Last Wednesday I watched the Denver Nuggets play the Detroit Pistons. Of course I was hoping to watch Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. However, of greater interest to me was watching swing man J.R. Smith. The last time I saw Smith he was arbitrarily jacking up three-pointers and getting pulled from a playoff game and asked to leave the team for the remainder of the series. The last time I heard about Smith he was involved in a car crash in which his SUV he was driving overturned, killing his friend.I was looking for signs of maturation from Smith. He looked good, real good. Smith shot 10-19 from the floor and 10-15 from the free throw line. He was only 3-9 from 3-point range but so what. Smith scored 33 points in 30 minutes of play. Though the Nuggets played reserves while the Pistons played their starters, Smith dominated play and single-handedly kept Denver in the game. After the game I was satisfied that Smith had indeed changed himself in some unknown but fundamental way.
I was wrong.
Sometime the following day Smith was suspended from the Denver Nuggets for the first three games of the regular season for, according to the Nuggets player personnel director, “conduct detrimental to the team.” According to court records, Smith was issued a summons to appear in court to answer to allegations of destruction of private property, disturbing the peace and assault in an October 13 incident at the “DC-10″ lounge, a local Denver nightclub. The summons was issued in lieu of Smith being placed under arrest.
J.R. Smith will be 22 years old in November and though he is entering his third season in the NBA, he is a very young man. If he was in college this would likely be his senior season.
But after a 10-game suspension for his role in the Nuggets-Knicks scrum, after repeatedly landing himself in Denver head coach George Karl’s dog house, after the postseason suspension, and after the death of his friend by his own doing, he is a veteran at negative behavior. You might think that Smith would come to the conclusion that there has to be a more positive way to live life. You might think that after a 33-point game in which he dominated some of the best defenders in the NBA he would be satisfied with his performance and thinking about ways to perform even more efficiently.
But no, not J.R. J.R. is more into “conduct detrimental to the team.”
I am sure J.R. Smith has no idea that in the common workplace he would have been fired from his job by now. I am sure that he has no idea that if he wasn’t supremely talented the Nuggets would have shunted him off to another team so that another coach, another GM, and another owner could deal with his lack of care for himself and – apparently – everyone around him.
And therein lies a problem with sports and athletes. The sports themselves are beautiful. Beautiful to watch and beautiful to play. What lies in side them is corrupt and putrid and foul. Writers grew up loving the sports and loving the athletes who play them. Yet after years of being embedded with teams or leagues they become hard and jaded and cynical and spiteful – just like too many of the athletes they cover.
All those little boys who, after their first dunk, couldn’t seep that night because they replayed the feeling of themselves suddenly transported into a world they could previously only dream. For a moment they flew. They took the ball and jumped above everyone else – and flew. Too few years later, by the time they are professionals, that dunk becomes so commonplace they refuse to display their flying for the little boys who were once just like them.
Their world that should be an expansive place of wonderment is nothing more to them than a cage in which they are the zoo animal. The only place they feel comfortable is the place they are seen most; the basketball arena.
They try to live a normal life with their longtime friends or member of their family but too often they are see as the golden cash cow; pull and tug and properly combine that with a caress on the correct bloated udder within their egos and the money or gifts or the jobs that pay more than they could ever make anywhere else doing next to nothing, will come.
There are many, many athletes in every sport who want to play in the “big leagues,” but there are few with the requisite talent to do so. There are 30 NBA teams and there are 15 players on each team’s active roster. But only 12 can don the team uniform on a given night. That means there are 450 players total who can say, “I play in the National Basketball Association.” There are only 360 who eligible to play on a given night and of those, about 250 see action.
Of those players how many can repeatedly put themselves in the position J.R. Smith has and remain on their team? Perhaps 100 in all three major sports?
To say playing professional sports is an elite endeavor is a gross understatement. It is more akin to winning a genetic lottery and then winning a socio-cultural lottery that places the athlete in circumstances that allow him or her to, through the work necessary, to fulfill their given ability.
This is the world inhabited by J.R. Smith. He has a special athletic gift that has been cultivated by many people over his life so far. He has taken that ability and driven himself to the pinnacle of the athletic endeavor that is basketball. He must deal with extraordinary pressures few 21-year olds ever know and they are pressures of a variety unimagined by the masses. When money and material comfort are not constant features in a person’s life, more money does often mean more problems.
But in this, his third year in the NBA it is time for Smith to grasp the importance of himself in relation to his surroundings and begin to act accordingly. The Denver Nuggets organization, by allowing Smith to grow up in public, is telling him that he is one of but a few special athletes in major sports.
Though Smith issued an apology for his actions, it is less time for words than actions. It is time for Smith to return payment to all those who have helped him attain his present status as an elite athlete. It is time for Smith to sequester himself and ask his friends to shield him ———– from him. It is time for Smith to actively seek out counsel from Allen Iverson because AI, as an elder statesman who “did it his way” now sees how some of his way was not the way. Navigating through life as a National Basketball Association player is not an easy chore.
Finally, J.R. Smith needs to ask himself what he wants to be. He is at a fork in the road of his life and his career. One road leads to talent lost and a life ruined, the other to stardom and success. The choice, on the surface, should be easy. However, when you’ve made bad choices a pattern of behavior, the pull of “doing wrong” becomes increasingly normalized.
At this point in time the odds are against Smith. And there is an entire city that is with me in saying J.R. Smith is one more mistake from not us not watching again to find out if he has changed.