second thing everyone noticed? Smith’s jump shot. With a simple flick of the wrist, Smith could drain 3s — or as Richardson called them, “4-pointers” — from laughable distances. The coach started pushing his young star, demanding that he finish first in sprints and stay late to work on that jumper. Smith obliged, never challenging his coach for fear he’d be benched. Richardson still laughs at Smith’s athletic prowess — like his ability to throw down putback dunks in one seamless motion, or the bombs he launched that were closer to half-court than to the 3-point line. Smith also prospered on Lakewood’s football team, where he played all over the field — wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety, even quarterback — saved two games with field goal blocks, scored a deciding touchdown on a blocked kick, and routinely caught touchdown passes on soaring fade routes with one hand.
“He obviously made the right decision to concentrate on basketball,” said Nick Eremita, Lakewood’s coach at the time. “But I coached high school football for over 20 years and without a doubt, he’s an NFL-type player.”
Clemson offered Smith a football scholarship based solely on watching his game film, something that didn’t surprise his coaches. Dave Oizerowitz, Lakewood’s offensive coordinator at the time, likened Smith to “a more athletic and probably a faster Plaxico Burress.” Oizerowitz added, “He was really just scratching the surface. But the best thing about him? He was a great kid. He always had this big smile on his face and was always popping into the office, asking, ‘Coach, how are you doing?'”
Smith gave up football after transferring to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, where he repeated his junior year and played against better competition. “I graduated high school when I was 16,” Earl Smith Jr. explained. “I said my sons ain’t gonna do that. If I can get that extra year out of them, it makes a world of a difference.”
Even though it would be Smith’s fourth high school in three years, Randy Holmes, an assistant to Richardson and one of Smith’s mentors, agreed with the move. He admitted that “in order to get where [J.R.] had to get in life, he had to leave Lakewood. He had to. He could have scored 50 points at Lakewood, but that wouldn’t have really done anything for him. He would have been All-State. I don’t know if he would have been able to go to North Carolina or the NBA. The critics would have said, ‘Who has he played against?'”
Richardson learned of the transfer while reading the local newspaper. The Smiths never discussed the decision with him, though he knew it was inevitable.
“They weren’t forthright about it,” Richardson says. “But it’s OK. All is forgiven. It’s in the past.”
You might remember a string bean kid named Kevin Garnett declaring for the NBA draft right out of Chicago’s Farragut Career Academy High School. The NCAA wanted him to skip his freshman basketball season and prove himself academically. Garnett had other ideas. Two decades earlier, three ballyhooed high schoolers — Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby, and Moses Malone — started playing professional basketball right out of high school. Only one of them reached his potential: Malone, who eventually won three MVP awards in Houston and Philly, but only after unsatisfying stops in Utah, St. Louis, and Buffalo. In 1989, Shawn Kemp entered the NBA without playing college ball, becoming a high-flying sensation for the Seattle SuperSonics. That opened the door for Garnett in 1995, then a superior high school player but someone described by Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post as not “physically ready to play under the basket in the Big Ten, much less against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. His skill level isn’t high enough; he isn’t savvy enough.”
Garnett proved his skeptics wrong, quickly playing big minutes for Minnesota and embarrassing every team that hadn’t scouted him. When high schoolers Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal followed his lead, NBA scouts reluctantly began haunting high school gyms. No one wanted to miss the next Garnett or the next Kobe. And yet … everyone agreed this was heading in the wrong direction. “I just always felt it was somewhat uncomfortable going into a high school gym and evaluating high school players,” said Pete Babcock, a former general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. “It wasn’t where you should be. It was just uncomfortable.”
You wouldn’t have found many people who believed J.R. Smith could jump straight to the NBA. Dan Hurley remembers his father — a Hall of Fame coach at Saint Anthony High School in Jersey City,1 known for his disciplined, demanding style — dropping in on St. Benedict’s games and rolling his eyes at Smith’s shot selection. Dan Hurley loved Smith’s work ethic, though. In two years, he never had to kick him out of a single practice, saying now that Smith wanted to get coached and that Smith would have run through a wall for him. The St. Benedict’s teachers also liked Smith; he quickly became one of the school’s most popular kids. He lived on campus and was in bed by the 11 p.m. curfew every night. “He was a guy that never expected anything,” said Father Edwin Leahy, St. Benedict’s headmaster. “A lot of these guys can be prima donnas. There wasn’t any of that in him.”
Adrian Wojnarowski’s wonderful book, The Miracle of St. Anthony, about a season with Hurley, is required reading for basketball buffs.
Leahy can only remember one incident in which Smith was suspended for a game — after he and teammate Alex Galindo left campus without permission. The reason? They wanted haircuts before a big game.2 Meanwhile, tales of Smith’s exploits began to spread. Once, he outscored an entire team for three quarters before Hurley mercifully removed him from the game. Another time, he pulled off a 360-degree dunk as, teammate Bashir Mason remembers, “people literally, in the middle of the game, started running out of the stands and running onto the court.” St. Benedict’s claimed the state championship during Smith’s (second) junior year. The next season, Smith set school records for points scored (700), 3-pointers (108), and field goal percentage (.541). Says Hurley now, “It was amazing what he was able to do so effortlessly, as a shooter and scorer. God blessed him.”
Leahy once had to explain the suspension to an NBA scout doing work on Smith’s background. “There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone,” Leahy said. “The guy probably said, ‘You’re kidding me, aren’t you?’ But that was Hurley and that was us. He was not involved with marijuana or nothing. It was just because he left school and got a haircut. That’s why he sat him and he didn’t play. It was against the rules for a kid who lived here to leave the property without permission.”
Smith entered the 2004 McDonald’s All-American game as something of a national unknown. That changed quickly — he sank five 3s, scored a game-high 25 points, and claimed co-MVP honors with a man-child named Dwight Howard. Eventually, Smith eschewed a commitment to North Carolina and declared for the 2004 NBA draft, a night that could have doubled as a high school graduation. A record eight high schoolers were selected in the first 19 picks, highlighted by Howard going first to Orlando over established college center Emeka Okafor.3 After New Orleans grabbed Smith at no. 18, he told the Asbury Park Press that “sitting on the bench, I would take that as a lesson, whereas other guys might take that as an insult. Everyone’s not going to play right away. It’s just a reality, especially when you’re a rookie. Not everybody can be LeBron or Carmelo.”
The three other high school players chosen in the lottery — Shaun Livingston, Robert Swift, and Sebastian Telfair — all fell short of their NBA expectations.
If only it had been that easy. Smith’s first NBA coach was Byron Scott, someone who wasn’t accustomed to losing — the 2005 Hornets lost 64 games — and babysitting teenage shooting guards. Scott takes a more diplomatic stance these days, remembering Smith’s rookie season as “a little bit tougher than he probably expected,” but also that “we knew he was going to be a hell of a player. We also knew it was going to take some time.” Smith didn’t do himself any favors by practicing his half-court shot when his teammates queued up at the free throw line, or joking around in the locker room after losses — two habits that irked Scott and Hornets veterans.
“It was probably tough on both of them,” former Hornets guard Speedy Claxton said. “Byron was old-school. He grew up under Pat Riley. He’s probably one of the most hard-nosed, disciplined coaches there is. J.R. was used to being the man and probably got away with a lot in high school. It was a power struggle between them.”
Smith’s father believes Scott didn’t help J.R. nearly enough, calling him a “good friend” before adding, “You’ve got a kid out of high school, you treat him as an adult, and you can’t do that. He’s with men and he’s done something wrong, you need to guide him with your hand and say, ‘No, you don’t do that.’ Or every time he comes with his shirt out, you fine him. You’ve got to nurture him. That’s with anything.”
Holmes, Smith’s mentor from his Lakewood days, moved with Smith to New Orleans, where he witnessed the realities of the professional game affecting Smith’s confidence. “For the first time in his basketball career, he wasn’t the man,” Holmes said. “Coaches really got on him. Byron Scott is old-school. It’s his way or no way. You can just sit on that bench and rot if you don’t do what the coach wants you to do or you don’t get it.”
Their already tenuous relationship was irrevocably shattered during Smith’s second season, which the Hornets split between New Orleans and Oklahoma City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They went months without speaking to each other. Smith’s playing time and scoring dropped, despite the addition of spectacular rookie point guard Chris Paul — someone who should have made Smith better in every way. When Scott benched him while the Hornets were depleted by injuries, Smith vented to the Times-Picayune about his coach’s “big” ego, bemoaning their lack of communication, while essentially begging for a trade.4 The Hornets accommodated him in 2006 by flipping P.J. Brown and Smith to Chicago for Tyson Chandler. Six days later, Chicago sent him to Denver for two second-round picks.
Smith’s rant: “I wasn’t surprised at all [about being benched], because his ego is too big in order to put something petty aside and try to win the game. At this point, something has to be done; I’m not going to prosper from this situation. When you can’t communicate with the head guy, something is wrong. I come in early, stay in late, and if that don’t work, I don’t know what will. So there is nothing for me to do. I’ve approached him numerous times, tried to call, set up meetings — no communication. Every team I’ve been on, I’ve always been friends with the head coach.”
Asked what he learned about dealing with coaches, Smith ominously told the Times-Picayune, “Just play your game, because you’ll probably be around a lot longer than they will.” Now with his third team in as many seasons, Smith ran the risk of becoming another cautionary tale, someone mentioned in the same sentence as Korleone Young and Leon Smith. Meanwhile, NBA commissioner David Stern was becoming increasingly mortified by the collective immaturity of the league’s younger players and the effect it was having on NBA scouting. In 2006, the NBA mandated that American-born players must be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from high school to be draft-eligible for the league. Stern wanted to push even further, lobbying for an age minimum of 20 — he wanted NBA personnel out of high school gyms altogether.
Naturally, Earl Smith Jr. disagrees with that stance: “Come out of high school and [you’re] in the top 30 of the NBA draft. You go to college, you get exposed. Now, you’re out the draft. You’ve got to get the money when you can go and make a few million dollars without doing that manual labor. You can get an education later. I know how hard it is. I worked a long time to even try and make a million dollars. It don’t come easy.”
If Earl really believes his son didn’t need those two years in college, that may be all you need to know about J.R. Smith’s NBA career.
“J.R. Smith ready to revise career: The young guard hopes to earn starting spot, alter troublesome perception developed with Hornets” — Denver Post, October 8, 2006
“J.R. Smith starring as The Graduate: Young Nuggets guard maturing into steady and coachable player” — Denver Post, April 6, 2008
“Smith showing maturity: Jail time this summer has given J.R. a new purpose for game, life” — Denver Post, September 26, 2009
“Smith displaying signs of progress: Nuggets guard vows to improve and, yes, defend” — Denver Post, October, 10 2010
“Every October, I wrote the same feature story: ‘Is this the year J.R. turns it around and grows up?'” said Benjamin Hochman, the Nuggets beat writer for the Denver Post who also covered Smith in New Orleans. “You get J.R. talking about how he’s matured and George Karl saying how he hopes J.R. will play more defense and be part of a system. Every year, J.R. would not mature and not grow as a player or as a person.”
No relationship has ever captured the NBA’s conflicting generations better than Karl and Smith — even years later, it’s impossible to forget the incredulous expressions on Karl’s face whenever Smith launched one of his patented 25-footers at the worst possible time. They were doomed from the start. Earl Smith Jr. remembers riding a stationary bike in the Nuggets’ training facility and seeing Karl enter with his assistants, unaware that Earl was J.R.’s father. “I’m going to bust that Smith kid’s ass,” Smith Jr. overheard Karl say to his staff before realizing that his father was present. Smith Jr. encouraged Karl to coach his son; Smith Jr. promised to remain just a father. But Karl and J.R. Smith clashed early and often, mostly over playing time.
For someone like Karl, a basketball lifer who learned at the feet of Dean Smith at North Carolina and has watched the NBA dramatically evolve over three decades, J.R. Smith presented a special kind of challenge. After particularly poor play from Smith in Game 4 of a playoff series against the Spurs in 2007, Karl memorably hissed, “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.”
When Karl reflects on his time with Smith, he sees a systemic problem: Too many young players, he said, are more concerned with claiming new contracts than championships. Karl witnessed the power struggle firsthand, watching Carmelo Anthony’s contract desire fracture a potential playoff contender. “When you’re fighting for a contract, it gets confused,” Karl said. “Then when you have AAU basketball and NCAA basketball and the power of entitlement, the power of the posse, you don’t know who’s in a guy’s ear all the time.
“I’ve got two and a half hours with 15 guys,” Karl continued. “There’s no leader in the world or coach in the world that can motivate or energize all 15 of them. There are probably going to be three or four that are going to feel left out. There are going to be two or three that are going to feel picked on.”
Nuggets fans couldn’t understand why Karl refused to unleash a player with such obvious talent. “There’s always the potential of a volatile relationship when you have a young kid trying to find his way paired with an established, veteran, successful coach who likes things the way they like them done,” said Rex Chapman, the team’s vice-president of player personnel at the time. “[Smith] came in and he didn’t know who he was. He tried to be Carmelo. We traded for Allen [Iverson]. He tried to be like Allen. It wasn’t until a year or so later that J.R. really started to become more comfortable with himself and tried to be J.R. Once he did that, we saw a real growth in his game as well as a more mature guy off the court.”
Karl typically voiced his displeasure with Smith through the media, a tactic that didn’t endear him to Smith or his family. “You start talking about a young kid and you’re the head coach and you’re going to the media and saying, ‘He’ll shoot you in the game, he’ll shoot you out,'” Smith Jr. said. “Now the media picks up on it. You know what I told [J.R.]? I told him, ‘Every time you get in, shoot it. He’s going to take you out anyway. So you might as well shoot it.’ And that’s what he did.”
J.R. Smith turned his body into a bright canvas during his Denver stint.5 Flames shot up his shooting arm with the words “Through the Fire” streaking underneath. His nickname, “Swish,” appeared under his chin. A rendering of his mom is on his chest and cartoon characters and the words “Just Klownin” are on his back. He has the words “In Love With My Money” inked on him as well the letters “D-E-M-I,” in honor of one of his two daughters, on the knuckles of his right hand.
“The first thing they see is all the tattoos,” Smith Jr. said of his son. “Well, he didn’t have all of them before. They say, ‘Aw, you shouldn’t have let them happen.’ You’ll understand as a parent, you’ve got to give something to get something. A lot of parents don’t and then when they don’t, guess what? You and your son is bumping heads or you and your daughter is bumping heads and they are cussing you out and you don’t have that bond. But we’ve got that bond. I’ve never had them cussing out or disagreeing.” Smith’s mom, Ida, said she doesn’t have a big problem with the body art. “I definitely don’t want him to have as many as he has. But I don’t know, for a guy, it doesn’t look bad and he doesn’t have any devil-worshipping signs or anything.”
For a while, Smith’s transgressions seemed harmless — just an immature kid acting out. But his troubles eventually turned tragic.6 In 2007, Smith illegally sped past another car, hurtled through a stop sign, and broadsided another vehicle. Andre Bell, Smith’s high school friend and passenger, died from injuries he sustained in the crash. Neither Bell nor Smith was wearing a seat belt. Smith spent only 24 days in jail in the summer of 2009 for reckless driving. The Associated Press reported that Smith racked up two more speeding tickets and three license suspensions in New Jersey between the crash and sentencing. The NBA suspended him for seven games, but the repercussions of that accident will never fade.
Among Smith’s troubles in Denver: A 10-game suspension for his role in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl in 2006, a team suspension for pouring champagne and spitting on a woman at a nightclub, and closing his Twitter account (he later opened another one) after being accused of writing in a way that associated himself with the Bloods gang.
“It affected us in a million different ways,” Father Leahy said. “They were great friends. He’s got to live with that day for the rest of his life. Could he have made another decision? Should he have made another decision?”
Smith vowed to grow up after the accident, dropping “J.R.” and briefly changing his name to “Earl.” It didn’t last long. Neither did his renewed commitment to defense or his ability to accept his role as a game-changing scorer off the bench, which Karl insisted was Smith’s ultimate professional destiny.
“I never understood this,” Smith Jr. said. “I’m looking at all the other NBA teams and who they’ve got coming off the bench. There’s no spark. You’re supposed to play your best five. I still don’t understand that to this day. ‘We needed a spark off the bench.’ Well, you’ve got seven other players who are supposed to be NBA players, they all should be sparks. Think about it. You’re paying all these guys this money and you don’t got no spark on the bench? Well, you shouldn’t have nobody on the bench.”
“That’s commentary of people that really have never coached,” Karl responded after hearing Smith Jr.’s take.7 “Not starting doesn’t mean a thing. The guys who finish the game are the guys who are most important. They are the ones who coaches are going to cater the game to and structure the game around. Sometimes it’s easier for a talented player to come off the bench. Just the thought process of being a starter is overrated, and I think it affects players. I don’t deny that it affects players. But as a coach, I think the power of the bench is as important to me as the five guys who start the game.”
Karl was not specifically responding to Smith Jr.’s comments.
J.R. Smith is clear about the best and worst parts of his time in Denver. The highs? The fans. The lows? “The coaching. I think if our coaching would have brought us together more, we would have had more success.”
Smith remembers his relationship with Karl changing dramatically after the Knicks and Nuggets‘ brawl in 2006, which resulted in a 15-game suspension for Carmelo Anthony; Smith believes Karl never fully forgave him for Smith’s part in instigating the melee. In Smith’s five seasons with Denver, the talented Nuggets routinely flamed out early in the playoffs, with one notable exception. In 2009, after respected veteran Chauncey Billups arrived, Denver stretched the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference finals. “We couldn’t do nothing with Kobe at that time,” Smith says now, skipping over the fact that they played the same position.
After Anthony pushed for (and received) a blockbuster Knicks trade in 2011, Smith left Denver the following summer and eventually joined him there. Karl admits that “it ended in a way that I’m not totally satisfied,” before adding, “I’m disappointed that I couldn’t connect a little better and be the guy that led him to the next step, the next stage of specialness. In the same sense, I think both of us tried. I don’t think it was a relationship that was ugly. I wish I would have been able to give him more time and answer his questions rather than be the dictator of his future. J.R. kind of came to us as a player that no one wanted, and we already had Melo. We already had, I think, A.I. on the team. We already had Marcus Camby and Nene. We had a lot of guys that needed my attention. I think we could have had more success if he was one of our top two or three guys early in our stint together, where maybe I would have spent more time explaining what I wanted, explaining where I wanted him to go and what I wanted him to do rather than being the dictator of what was going on.”
After last season’s lockout ended, Karl’s Nuggets became one of the league’s surprise success stories, surging into the playoffs and dragging an experienced Lakers team to seven games. Ironically, they were given a major boost by midseason acquisition JaVale McGee — like Smith, a talented enigma who never reached his potential on his previous team. (You could say Karl is batting one for two.) Over the summer, the Nuggets traded for Andre Iguodala, another low-maintenance, high-reward player who weaves right into Denver’s fabric. “This is the most excited I’ve been in the summer for a long time,” Karl admitted. For the first time in years, the Nuggets might actually have great chemistry.
Jim Cleamons helped the 1972 Lakers to a championship as their lockdown defender. He sat on Phil Jackson’s benches in Chicago and Los Angeles, and he watched how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant approached practice and games for the better part of two decades. Cleamons also struggled to harness a famously spoiled team of young millionaires — the 1996 Mavericks, who imploded when Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn couldn’t get along — and assisted Scott during Smith’s rookie season. He believes Smith couldn’t handle himself as a professional or an adult because he wasn’t prepared for the NBA lifestyle.
“There’s so much about the game that [high schoolers] do not understand,” Cleamons says, “that you cannot tell them that they don’t understand because it’s basketball and they’ve been playing basketball since they were in elementary school. But they haven’t played it at this level against grown men who they haven’t heard about and don’t have any respect for, but are actually pretty good even though they are not All-Star, marquee players. It’s not J.R., it’s the system.”
Cleamons saw Smith up close recently, when he coached China’s Zhejiang Guangsha last season. His squad beat Smith’s Zhejiang Golden Bulls twice after Smith signed there during the lockout. To nobody’s surprise, that relationship ended badly — Smith and the Golden Bulls both claimed the other did not live up to their contractual obligations. The organization claimed Smith missed nearly every practice, even though he led the team in scoring with 36.4 points per game.
“He definitely played more liberated,” Cleamons laughed. “The fact is, they want Americans to score. He knew he was the guy. I don’t think there was a game he didn’t try to get 50 or 60 points, just because he could.”
Smith filed a lawsuit to recoup the nearly $1 million the organization docked him. His father said the team reneged on other services stipulated in his contract — even basic amenities, like a driver and a stipend for food. “I didn’t visit,” he said, laughing. “They told me some horror stories. I know myself. I’d probably be in [a Chinese] jail right now.”8
“They said he never practiced a day there, which is wrong,” Smith Jr. continued about his son’s experience in China. “I’ve got pictures and videos of some of his practices. He had a good game and, afterward, you don’t have to come to practice for a couple of days. One time he was ready to leave. They said, ‘If you leave, we’re going to slander your name because you know how you are. You are one of the bad boys of the NBA.’ This is the coach and the assistant telling J.R. all this.”
Smith landed in New York in time for the team’s brief 2012 playoff run. Sophisticated Knicks fans appreciate what George Karl appreciated: In the right situation, Smith can be a game-changing scorer off the bench, a streaky and dangerous player, someone who feeds off the intensity of the home crowd. Maybe it’s not the identity Smith wanted for himself, but it’s better than nothing. He never became Kobe Bryant, but he avoided becoming Korleone Young, too. If you listed the careers of all the high schoolers who jumped to the NBA from 1995 through 2004, Smith would probably finish above the mean. Of the 35 players drafted out of high school since 1998, only five have made an All-Star team. And Smith enjoyed the fourth most productive career — behind Howard, Al Jefferson, and Josh Smith — of the eight high schoolers drafted in his class. At the same time, everyone agrees he could have been better.
“We’re talking out of both sides of our mouths,” Cleamons says, “and [young players] are caught in the middle because they are impressionable, because they want to play and they want approval. We want to talk about them doing things and then when it doesn’t happen, we want to throw them under the bus and say, ‘They haven’t done this. They haven’t done that.’ Well, is it their fault? Or is it the way we teach them? Is it our expectation of what we want from them? It’s the whole kit and kaboodle. It’s pure unadulterated American capitalism vs. coaches who are trying to win ballgames and championships — and the kids are caught in the middle.”
In August, J.R. Smith seems relaxed at the J.R. Smith Youth Foundation annual golf event. He shakes hands and shares hugs with family, attendees, and Knicks officials before finally ducking into the clubhouse of Lakewood’s Eagle Ridge Golf Club. His daughter Demi sits at his side, playing games on his iPhone. Smith keeps a careful eye on her as he navigates an interview with a reporter.
“The perception is I’m a sex, drugs, and rock and roll type of person,” he says. “The reality is I’m kind of like an ocean. Everything is calm, calm, calm. I’m good. When the ball goes up in the air, the waves start rocking.”
Smith has always been considered a selfish player, a gunner looking out for his own numbers. But there’s another side to Smith that the public rarely sees. He paid for his brother Chris’s9 tuition when Louisville reverted his scholarship status to walk-on in order to land a bigger recruiting class. His foundation helps pay school and camp tuition fees for underprivileged children. Smith also contributed money to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
Eight years into his NBA career, many are losing hope in Smith realizing his All-Star potential. He’s not completely sure where the blame lies. “It’s a teenager trying to grow up in a man’s world,” Smith said of his trying relationships with Scott and Karl. “Coming from Jersey and the McDonald’s All-American Game, I’m expecting to be treated a certain way because all my peers that I came out with, everyone was being treated a certain way, so I kind of felt entitled to that. It was more than just earning it. It’s definitely a fault of mine as well as theirs. It goes hand in hand. I just can’t point the finger at them. A few actions I made probably didn’t help, too. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m the white angel. But I’m not the dark demon, either.”
How did a once-coachable kid with a supportive family become such a hassle for NBA coaches? Was this simply teenage rebellion writ large? Richardson wonders if these last few years, right down to the tattoos, represent Smith “making up for lost time,” emerging as “expressions of certain freedoms.” Holmes agrees, pointing out that Smith wasn’t permitted much of a social life by his parents. “He never went to a prom or anything, rightfully so,” he said. “That was part of his liberation, expressing himself, getting out of that mode.”
There might be something to that. Or it could be simpler. Had J.R. Smith gone to North Carolina for two years, he might be a five-time All-Star right now. We’ll never know. When Mike Woodson took over New York’s head coaching job after Mike D’Antoni’s dismissal last March, he mentioned Smith’s maturation as being crucial to his success. “He has to be more professional about how he handles things,” Woodson told reporters. “My job as a coach is to make sure he gets there.”
For the next two months, Smith played more minutes, took more shots, and played capable (sometimes even inspired) defense for Woodson. “It’s the best relationship I had with a coach ever, other than playing with my dad,” Smith said. “He definitely treats you like a man, from what I understand, until you’ve proven otherwise. He’s such a level-headed person and he wants to see his players do well. He puts his personal agenda and goals aside to see his players do well. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. A lot of coaches, players, or GMs, owners, wouldn’t do that.”
Now 27, Smith reupped with the Knicks10 this summer for two years and $5.6 million (he holds an option for the second year). Woodson will continue to mentor him. Or try to mentor him. Growing up with 11 siblings, Woodson learned how to juggle all kinds of personalities. He’s considered a “player’s coach,” someone who allowed Smith and Anthony significantly greater freedom in his offense. You won’t see many appalled head shakes from Woodson after one of Smith’s patented 25-footers with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. He wants his guys to play freely, maybe even a little recklessly — a blessing and a curse for someone like J.R. Smith.
“Our expectation is to get a championship,” Smith said of the approaching season. “Anything shorter than that is a failure. Everything on paper, we’ve got that. There’s nothing a team has that we don’t have. This year is a championship year or a no year.”
“Coach Woodson reminds me of my head coach and how he dealt with J.R.,” Holmes said, comparing Woodson to Richardson. “He gets on J.R.’s case, but at the end of the day, J.R. knows it’s business and he doesn’t mean any harm by it. J.R. responds well to that type of coach.”
That doesn’t mean things are stable for Smith. In March, he sparked a brief media firestorm when he tweeted a photo of a woman’s posterior, drawing a $25,000 fine from the NBA to go with his 24 hours of sports blog ignominy.11 Then he was arrested in Miami two months later for his failure to appear in court — this time, for operating a motor scooter without a proper driver’s license. For the last four months, he’s been drama-free. Whether anyone believes that can last … that’s another story.
“You know what?” Smith Jr. said of the picture. “I wasn’t mad. I looked at it. I smiled like a lot of us did. You know what I’m saying? I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t mad at all. I just smiled as a man.”
“Like a lot of guys in this sound bite culture, he can come off as unsympathetic at times,” Chapman said. “But the one thing is when you’re around J.R. day in and day out, it’s really hard not to like him.”
It’s something you’ll hear about J.R. Smith over and over. Says Mason, now the head coach at Wagner College: “If I called J.R. right now and said I needed him to come to campus and talk to the guys, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would be here in the drop of a dime to help me out. He would do that for anybody that he was close to or in our circle. He’s just a loyal guy. I’ve got no issues being in the foxhole with him. He would have my back no matter the situation.”12
Time has also eased the relationship between Scott and Smith. “We talk to each other in the summer,” Scott said. “He keeps talking about how he wants to play golf [with] me now that he’s taken up golf.”
How could such a loyal guy give so many coaches so many headaches? We know he’s the product of a now-defunct system that favored expectations over achievement, a system that allowed young players to feel entitled when they hadn’t actually earned anything yet. But how does that explain descendants of Dean Smith, Pat Riley, and Bob Knight coaching Smith without ever getting through? Was he just destined to become a memorable player who never truly reached his potential — no different from his father, just playing on a larger stage? When will people like Rex Chapman stop saying things like, “He’s got all the tools to be an All-Star; consistency is probably the one thing that will keep him from getting there”?
Leave it to the only man who followed him from New Orleans to Denver, the one who’s written his story time and again, to put J.R. Smith’s career in perspective. “Talent-wise,” said Benjamin Hochman, “J.R. Smith should be better than J.R. Smith.”