LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — There was a time when the man sitting here could do almost anything.
“I have a lot of talent,” J.R. Smith says simply. “I could have probably gone professional at three or four different sports.”
Smith is not bragging, and this is not hyperbole. Some athletes overstate their ability to play other sports—whenever an NFL player says he could have been an Olympic sprinter, be skeptical. But Smith is the exception. He really is that talented. He has played 16 seasons in the NBA, but he received high Division I interest in football before giving it up, and he was better at baseball than both. Basketball, Smith says, “was just always my first choice since I was 3.”
Now he is 35. In 90 minutes, Smith’s Lakers will take the floor for Game 2 of the Finals. A starter would never do an extended interview so close to tipoff in the Finals, but these days, J.R. Smith spends most of his time watching from the Lakers’ bench. He is thankful to be there.
Prodigies move fast, and Smith sure did. He went to the NBA straight out of high school in 2004. Since then, he has earned more than $80 million and has won a championship (with the 2016 Cavaliers). He has also made some prominent mistakes, ranging from comic to tragic. The mention of his name can elicit a snicker or a cheap joke, and it’s easy to forget both the breathtaking athletic gifts and the fact they belong to an actual human being.
Sometimes Smith looks back on the prodigy he was, and he can’t quite believe it. Turning pro when you’re 18 sounds great when you’re 18. It seems crazy at 35.
“You know, you turn 18, 19 you're thrown a s---ton of money and, you've been, quote, unquote, ‘the guy’ from a high school to AAU, and then you go to a team that hasn't won anything,” Smith says. “You're in a bad situation with a bad franchise, you don't know it at that point in time."
Pro sports dangle the promise of what we think we want: Money, fame, adulation. Smith grabbed enough of all of it to think, at times, that it was real happiness. He knew something was wrong, but it was hard to know what it was. After all, it couldn’t be him. He was a success.
He spent two seasons with the New Orleans Hornets and then got shipped to Denver. His talent was obvious, but nobody could quite figure out how to cultivate it. Immature is the catch-all word in sports, the one we use for a guy who did not see eye-to-eye with coaches; who did not always play defense; and who drove too fast. In 2009, Smith sped through a stop sign and hit another car, killing his passenger, his close friend Andre Bell. Smith was devastated. Only now, looking back, does J.R. see J.R. with clarity.
“I would say I was lost now,” he says. “Then, I wouldn't say I was lost. I thought I knew exactly who I was, who I was going to be, where I wanted to be.”
In 2009, a few months after the accident that killed Bell, Smith announced that he wanted to be known as Earl, his birth name. (He is Earl Jr..) It was an indication that he wanted a fresh start. He did not get his wish. “Everybody knows him as J.R., so nobody called him Earl,” Earl Sr. says. J.R.’s story was no longer his to tell.
“I was trying to please my parents, I was trying to please the organization, trying to please my peers, trying to please my friends, trying to please my girlfriend at the time,” Smith says. “I was just trying to please so many different people and it just wasn't working out.”
Maybe now it would be different. The NBA is a more understanding place than it was in 2004. A player can scream or sob and expect somebody to hear it. Ask him what he would tell young J.R., and he says:
“More than anything, just be conscious of the words you speak. You know, the words you speak [are] just a thought process. And the thought process becomes your character … it just goes on down the line in life. You don't really want to fall into that into that rabbit hole.”
His public image ran so far ahead of him that he could never chase it down. He had to find a place for his private self somewhere in his public life. Earl says, “Maturity sets in at a certain age. It could be at 18 or at 35. Maturity sets in gradually on everybody—some later than others. He realized certain ways things had to be done.”
Smith says having three daughters changed him: “I wouldn't say I softened up, but I smartened up, because raising young women today in this generation, this day and age, they're not protected.” After a lifetime of action sports, he picked up golf as an adult and says his official handicap index is a 2.7, but he is probably playing closer to an eight now because he hasn’t had time to practice.
There are fair questions about whether he has fully matured. (This summer he chased down a vandal who broke his car window and proudly declared that he “whooped his ass.” Smith did not face charges.) But he has clearly changed as a player and a teammate, and the proof is this: He has played just nine minutes in the Finals and the Lakers are still happy to have him.
“I feel like I have to give just to the game,” he says. “Not to nobody else. Not to the players, not to the coaches, not to the refs, and not to the fans—not to anybody else. Just that ball and that court. If you love the game, the game will always love you back.”
For most of Game 4, Smith stood in front of the Lakers bench—sometimes with his arms folded, more often bending over with his hands on his knees. Sometimes he exhorted his teammates to play defense. The guy who could do almost anything in sports is just another guy on the team now. He’s good with it.