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J.R. Smith Is the Perfect Cleveland Athlete

Brilliant. Infuriating. Preposterous. Shirtless. Champion.

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

J.R. Smith threw an alley-oop to LeBron James in the NBA Finals. It happened during the third quarter of Game 6. The Cavaliers were up in the game but down in the series (3–2), and so the situation was very serious because the Cavs very seriously did not want to lose in the Finals for the second straight year, because if they lost for a second time the city of Cleveland was going to crater into the earth from depression, leaving behind only rubble and ash and maybe a Quiznos, is what we were told. They’d not won a championship in more than half a century, is what we were told. If this isn’t their year, there’ll probably never, ever, never, ever be a year that is their year, is what we were told. So, I say again: The situation was very serious.

Kyrie Irving stole the ball from Steph Curry under Golden State’s basket, then pushed it forward quickly. J.R., who was guarding Klay Thompson on that possession, recognized what’d happened before just about everyone else, so he sprinted out onto the fast break before just about everyone else, creating Advantage CLE. Kyrie saw him, then tossed the ball upcourt to him. When J.R. caught it, he was two steps from the basket. It was him and the ball and Draymond Green.

J.R. could’ve shot it, and probably should’ve shot it, because — AND THIS IS ME TELLING YOU THIS FOR A THIRD TIME NOW — the situation was very serious. Everything was in his favor: He had half a shoulder ahead of Draymond; Draymond had already jabbed at the ball, so his balance was off; there was no way he was going to be able to block the shot. Smith was either going to make the layup or get fouled on the layup or miss the layup, all of which would’ve been perfectly reasonable and understandable outcomes. But J.R. Smith did not shoot it. He never even considered the notion. Instead, he blossomed. As soon as the ball touched his hands, he immediately turned his head AWAY FROM THE PLAY and then tossed the ball up into the sky several feet in front of the rim. It was incredible. Look:

In what was then the most important basketball game in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, with 20,562 people watching in real life and somewhere near 20 million more watching on television, and with the possibility of being able to play a Game 7 for the first championship across all major sports in 52 years for a devastated city still in play, J.R. Smith’s reflexes told him to attempt a no-look alley-oop pass rather than shoot a layup.

J.R. Smith is perfectly reckless.

LeBron James, previously unseen, skied. He jumped, snatched the ball out of the air, then rose high, then Rose Higher, then ROSE HIGHEST, then dunked it. It was electrifying.

J.R. didn’t celebrate. He didn’t fist pump. He didn’t scream. He didn’t even snarl. He didn’t do anything except run back on defense.

J.R. Smith is perfect.

LeBron James threw an alley-oop to J.R. Smith after the NBA Finals. It happened at the end of the championship parade for the Cavaliers, when all the players were up on stage and each had a few minutes to talk to the crowd. LeBron went last and was going player by player, talking a little bit about each guy. He was as candid as he’s ever been with a camera on him, and it was wonderful and very charming to watch, even when he cussed, and sometimes especially when he cussed, like when he talked about J.R.

“You guys all heard the stories,” he said, referring to the reputation J.R. had built up for himself over his sporadically chaotic, occasionally overwhelming 13-season professional basketball career. “False,” LeBron continued, and he said it quickly, but quick in a way that soaked the word with contempt and dismissiveness. “Everything about J.R.: ‘He’s not a team player.’ ‘You can’t win with J.R. on your team.’ ‘J.R. takes bad shots,’” and as he was listing things, J.R., sitting just a few feet behind him, looked so regal. He wasn’t smiling, but he was glowing, because he knew.

Nearly two years prior he’d been anointed by LeBron, and make no mistake that is exactly what’s happening when LeBron allows you to be on the Cavaliers. You are anointed. You are selected. A three-team trade sent J.R. to Cleveland, which meant that LeBron was choosing J.R. to help him win a championship for Cleveland, the most precious thing LeBron, the most powerful figure in basketball, could offer anyone.

The idea of J.R. Smith playing high-stakes basketball is wonderful. But the idea of of J.R. Smith playing high-stakes basketball in Cleveland, existing in Cleveland, among Clevelanders, as a Clevelander, is even better. He’s a fantastic avatar for the city. Take a broad view of him and he appears to be the precise opposite of the imagery most often associated with Cleveland: he’s a partier, he’s a showtime figure, he’s a big lights chaser. But he’s also undervalued and underappreciated. I don’t think he’s misunderstood — in fact, I think he is understood perfectly. He’s compulsive, and every now and then propulsive, too. He’s lovable and likable in his sincerity, and the two things I’m remembering right now are: (1) the time he was fined $50,000 by the NBA because he kept untying opponents’ shoes during free throws, and (2) him losing in the Finals in 2015 and then slowly leaving the arena on a fucking hoverboard, solemn and heartbroken but still gripping people up on his way out. And that’s to say nothing of his postgame press conference after the Cavs won Game 7 of the Finals, which was the most moving J.R. Smith moment we’ve ever gotten. So he’s that. He’s always that. He’s always pure.

But he’s also complicated and burdened by his own existence. There are more than a half dozen examples of things he’s done during basketball games that could be highlighted here — the suspensions for elbowing people in the head, being found in violation of the league’s drug policy, etc. And there are things that’ve happened away from the court that are more troublesome. He’s had his license suspended on multiple occasions for multiple infractions. There was the time he took a picture of a woman wearing only a T-shirt and thong lying in bed — without her permission — and then posted it to Twitter. There were several instances when he was accused of either being in a gang or being affiliated with a gang. But the most wrenching example is from 2007 when he drove an SUV through a stop sign, causing a car crash that killed one of his close friends.

Sometimes J.R. Smith is funny. Sometimes he’s frustrating. And sometimes he’s absolutely heartbreaking. He’s all of those things.

But so there he was, sitting on a stage listening to LeBron validate his anointment (or validate his existence, possibly) to a crowd bigger than big. And it was such a beautiful and peaceful moment. He just sat there, perfectly still and perfectly shirtless, thinking about who-knows-what, remembering who-knows-what.

AP Images
AP Images

“Everything about J.R.,” LeBron said, “‘He’s not a team player.’ ‘You can’t win with J.R. on your team.’ ‘J.R. takes bad shots.’ Y’all heard them weak-ass stories.” And there it was.

“Y’all heard them weak-ass stories.”

Cleveland’s savior, The Chosen One, presenting Smith his earned salvation, and if not actual salvation, then at the very least redemption, in the most immediate sense, and in the most apt way possible: in a sentence with a curse word in it; in a sentence that was funny to hear and astounding to unravel.

“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” — Mahatma Gandhi, probably talking about J.R. Smith, NBA champion.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” — Leo Tolstoy, probably talking about about J.R. Smith, NBA champion, while subtweeting Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

“Everything about J.R.: ‘He’s not a team player.’ ‘You can’t win with J.R. on your team.’ ‘J.R. takes bad shots.’ Y’all heard them weak-ass stories.” — LeBron James, definitely talking about J.R. Smith, NBA champion.

J.R. Smith belongs in Cleveland, to Cleveland.