Into The Fire

Ode to Earl, we hardly knew ye.

Yesterday, I discussed, in very broad strokes, why Dion Waiters could be a good fit with the Oklahoma City Thunder and how Monday’s three-team trade benefited each of those parties. At the end of that piece, I threw in a small bit about J.R. Smith, who landed with the Cavaliers, but last night, I came to the realization that simply tossing his high school yearbook photograph (and the all-time great quote which accompanied it) was not enough to truly pay homage to Earl Joseph Smith III, the one they call “J.R.” 

Pundits are fond of referring to Smith as “mercurial,” as if his unique brand of disaffected bravado is inherently divine. The Greek god Mercury was, among numerous other things, the patron god of financial gain, travelers, luck and trickery. It seems fitting to note that J.R. personifies many of these qualities both on and off the basketball court, and the pundits claim a begrudging win for properly, but incompletely, labeling one of the more contradictory NBA players in recent memory.

Smith carries a reputation for playing hardest when it matters the most, and some have accused him of taking plays, or even games, off, resigning himself to the higher pursuits common to someone in the public light in New York City. Having had the opportunity to live in the Rotten Apple for a similarly brief period, I can say that it isn’t necessarily unbecoming of someone to take advantage of all that the bright lights and dim alleys have to offer. Oscar Wilde is noted for recommending everything in moderation, of course, including moderation, and nowhere is that more true than in New York.

If Smith were merely a headcase who also happened to be on an NBA roster, he would essentially be Freddie Mitchell. Grandiose moments of inspired basketball, combined with an endless run of preposterous activities off the court, endeared him to the masses. He became the Knicks’ answer to Errol Flynn, floating from wing to wing while frustrating everyone in sight, his own teammates included.

He showed up to the Knicks in February 2012, fresh off exile in China during the lockout and with a fresh haircut. When Blog Serf James Vasiliou saw this follicle display, he shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “J.R., you’re only supposed to go halfway!”

“Do you think,” I replied, “that J.R. Smith has ever done anything only halfway?”

A native of Freehold, New Jersey, Smith made the prep-to-pro jump back when that was the sort of thing you could do. He spent time in New Orleans and Denver before jumping ship to China. Over the course of his travels, he became a sneaker aficionado. College experience? None, but he has the kind of life experiences you only read about in Hemingway novels and Wu-Tang lyrics.

Note that he wore sneakers from Bo Jackson’s signature line. Bo Jackson played two sports professionally, and neither of them was basketball. So goes Earl.

Freehold boasts another notable malcontent, an older man now who, as a young man, spurned authority figures and did things his way. Throughout his career, Bruce Springsteen has embodied the ethos of people who have the desire to live deliberately but cannot gather the means, for one reason or another. The Boss had a particular knack for explaining the volatile human condition with relation to the infinite externalities we are unable to control. He harnessed what he could of the good, despite the evil.

For all of his unpredictable and sometimes overwrought play, J.R. Smith has essentially done the same, pushing forth even as multitudinous parachutes dragged behind him. For a brief period, it seemed that being a Knick would drive the demons from Smith and reveal only the greatness he shows every so often, usually while the rest of us are blinking.

But Smith needs the demons as much as Springsteen did. Without them, he wouldn’t have anything against which to fight. The internal battles he fights against intrinsic forces define him, more than any thrown elbows in the playoffs or ill-advised tweets.

I realized yesterday that I am actually, really going to miss J.R. Smith on the Knicks (Just for the record, I’ll miss Shumpert, too, but his lauded defense has regressed a bit, even as his hair has reached peak supremacy in the flat-top game). Everything that made him so wonderful – the 3-point outbursts, the public invitations to cycle with him, the fact that his best friend on the Knicks was Steve Novak, the whitest man ever – fit so well in New York, from Woodson and Grunwald through Fisher and Jackson, and it seemed that his weirdly charming, devil-may-care attitude would exist as long as the lights on Broadway shone.

Nothing lasts forever, however, and I’m grateful for the delightfully frustrating years he gave to a franchise desperately in need of character post-Isiah. Wherever there are shots chucked far too early in the shot clock, he’ll be there. Wherever there is a need for a scoring spark, he’ll be there. Wherever a team offers his brother a job, no matter the cost, he’ll be there. And I will continue to support Earl, because it just feels right. Godspeed you, Twitter emperor.



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