2017 NBA Playoffs

Deconstructing Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith

He’s grown in Cleveland, in part because of a daughter born five months early

He carefully touched her soft hair. His large fingers pushed the fine strands aside. And back again. Her tiny eyes were closed shut. He wondered what color they were. He wanted to see her chest moving up and down. The breath passing from her lungs to his. Just like he’d dreamed. To know it was real.

Any impulse from her — a breath, cough, hiccup — would mean the sun on his face for a thousand years.

Oh, God. Her little fingers balled so tightly. Her fists smaller than his thumbnail.

Only skin-on-skin contact was permitted. Earl had to remove his sweatshirt, wash his hands, disinfect his upper body and lie on a gurney before doctors could place Dakota on his tattooed chest.

Her feeding and breathing tubes were taped to his chest just in case she jolted suddenly. He feared her monitors might go off. Doctors kept a watchful eye.

He called it one of the best days of his life. She was 35 days old.

Shirley pressed her hands to cover her mouth, eyes wide and wet, but armed with the knowledge of how soft Earl’s touch could be. But he was scared, too.

He could feel her small breath on his skin. The fleeting warmth of life. It came. Then left. So beautifully. At imperfect, terrifying, tiny intervals. It burned his chest. He wanted to scream. He wanted to convulse. But he had to be still. For her. It was real.

It was always for her. And now their hearts were so close.

Kota Bear was alive. So was Earl.


“I had everything,” said 31-year-old Earl Joseph “J.R.” Smith III, the starting shooting guard for the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who begin their quest for a second NBA title on Thursday against the Golden State Warriors. “We had just won the title. I got married, signed my deal. It was everything I ever wanted. I had everything.”

Until he didn’t. He knew that when he and his wife, Shirley Smith, found themselves at Cleveland Clinic Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. On Jan. 2, an emergency surgery was performed to prematurely deliver his third child, Dakota, who arrived in this world five months early weighing 16 ounces and was barely longer than an iPhone.

“It scared me and humbled me,” said Earl. “I cried every day. I would grab my wife and we would just cry.

“There were so many doctors coming up to me. They were asking me if they should perform lifesaving procedures if her heart stopped. I was like, ‘Yes!’ Why are you asking me this? This is my daughter. Do whatever you can to save her life.”

Earl and Shirley lived at the hospital. They slept in chairs and on benches. They released a gut-wrenching video asking for prayers just after Dakota was born. Earl was secretly thankful his injured thumb allowed him to spend every minute with her during the first weeks of her life.

How could things unravel now after it had taken him so long to put them together?

While Dakota’s timing turned his life upside down, it was his own —for once — impeccable timing that began with his January 2015 trade to Cleveland that triggered a two-year transformation, on and off the floor, that allowed him to survive the darkest days of his life.

The mercurial and wildly unpredictable 13-year veteran, whose talent was considerable and undeniable, had long excited executives, coaches and fans.

Those beautiful raindrop jumpers launched from precipitous angles. The way he would contort his body midair and slam home an errant toss as he sailed by the rim at eye level. The failure of his mean mugs to hide the joy behind those eyes sparkling at his own wonderful disregard for both physics and authority.

But the same brilliance that earned him Sixth Man of the Year in 2013 — and powered the New York Knicks to 54 wins, the most in 16 years — and helped Cleveland capture its first NBA title last season was backlit by a never-ending series of embarrassing social media gaffes, ill-advised forays into the night, a torrent of silliness and avoidable arrests.

He’d been apprehended for failing to appear in traffic court, saw his license suspended multiple times and wrestled with the painful memory of a reckless driving accident that claimed the life of his high school friend, Andre Bell.

“I’m not pretending I’m an angel,” Smith said. “I made those mistakes. I did. They made me who I am but at the same time would I take some of them back? Of course, I would.”

So he set out to do the near impossible: shed a toxic reputation and reinvent himself on the other side of 30.

“But once they paint you with that brush,” said former Denver Nuggets teammate Chauncey Billups, “that’s it.”

The J.R. Smith-is-a-new-man narrative has been kicking around for a while, usually hinging on his clubbing habits, on-court production and days between digital slipups.

And like before, there were familiar allies such as his father Earl Jr., LeBron James, his brother Chris, and his wife. But this time there was someone new: J.R. Smith.

And the first step was his alone. He held a mirror up to his life.

J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during an all-access practice at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on April 28, 2016 in Independence, Ohio.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

“I started to think about who I was,” he said, reclining back in a folding chair at the Cavs’ practice facility several hours before a mid-April practice. “It’s almost like a split personality. J.R. is kind of like a character I play. But Earl Smith is the family man, the homebody who’s more chill and laid-back and doesn’t go out.

“I think it’s been building my whole life, but I probably realized it when I first got here. You start to look at yourself and try to figure out who you are and your life begins to change.”

He began to tiptoe gently around social media. The stench of the schadenfreude-tinged fallout from his regrettable posts, fodder for Black Twitter and snarky blogs alike, suffocated him.

He constantly worried he was on the brink of another screwup, which began to wreak havoc on his psyche. He resented fame, cellphone cameras, moving in crowds.

“I’m a sensitive person,” said Smith. “I was tired of everything going wrong. Things affect me. I’m probably the most sensitive dude I know.”

Even his efforts at sincerity and compassion were derailed by something as simple as a clumsy choice of words.

Of all his digital missteps, nothing irked him more than the response to an Instagram post intending to honor those lost on 9/11.

“Celebrate the deaths of the people in 9/11! #WELOVEYOU #WEWILLNEVERFORGET,” he wrote.

He was mocked and ridiculed across the internet.

The first line of a New York Post story: “J.R., what are you smoking?”

Deadspin: “Oh, J.R. You poor son of a b—-.”

“People knew what I was trying to say, but of course everyone is going to react because it’s me,” Smith said. “Now, I gotta go meet with the general manager. I got the coach asking me what am I doing on social media. Just a giant headache.”

How much of that is because you’re J.R. Smith?

“All of it,” he said. “I can almost expect it to be blown out of proportion.”

“A lot of it is his past and some of the things he’s done,” said former Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who summoned Smith into his office the morning after the 9/11 post. “They’re remembering stuff from six or seven years ago. But are you learning from your mistakes?

“When players do things to put themselves out there, you can quickly be prejudged. There are consequences for what you do. Don’t put yourself in a position that you might regret. I stayed on him a lot about that. I kept telling him everyone is always watching.”

The message from Woodson was an incessant drumbeat.

“Stay off social media,” the coach implored. “Every time something bit him in the butt, I was there to say I told you so.”

These days his posts generally consist of Cavs highlights, golf retweets, updates on Dakota’s health and videos of the Cavs dancing pretty much wherever they go.

#GreatMorningWorld just another day at the Smith House! #HaveFun

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Smith readily said he’ll never truly be out of the woods as long as he lets his thumbs do the talking.

“I definitely worry about something else happening,” he said. “It’s one of the ways you stay cautious. I don’t let it deter me from living my everyday life, but I still think about it.”

Smith has a simple rule of thumb: If he has to think about it, it’s probably better not to hit send.

“Should I post this? Should I wear this shirt? How will this affect somebody? Sometimes I ask my wife or a friend. If you have to have a second thought, then you shouldn’t do it.”

He props his right elbow on the table and plants his chin in the palm of his right hand, slinks just so. His large fingers frame his face.

The moment hangs in the air.

“I’d rather be Earl than J.R.”

Cleveland lets him be Earl.

Cleveland is the place he knew he could become the man he was supposed to be. But first he had to get there.


Ture Lillegraven / AUGUST

Cavaliers general manager David Griffin wasn’t sold. Despite the fact that the Cavs invested heavily in evaluating players, he sought the gut feeling of the guys who would be most affected if Smith didn’t work out in Cleveland.

He talked to James. Wanted to know what Kyrie Irving thought. Even Mike Miller, whose minutes Smith would zap, vouched for him. Griffin tapped his extensive network of league sources, getting feedback from anyone who had worked with Smith.

Smith was potentially the missing piece that could put the Cavs over the championship hump. Or blow them up entirely.

“He acknowledged that his reputation was earned,” said Griffin. “He wasn’t wronged by the existence of his reputation. He earned it. He was the sum of all those things. But he made a conscious decision that he didn’t want to be that anymore and changed his life in a profoundly positive way.”

Smith knew it was now or never. Griffin knew he had an insurance policy — Smith’s strong desire not to disappoint James.

“I don’t know if we make that trade [a three-team deal involving the Knicks and Oklahoma City] without that alpha in the locker room,” said Griffin. “I don’t know that we do it without LeBron.”

Failing in the company of James, no matter how fond he was of Smith, would likely be a career killer. His value would essentially drop to zero. And despite his confounding tendencies and self-inflicted wounds that dialed up the toxicity of his career, Smith took his professional failures hard.

“He just cares so much,” said his father Earl Jr. “This is what they don’t know about him.”

In his three previous stops in New Orleans, Denver and New York, Smith would deal by closing himself off when he wasn’t acting out. It was a dark place and wasn’t fun.

“I would just shut down,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to people. I had an attitude. People tried to take my love and passion for the game. And they succeeded to some point.”

Now this was about his survival.

“Griff, if I was you I’d be scared of me, too,” the general manager remembers Smith telling him, “but if you make the deal, I’ll walk to Cleveland.”


Smith sat in a class room on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, during the sweltering summer of 2002. He was a rising sophomore at St. Benedict’s Prep (New Jersey) and, along with 120 of the best high school players in the country, gathered for the annual ABCD Camp, the premier competition showcase in the country. The first day of the five-day camp was devoted to classroom study.

Joakim Noah sat behind him. Marvin Williams was there, too. Shaun Livingston, Josh Smith and a bunch of other lanky kids he had yet to meet filed in at 10 o’clock in the morning for a series of lectures and written assignments.

Ten minutes after class began, James, the No. 1 high school player in the country, walked in with a cast on his broken left wrist and sat down next to Smith.

“We just started rapping with each other and hit it off,” Smith explains. “I knew this dude was gonna be cool.”

The following summer James invited Smith to his new house in Akron, Ohio, where the pair trained for a week as James geared up for his first NBA Summer League. They maintained contact as best they could but didn’t rekindle the friendship until NBA All-Star Weekend in February 2005 during Smith’s rookie season.

At a fancy gala thrown by the NBA Players Association at the Denver Convention Center, James rolled in wearing jeans, Timberlands and a Four Horsemen varsity jacket with his name embroidered on it. Smith stood close by, wide-eyed, as James pointed out a who’s who of people he should know or stay away from.

After the party, hundreds of guests poured into the lobby. To the left of the exit were two dozen carpeted steps about 20 feet wide. James and his now famous Four Horsemen pals from Akron —Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Randy Mims — coolly planted themselves at the top, as if on a throne, and watched as the rookie got lost in the crowd below. It would be a perfect microcosm of their careers for the next 10 years. James waited for Smith to escape the fray before assembling his troops to leave. Smith made his way up the stairs, once again under James’ watch.

“It’s like big brother-little brother,” Smith explains. “Majority of time, it’s the big brother who has the talent and has it all. The younger brother has talent, too. But he only gets looked at because of the older brother.”

J.R. Smith No.5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during their game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 6, 2016, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

James’ early years in the league drew criticism and contempt from established veterans for a level of hype that far exceeded his accomplishments. But for younger players, friendship with James was almost a kind of currency.

James’ phone rang often. Maybe it was Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul. Once on the boardwalk in Coney Island Sebastian Telfair whipped out his cellphone to prove he had James’ number. But Smith had a cozy spot right there in the King’s Court.

“J.R. is definitely my brother,” said James. “His family is my family. His girls are like my nieces. When you meet special people that mean something to you and are true, that’s when you know you have a friend for life.”

Smith hears this and pauses as if James’ sentiment is news to him.

“He’s basketball royalty, so coming from him it means the world,” said Smith. “From the time I met him it’s been nothing but encouragement. That’s an amazing quality to have. If you show people that you believe in them and feel for them, that’s a true quality. What better can you give your friends than encouragement?

“For guys like us, so many people want to be around you because of who you are. Especially with Bron. But it’s like, thanks, bro, but I don’t really need anything from you. I got my own money, I got my own family. That’s how you know our friendship is genuine. I don’t ask for much or need much. All I really need is peace of mind and conversation.”

James is an ardent proponent of inclusion and often organizes outings or get-togethers of various sizes — trips to Columbus, Ohio, to watch his beloved Buckeyes, team dinners, family time that revolves around Sunday Night Football — that almost always include Smith.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ guard J. R. Smith (L) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (2R) listen as Smith’s teammate Lebron James speaks during a rally at the Cleveland Public Auditorium on Nov. 6, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

There they were in a suite at Game 7 of the World Series last November. Four days later they stood on stage alongside Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a rally in downtown Cleveland at the Public Auditorium 48 hours before the election. Smith’s daughter Demi got to meet the candidate. In another five days the Cavs were honored at the White House. Smith managed to find himself the butt of both Clinton’s and President Barack Obama’s humor concerning his postchampionship shirtless escapades.

James guffawed each time. The teasing and barbs always came easy.

“I’m too rich to be bald,” James would say.

“You can’t have everything!” Smith would say, laughing.

“We do a lot of stuff together,” adds Smith, “but the best time is just sitting and watching a game and talking about life.”

James’ love of conversation suits his curious intellect and has long been a way for the pair to bond. Whether it’s the plot of a movie, their shared love of the Dallas Cowboys, a type of wine they’d like to try or fantasizing about playing pro football. “Man, I wish we could just play one more game,” James would say. Hucking the pigskin across the Cavs practice court is not an unusual occurrence.

“He still teaches me so much stuff that I don’t know,” said Smith. “His horizons are so broad and he’s so well-rounded in so many areas that I still learn so much from him when it comes to basketball or life in general or fatherhood.”

Smith demurs when asked about what he brings to the friendship.

“I don’t know if my words have any real meaning to him,” he said, “but I just try to return the encouragement. As much as we all think he’s The King or he’s Superman, he’s still a person. He’s got emotions and feeling just like everybody else. There’re days when he’s not feeling his best, so it’s my job to let him know he’s that dude.”

One summer afternoon after winning the championship, Smith, James and several teammates took out a yacht for a day on Lake Erie near Clifton Beach. As a family bonding experience, most of the players brought their children.

When 11-year-old LeBron James Jr. took to doing backflips off the boat’s rear deck James noticed that less capable, impressionable children tried unsuccessfully to imitate him. James pulled his eldest aside.

“Sometimes you have to have less fun so everyone can be safe,” James said in a teaching moment, leaving the decision to do the jumps up to him so long as he looked out for the younger children.

The younger LeBron refrained from diving into the water for the rest of the day. He would compliment the younger kids on their effort and encourage them to play games on the other side of the boat. Like father, like son.

“It was such great parenting,” said Smith. “Just the way he handled it. It inspired me to be a better parent.”


The taunts stung like darts. The laughter singed like an open wound salted to the brim. He hated being there, how it felt. He wished he could hide. Everyone could see him squirm. He could bury his head, but it was false protection. There lay no hope behind a propped-up remedial textbook.

This is what it felt like to be bullied even before he knew there was a name for it.

When he was in fifth grade at Millstone Elementary, Smith was assigned to a special education math class. His friends would point and squeal through the wire-laced window of the door.

After class, the barbs would usually continue in the hallway. He could have retaliated, but the lessons of his mother, Ida, stayed his hand. Still, he would go home and cry to her. She would cry, too. She could run through every emotion during the course of a conversation.

“I never wanted to make anyone feel like that, like the way I felt,” Smith said of the merciless taunts. “Even at that age I knew it was wrong. But I hated being in there. Hated it.”

The experience had a profound effect on him. He became withdrawn and scarcely sought out new friends, preferring to spend time at home with brothers and cousins.

“I really didn’t have childhood friends,” he said. “I kept to myself.”

His brothers became his friends. Teammates became his brothers. He dived into sports to release his anger.

“I was almost like the Water Boy using my anger as tackling fuel,” said Smith. “I just had to get it all out.”

Where taunts from his classmates tore down his confidence, sports built it back up. He took out his aggression and frustration on the playing surfaces of Monmouth County.

It was the first time in his life a traumatic event shaped the course of his future. It wouldn’t be the last.


Earl Joseph Smith III was born in Millstone, New Jersey, to Earl Jr., a mason, and Ida, homemaker, who met at a high school basketball game in 1982.

Five decades ago, Smith’s grandfather, Earl Sr., moved the family to Millstone, a pastoral township with grazing cattle and sleepy farms that, according to current census figures, is 91 percent white. He found work as a master mason — a contractor proficient in laying concrete, brick, blocks and stone.

Smith’s father briefly played college basketball at Tyler Community College (Texas) — where he played against Pistons great Vinnie Johnson — and Monmouth University before returning to Millstone to start a family.

He followed his father’s footsteps working with mortar and mud, starting his own company, Big Earl Masonry, which eventually grew to a well-respected outfit that had 50 men and a fleet of trucks. He won contracts to build big-box stores such as Best Buy and Sports Authority as well as a senior assisted-living center and dozens of houses and local businesses.

#MYDAD #HappyBirthday

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Earl Jr. said that by 1997, when J.R. was 12, he made his first million. He started dabbling in racehorses when a friend approached him about going in on a standardbred named We Will See.

“A horse that nobody wanted,” said Earl Jr. He put up $7,500 of the 30 grand. He said the horse raced for five years before retiring with career earnings of $2.5 million. His stable eventually ballooned to 14 horses, including Rev Me Up, Lost Jewel and Don’t Call Me Francis.

He would take J.R. to job sites to show him the ropes, but the boy hated to get his hands dirty.

“Working like that in the summer or the winter?” said Smith. “It wasn’t for me.”

He declared he would never be a contractor. He would make it to the NBA.

“If you don’t want to work with your hands,” said his father, “you better make it.”

Earl Jr. began to teach J.R., his first son, basic fundamentals ranging from pick-and-rolls to proper shooting form on a hoop in the backyard.

“I taught him at 5 years old. He comprehended at 6 and mastered it at 8,” said Earl Jr. By 12 he was sailing around defenders three years older to drop the ball in the rim unfettered. He drove J.R. to every gym in five counties in search of the best competition, all the while trying to impart the same life lessons Earl Sr. had taught him.

One day after exiting a convenience store, Earl Jr. noticed that his sons Chris and J.R.’s pockets were bulging with candy despite the fact they had no money. He marched them back inside and made them return the sweets and apologize to the manager. The warning was stern: Do not repeat the offense.

He thought they got the message, so he started giving them an allowance to degrease their sticky fingers. Good behavior was nonnegotiable. When the boys would fight, Earl Jr. would hide their Xbox in his closet for weeks.

Still, athletic glory remained the content of their hopeful dreams. The room J.R. shared with his two brothers in their rented house on 4 grassy acres in cow-dotted Millstone was plastered with posters of Tracy McGrady, Derek Jeter and the Cowboys. Soon the trophies outnumbered the shelves.

Family nights centered on poker and other card games. But the games moved too slowly, and J.R. didn’t have the requisite patience. Plus, when the adults started digging in their pockets, it was all grown folks’ business.

By high school he was every bit the introvert who sat in that math class. Still his high school yearbook quote was more J.R. than Earl: “Get chicks or die trying.”

More importantly, he had developed into a chiseled three-sport star who had the potential to make a living on the diamond, gridiron or hardwood.

After averaging 27 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists at St. Benedict’s Prep (New Jersey) and earning co-MVP honors in the 2004 McDonald’s All-American game, Smith rescinded his commitment to North Carolina and decided to put his name in the NBA draft.

J.R. Smith #2 of the East Boys team drives to the basket during the McDonalds All American High School Game at Ford Center on March 31, 2004 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Smith dazzled NBA executives in his draft workouts with his mind-bending athleticism and area code range, so much so that the Philadelphia Sixers narrowly decided on Andre Iguodala after a spirited workout in Philly where the two competed in drills and played one-on-one. The New Orleans Hornets scooped him up nine spots later with the 18th pick.

Earl Jr., Ida and his youngest brother, Dimitrius, moved to a six-bedroom home in the English Turn golf community 8 miles from downtown New Orleans. (A year later rookie Chris Paul would stay with them for a spell while he looked for a place to live.)

Dad grabbed the master bedroom and monitored Smith’s finances, forbidding him from lavish purchases on his rookie deal and driving home the importance of sound financial planning.

Though he averaged a respectable 10.3 points per game on 39 percent shooting in 24 minutes per game, the transition was anything but smooth for the Smiths.

Early in preseason Smith’s dad drove him to practice and walked into the gym with his son.

“What are you doing here?” Earl Jr. said he was asked by the coaching staff. He explained he was helping his son acclimate to the new environment.

“I didn’t care if I had to sit in the car,” said the father. “But the idea of me being there was unacceptable to them.”

Smith played with typical rookie inconsistency — on a hot streak one moment, missing a defensive assignment the next. When he freelanced on offense, coach Byron Scott would pull him out of games. Smith struggled to accept his low-man-on-the-totem pole status.

“It took a toll on me,” he wistfully recalls. “I was always the best player on my team and now I was just a number. They can bring in guys to replace you and it kind of hits you. They don’t think you’re good enough or don’t work hard enough.

“I was hardheaded and stubborn. I thought I knew everything. I thought I was on this stage where only a few people could touch me and tell me what to do. I used to think all I had to do was pay attention to the guys I cared about, like Kobe, T-Mac and Bron. Guys who came straight from high school and had tremendous success. It just didn’t work out like that for me. I was never that guy they were going to build around and I had to learn to accept that.”

J.R. Smith (No. 23) of the New Orleans Hornets advances the ball through center court against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game at Gund Arena on Dec. 26, 2004, in Cleveland, Ohio.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Left wounded he would retreat to strange, dispassionate corners of his mind. He didn’t tell his parents to avoid their sympathy. He shut down.

During one stretch where Scott was particularly frustrated with Smith’s decision-making in a game, Scott leaned over to assistant coach Kenny Gattison and said, “I can’t wait to ship his a– out of here.”

On July 14, 2006, Smith was traded to Chicago for Tyson Chandler and dealt six days later to Denver.

The rocky arc of Smith’s narrative didn’t change much in Denver. George Karl resented Smith’s sense of entitlement as much as his shot selection, which he documented thoroughly in his controversial 2016 book Furious George: My 40 Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs and Poor Shot Selection.

Today Smith refuses to address Karl by name but can’t let go of the damage he believes was done to his reputation.

“I had a coach who just killed me every day,” said Smith. “I won’t say his name because I would be killing him and I don’t want to fall into that trap. But he put a bad label on me. And people who didn’t know me assumed that if he didn’t like me, I must be terrible. Except they didn’t know that he gets into it with everybody.”

The coach gave few of his stars the benefit of the doubt.

“George Karl never liked him,” said Earl Jr. “I told him to shoot the ball no matter what because Karl’s gonna take your a– out anyway.”

On one such occasion he did just that. When Smith was pulled from a 2009 home game, he stormed past the bench and straight to the locker room. Billups immediately got up and followed him.

Smith worked up a lather fuming about Karl as the expletives flew. In the locker room he turned around and was startled to see Billups standing behind him.

J.R. Smith #1 of the Denver Nuggets looks on during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden Arena on Feb. 4, 2008, in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“Swish, really, bro?” said Billups. “You gonna quit on us? Us? We’re the ones practicing every day. Taking all the reps. Why would you quit on us? We didn’t have anything to do with him taking you out of the game. Hell, no.”

Smith explained Karl was out to get him. Billups told him to not let his years-long beef with Karl affect his teammates or he’d lose their trust.

“That’s what kind of teammate you’re gonna be?” asked Billups. “If so, you’re never gonna make it in this league.”

Smith knew the vet was right. After all, he cared enough to leave the bench during a game. They walked back out to the floor as the game was in progress. Karl asked Billups what happened. The cagey vet didn’t blink.

“He just had to use the bathroom,” Billups told Karl. “Everything’s good.”

Billups stayed on Smith about arriving early to practice, developing his craft and the importance of his appearance.

“People will form opinions of you based on the way you look,” said Billups. “How you dress will be how you’re addressed.”

Today Billups looks at the man Smith has become. Not perfect, still with flaws and scars, but wiser and humble and more aware. Someone who escaped the darkness just when it seemed his last light had gone out.

“J.R. is a beautiful kid,” said Billups. “He comes from a great family and a loving home. He’s a sweetheart of a kid. I’m proud of what he’s done and who he’s become. He deserves everything.”


There is still plenty of business for Smith and the Cavaliers to take care of this postseason even with Smith slow to recover from his Dec. 20, 2016, thumb injury, which kept him out for three months. He’s averaging just 6.6 points per game in 28.2 minutes in the postseason but on a healthy .450 clip from behind the arc.

He’s been asked by coach Tyronn Lue to become Cleveland’s primary perimeter defender and has accepted the gritty role without qualm.

Smith, who’s been tasked with guarding the likes of Paul George and DeMar DeRozan, now has the crucial assignment of keeping Klay Thompson under wraps. To prep, he’s studied hours of tape, searching for every nuance and tendency to inform his defensive approach.

The Cavs are 12-1 in the playoffs heading into their third consecutive Finals clash with the Warriors thanks in part to Smith sacrificing his game.

“He’s actually affected the outcome much more on the defensive end,” said Cavs general manager Griffin, pleased that Smith has accepted a thankless role.

Smith has taken on a near LeBron-like obsession to ensure the Cavs repeat. But real life is never far from his mind these days.

Earl can see the end of his career and he wants to be ready even if it’s not his favorite topic. He frets about the boredom, lost sense of purpose and giving up the thing he’s done since he was 3 years old.

“I don’t want to start looking toward the end,” he said. “But you know you can’t do this forever.”

He talks to retired stars such as Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins, who stress to him the importance of a post-basketball career. He used to dial up Moses Malone, who introduced him to golf and even Spencer Haywood, who became the first underclassman to play in the NBA after a landmark Supreme Court case.

“Have a plan,” said Billups. “Boredom is what gets you in trouble.”
He’ll always have golf. And he’s getting better.

“He’ll probably be a scratch golfer soon,” said Griffin. “Heck, he could probably figure out figure skating if you gave him enough time.”

He knows he wants to stay in Cleveland after he retires and is already looking for land to build his dream home. He’ll go to his favorite restaurant, the Cabin Club on the west side, try to persuade James to play golf, and watch his girls grow.

Trips for ice cream and to the bookstore with the girls will triple, he imagines. He’ll load up the basket with whatever they want. For Demi, it’s Diary of A Wimpy Kid; coloring books and anything with ponies for Peyton. Demi has aspirations of becoming a golfer while Peyton is obsessed with gymnastics. He loves their inquisitive minds. He encourages their creativity and teaches them the value of reading comprehension and putting down their iPads. (They’re only allowed to use them on the weekends.)

He’ll teach Dakota how to ride a bike someday. He’ll teach her how to read and color. He’ll cave to her every demand, he thinks.

On May 4 he posted a picture on Instagram of the whiteboard in Dakota’s hospital room that charts her progress.

“Our baby has made it to 6lbs!!! #mykotabear #kotastrong #daddysgirl”

The post is sprinkled with emojis of baby bottles, exploding fireworks and gift-wrapped presents. She was 122 days old. At the top of the board in red magic marker are the letters TGBTG (To God Be The Glory).

Seventeen days later, the Smiths got the news they had long been waiting for. Dakota was ready to come home. As Shirley waited at the hospital for Earl to get out of practice, she got a crash course in prepping for her daughter’s homecoming — how to properly administer Dakota’s prescriptions and operate her oxygen and pulse monitor — which she detailed on her blog.

When Smith walked in, Shirley began to cry. The doctors supplied them with reams of information and they left room No. 29 for the last time. It had been 141 days since Kota came into this world. She weighed 7 pounds, 5 ounces.

They drove home in blissful silence, with Shirley in the back seat unable to take her eyes off Kota.

The man in the driver’s seat had got them through.

“When I look at you [oh lord here comes the tears],” she wrote about Earl. “I see a selfless man who will give the shirt off his back to anyone. I see a man who deserves to be unconditionally loved and treated with dignity and respect. I see a man who through the midst of ALL OF HIS PERSONAL STORMS AND ADVERSITIES has held on and pulled through.”

Dakota gains a tiny bit of weight every day depending on her stress levels and how well she’s feeding. She’s strong enough that the Smiths can now just pick her up and hold her without the extensive precautions.

She watches daddy with her brown eyes.

On Mother’s Day they dressed Kota in a tiny tutu. The Smiths arranged for flower delivery for every nurse on the preemie ward.

Earl arrived from practice. Kota was placed on his chest at nap time. There is debate as to who fell asleep first.

Someday he’ll give back to Cleveland, though he knows how forever lopsided the trade-off will be.

Cleveland gave him a real home. It gave him love. Cleveland kept Dakota alive. So that Earl might live, too.

Chris Palmer is a long time NBA writer from Prince Georges, County, MD. His tattoos and crossover are a work in progress. He and Kevin Durant almost always agree.