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.
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.
"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'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."
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
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.
"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.
"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
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."