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Within days of J.R. Smith arriving armed with a historic $3 million contract, Zhejiang of the Chinese Basketball League had come to regret signing the clown prince of basketball. From unreasonable demands on the kind of car needed to curry him around the city, to skipping practices for shopping excursions in neighboring cities, to a relentless pattern of insubordination, Smith's bad act had never been worse.
Perhaps his greatest excess of idiocy had been a weekend of running a room service bill into the proximity of $3,000, a source with direct knowledge told Yahoo Sports. He kept ordering food, stacking piles of trays upon trays – "just to see if they would keep bringing it to the room," the source said.
All uneaten, all on the franchise's tab – all a window into a fool.
Smith would be fined more than $1 million in that lockout season in China, which is some kind of stupid considering he had gone overseas on the desperate premise of a money grab. He has come back to the States, signed two free-agent contracts with the New York Knicks and soon will push $1 million in fines for his NBA career. He's been suspended for a reckless driving death and fights and drugs. He's 28 years old, and he's learned little in his life except how to use basketball to get over on everyone again and again.
This time, it was the act of untying opponents' sneakers that cost him $50,000 and the ire of a Knicks organization that has long enabled – even encouraged – the most mean-spirited and pointless of behavior.
Across 48 hours, the Knicks tried a different approach with Smith. First, they floated the empty threat of trading him. And then coach Mike Woodson benched him on Thursday night in a victory over the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden.
Smith will be back again, and the Knicks will be at his mercy. After Smith was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year last season, he found a sparse free-agent market over the summer. And, now, with a three-year, $18 million contract, knee surgery and a suspension to start the season, the Knicks couldn't even start a trade conversation on Smith without attaching a good, young player or a first-round draft pick to him.
This is a different NBA financial climate, where teams are stingier than ever on awarding long-term, guaranteed money to those as combustible and unreliable as Smith. Smith's exodus is a non-starter and the Knicks know it.
If Smith didn't have such an inflated opinion of himself, he'd probably know it, too. Everyone understands how this will go now: Smith will tell everyone that he needs to grow up, that he's let down his coach and teammates and fans. The Knicks will start to play him again, and it's just a matter of time until Smith's self-destructive act will resurface. Once again, he'll be ignorant to the score in the final seconds of a game – like the loss he cost the Knicks in Houston – or he'll get into trouble off the floor. Or probably both.
After his release from prison four years ago, Smith sat inside a New Jersey country club, and told me how the death of his close friend, caused by Smith's recklessness behind the wheel, had changed his life. From the guilt over the death, to a summer in a prison cell, to wanting his young daughter to never have to keep reading about his misdeeds, Smith vowed to be a changed man.
“I think I was a follower to an extent,” Smith told me. “If someone would ask me to do something that was on the borderline, more than likely I’d say, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Now, I think I see the bigger picture finally. …I think I need to mature and understand what I say before I say it, and what I do before I do it."
He can make it sound so sincere, but the con never ends. J.R. Smith was raised in a suburban, middle-class home with two good parents and access to an excellent education. He had a tremendous high school coaching mentor – Dan Hurley at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. – and he has long been taught the difference of right and wrong. Smith's always loved to play the part of a tough city kid, but truth be told, he's a soft, spoiled, suburban jump-shooter.
And when Smith's benching ends with these Knicks, there will be no epiphanies. No revelations. Everyone knows how this story ends with him, how the money will dry up and how he'll wish he had done everything so differently in his career. It is sad and predictable and on a collision course with cliche.
Someday, Smith will make that call to room service – insisting upon more of everything – and there will be no one to answer. J.R. Smith is 28 years old, and it is too late to threaten and punish a spoiled, suburban kid. No trade, no epiphanies, no changes. The Knicks deserve J.R. Smith, and he'll belong to them until the bitter end.