LAKEWOOD, N.J – The only gang that ever claimed the Denver Nuggets’ J.R. Smith(notes) began to arrive near noon, climbing out of SUVs and cars with gift bags and golf shoes. This was his father and mother, aunts and uncles, a family arriving at the Woodlake Country Club for the charity golf tournament of the NBA’s most notorious tweeter.
“I’m not a ’hood guy,” Smith told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. “I’m not a street guy. And I’m not a gang member.”
Across basketball, there’s so much talk about Smith needing to leave behind his past, but beyond those tattoos and turbulence, a truth has been lost in the tsk-tsking lectures. His judgment has betrayed him at times, but never his roots.
“J.R. grew up in the woods of Millstone,” his father, Earl, said. “There’s no Bloods. There’s no Crips. The only gangs were the deer.”
Smith swears he had come out of the most trying 24 days of his life – 24 days in jail – with the best of intentions, with change in his heart, when he had tweeted about a trip to Las Vegas for a summer basketball camp. Some had suggested that Smith’s substituting of “K”s for “C”s within his innocuous Twitter updates were born of a loyalty to the Bloods.
All hell broke loose, and once more, J.R. Smith had pushed himself into the middle of a mess.
“It never stops,” Smith said. “My parents look at me like, ‘Come on, man. What’s next?’ ”
Something needs to change. He knows that.. He’s 23 years old. He’s entering the second year of a $16.5 million contract. He has an important job for an NBA contender. He had a lot of time to think about it in July, alone with his thoughts, his life, in a 6-by-9 prison cell at the Monmouth County jail. Twenty-four days in protective custody – 23 hours a day in the cell – as punishment for reckless driving in an auto accident that killed his best friend, Andre Bell.
“I deal with it every day,” Smith said. “…Every time I look at my daughter, I think of him.”
Smith never did make it to the jail’s general population, but a June with the deafening din of the Western Conference finals and a July of the steel doors slamming in his face jarred him to his core. He had one hour a day to shower, eat and to call his girlfriend, his parents and perhaps even hear the gurgling of his infant daughter, Demi, on the pay phone.
As much as anything in jail, the emptiness of those days and nights pushed him to consider a world beyond himself. “Most of the time I was thinking about my daughter and her life, about what plans I have for her,” he said. “I was thinking about where I want her to go to school, where I want her to grow up. Now it was more about my family than myself. …I don’t think that I was considering other people’s feelings.”
That’s part of the reason – a lot of the reason – this Twitter story embarrassed him. His agent, Thad Foucher, had him delete the page and his 15,000 followers, but the damage was done. For so long, Smith had no use for public perception.
Even now, he still says, “I don’t care what the grown-ups think.” Yet, he has sometimes gone too far on the basketball floor and too far off it. Someday, he’ll have to pay for it. He’s thinking about that now. Someday, Demi will ask him all about it.
“That’s what hurts the most,” he said. “When my daughter gets to be 16 or 17, and she has a paper to do in high school on her parents and she has to go back and look at these articles about me … all these negative things.”
The New Orleans Hornets drafted Smith as a teenage prodigy out of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., in 2004, and it never worked with Byron Scott. The Hornets moved him to Chicago and then onto the Denver Nuggets three years ago. For too long, he led the league in tardiness and bad shots. He trash-talked opponents and smart-mouthed refs and did end-zone dances over the deepest 3-pointers in the game.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like I’m just some crazy person,” he said.
Nevertheless, Nuggets general manager Mark Warkentien had patience with Smith. He gave him the $16.5 million contract and believed that Smith was grown up, that Chauncey Billups(notes) would be a far better influence than Allen Iverson(notes). For an immature player with a penchant for mischief, the Nuggets of A.I., Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Kenyon Martin(notes) could sometimes be an intoxicating mix.
“I think I was a follower to an extent,” Smith said. “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.”
Smith wore a wine-colored golf shirt and hat on Monday and carefully had the pro shop attendant tighten his grips. This has been a restless summer for J.R. Smith, but he’s had time to stop and think, time to measure life’s risks and rewards, and sooner than later something has to change.
“I think I need to mature and understand what I say before I say it, and what I do before I do it,” he said.
He has been lost, but he’s no lost cause. It feels like Smith has been around a long time in the NBA, but he’s just 23. He doesn’t have forever, but he does have time. He was back at the Jersey Shore, back home on Monday and J.R. Smith held that little girl in the air and the truth had never hit him so hard: Someday, she’s going to ask him all about it.