NEW YORK — When you get an event-promoting email with the subject line, "JR SMITH TEAMS UP WITH THE POWER RANGERS" ... I mean, you kind of have to go see what that is, right?
This is why I'm hustling to the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan late on a Monday afternoon, and this is why I'm a bit nervous, because I'm running a few minutes late. Sure, no public appearance ever starts on time, but God forbid I miss an opportunity to see the Knicks' mercurial sixth man share a practice court with a large number of people dressed like intergalactic warriors recruited by an alien wizard to battle the powers of evil. (This would probably be the oddest collection of people with whom most of us have shared a basketball court, but remember: J.R. played on an '08-'09 Denver Nuggets team that employed Allen Iverson, Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin, Johan Petro and Cheikh Samb.)
Luckily, when I get to Chelsea Piers about five minutes after the 4:45 p.m. start time, Smith is standing in the lobby, taking pictures with a few super-psyched fans who've walked in while he waits with several handlers for the elevator up to the venue's indoor basketball court, where the event will take place. On the ride, one of the event's coordinators reminds him that "people really love the White Ranger," and while it has been a number of years since the last time I saw any episodes of the original "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" — to say nothing of the SEVENTEEN iterations that have followed since 1996 — that sounds about right to me. That dude had a chest protector and a sword and rode around in a metal tiger.
Before we can enter the actual workout part of the athletic facility, we're asked to sign a liability waiver and acknowledge that, by entering this battle zone with these Power Rangers (and regular, non-spandexed people running around a quarter-mile track, sparring in a boxing ring and getting shots up), we may well be taking our lives into our hands. And I mean all of us; J.R., too. (I'm not positive, but I could swear he signed it "J.R. Swish.") When we get inside, though, we learn the Power Rangers — all of them — have just gone on a bathroom break, which seems like poor planning, universal-defense-wise.
The mass restroom exodus actually works out pretty well for J.R. See, in the absence of Power Rangers, the only players on the practice court are a slew of very young people wearing either teeny-tiny Knicks jerseys (bearing Carmelo Anthony's No. 7 rather than Smith's No. 8, natch) or the garb of the Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Blue Lightning, a Catholic Youth Organization team from a parish in Bayside, Queens. And, as you might remember, J.R. kind of digs playing basketball with kids.
Unlike his recent halftime freeze-out at Madison Square Garden, here, Smith gets an opportunity to put some shots up. He's dribbling around and through children, taking Brook Lopez-style set shots at a lowered basket, crouching down and pretending he's going to play defense when the kids rebound and rush to the rim — he doesn't even swat any, like he apparently did during the Knicks' Tuesday practice. He poses for pictures, signs basketballs (and even one kid's sneaker) and talks pleasantly with the kids. He offers them words of encouragement as they shoot, dribble and pass, his crisp dress shirt buttoned all the way up to the top despite it being a bit warm on the court, unfortunately depriving us of a moment in which a five-year-old asks J.R. why he has the Yankees logo and the phrase "Young Money" tattooed on his throat.
It's all pretty great and fun, but this still isn't really making a ton of sense. I mean, it does from one side of things; after being informed that the Power Rangers are in town for Toy Fair 2013 to celebrate 20 years of Being A Thing, I can get why parent company Saban Brands and its public relations arm would want to link up for publicity with both children and a famous athlete from a popular and successful local sports team, which this year's Knicks actually are, in defiance of most of the past decade and a half. But why not league-leading scorer Anthony? Why not resurgent $100 million man Amar'e Stoudemire? Why not All-Star center Tyson Chandler? Why the reserve guard who, while recognizable and a fan favorite, comes off the bench to make his coach make this face just about every night?
And then, as the Power Rangers — 20 of them, all dressed in Red Ranger costumes, albeit with differentiated designs corresponding to the different toy lines and series reboots over the past two decades — come back onto the court and the coordinators start getting things orchestrated near the opposite (standard-height) rim, it all becomes clearer:
This is a shooting exhibition. Everybody's going to pass the ball to the celebrity guest so he can take jumpers. Of course J.R. Smith is doing this.
Here's how it works: The kids and Power Rangers line up a bit removed from foul-line extended, and whoever's at the front of the line gets a ball. Not all of the Power Rangers are on the line, however, which leads to one more surreal command than I thought I'd hear: "You guys: Rebound! Power Rangers, REBOUND THE BALL!"
The kid/Ranger at the front of the line passes to one special Red Ranger wearing an orange J.R. Smith T-shirt jersey — not like the Warriors' new ones, just a regular T-shirt with his name and number on the back — who then passes to J.R., who then rises and fires. (A press release claims this will be a 3-point display, but we're inside the NBA line, here.)
Pass, pass, shot. Clang. Pass, pass, shot. Clang. Pass, pass, shot. Swish. Pass, pass, shot. Swish. Eventually, J.R. gets into a rhythm, people start cheering and you get the sense that this is as perfect a moment as it gets — just a line of children and anthropomorphic children's toys feeding J.R., rebounding for him and feeding him again. It's probably not exactly what his personal utopia looks like, but for a man who's averaging 16 shots per 36 minutes despite hitting just two out of every five this year, it might not be too far off.
Suddenly, though, the assembly line stops. The smallest boy in the gym is now at the front of the line. There is some question as to whether he should pass to J.R., too, or if the paradigm should be shifted for a little dude who maybe comes up to the top of J.R.'s knee.
Even Smith's love of shooting is no match for this lad; the die has been cast, the ball is re-rotated, one of the Red Rangers lifts the boy up and gives him several shots at a layup. (He misses them all. Each miss is adorable.)
Even after his attempts, though, the polarity's been reversed; now the shirsey-wearing Ranger and J.R. are feeding the kids. Pass, pass, shoot. Swish. Pass, pass, shoot. Swish. (These kids from OLBS are actually pretty good.) Pass, pass, drive the lane into a red Power Ranger, force him to commit, shoot. Swish.
"You gotta shoot," J.R. reminds them, offering the credo that, if the Smiths were a family in "A Song of Ice and Fire," would almost definitely be their words.
After it's all done and the kids have gotten to take pictures with cartoon heroes both basketball-ish and space-karate-ish, I get to talk to J.R. and ask him the only questions I've had since that email first showed up in my inbox — how did this happen, and why did this happen?
"My agent hit me up and told me they were having this event, and I've been a fan of Power Rangers since I was real young," the 27-year-old Smith said. "Me and my brother [Chris Smith, a rookie guard who was with the Knicks in training camp but was waived before the season after injuring his left knee] used to argue over who was going to be which Ranger and stuff like that."
How did those arguments turn out?
"Chris ended up being the White Ranger, and I settled for the Green Ranger," he said. "I really didn't want to, but he was the younger brother, so I let him win."
What made you want to be the White Ranger so badly?
"I mean, he was the leader, so ... I mean, whoever's the leader in any kind of group, that's who I want to be," Smith said. "Plus, you know, he had the gadgets, he had the girl; he had everything going for him, man."
And with that, J.R. was on his way to go bowling and I was on my way back to Brooklyn. It didn't hit me until much later on Monday night, but as I was thinking about what J.R. said, I remembered (and searched to confirm) something:
The White Ranger whom J.R. says he wanted to be has powers far beyond those of his teammates, granted to him by "the Light of Goodness," which make him faster, stronger, more skilled and the natural, upright leader of a universally beneficial force. (Also, the sword, the chest protector, the tiger, the gadgets, the girl and so on.) The Green Ranger whom J.R. settled on being because he wanted to be a nice big brother is a sleeper agent under the sway of an evil spell that causes him to foment chaos, destroy forces of order, raze cities and leave the world defenseless.
When you think about Smith's just about peerless propensity for alternating between brilliant, game-changing feats of athleticism (especially as the leader and principal playmaker on the Knicks' second unit) and detrimental, world-breaking acts on the offensive and defensive ends (think shot-jacking and freelancing), this all starts to make a little bit of sense. Especially when you remember that the White Ranger and the Green Ranger were the same dude.