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The New and Improved, Same Old J.R. Smith

He’s still the human heat check, but this season we’ve seen another side of one of the NBA’s most fascinating characters: loving father

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Two Sundays ago, as the morning sunlight peeked through the window blinds of the neonatal intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic, it shone on an arrangement of tulips and daisies. The flowers were there waiting to greet the patients in the neonatal intensive care unit as they woke up on Mother’s Day. They were beautiful, thoughtful, and though placed in their rooms by a young girl named Demi, the flowers were someone else’s idea.

Someone who, had you learned this was their idea even just three years ago, it might’ve been unbelievable. "Unbelievable" as in, "infeasible to believe," not the superlative sense in which the word becomes interchangeable with other glittery ones like "amazing" or "spectacular." Then again, the dual meanings have alternately described Demi’s father, the freewheeling Cavaliers 2-guard J.R. Smith, for as long as we — my fellow cult-hero worshipers and I; we meet on Tuesdays for intercessory prayer if you’re interested — have known of him.

You could use plenty of other words. But such has been J.R.’s commitment to being the most J.R. he could possibly be throughout his 13-year NBA career that "unbelievable" usually covers it, whatever "it" is. Observe:

February 2005. NEW ORLEANS HORNET J.R. Smith goes behind the back during the dunk contest, receives less-than-perfect score of 50 because injustice (and because he didn’t flush it clean on the first attempt). Unbelievable!

February 2008. J.R. Smith comes off the bench for the Nuggets, manages to take 25 shots in 33 minutes, and hangs 43 points on the Bulls. The Nuggets still lose by 14. Unbelievable.

February 2012. J.R. Smith shows up after a stint in China with hair that looks like a kindergartner’s off-hand drawing of Tupac’s hair in Juice. Un. Believable.

March 2012. J.R. Smith posts gratuitous, unsolicited booty pic (not his booty) to Twitter, gets fined $25,000. Unbelieeeeevable.

May 2012. J.R. Smith does NBA Street Gamebreaker — contested — in an actual playoff game against the Heat. UnBeLiEvAbLe!

April 2014. J.R. Smith shrugs, takes TWENTY-TWO 3s in Knicks loss. [Throws head back in laughter.] UNBELIEVABLE.

January 2017. J.R. Smith’s daughter Dakota is born five months premature, and Smith resolves not to compartmentalize — and instead to feel every bit of that hardship, to talk through it — while still functioning as a professional basketball player. … Unbelievable.

Which brings us back to the flowers in the Cleveland Clinic’s NICU. Knowing the uneasy joy of holding a tiny, impossibly fragile life in his hands, J.R. conceived of a small but considerable act of charity. And I’m not crying, it’s just dusty in here, and shut up, YOU’RE crying.

It is very easy to love J.R. Smith.

Because J.R. is approximately 97.667 percent heat check, yes, but also because his approach to life is so uncompromisingly, completely, and at times wildly human.

His understanding of self-worth or completeness doesn’t seem tied at all to what he does for a living. And people find that enviable — exemplary, even. The journey isn’t all there is, though it seems to me — as one of many people who once saw him airball a free throw and then join a halftime kids basketball game — that it’s more important to Smith than where he ends up. It’s a joy to experience secondhand.

Smith’s time in Denver under George Karl put a spotlight on his pure, almost childlike approach to basketball — when you’re open, shoot, when you’re not open, shoot. For the Nuggets, he was neither good nor bad, but a "good-bad" (read: unreliable) player who would hoist from 30-plus feet but occasionally make those shots, in volume. This continued in New York, but with the Knicks, well, he found an organization that was similarly incapable of applying what it had just learned or indeed itself from one minute to the next. It was ugly, it was stupid, and it was brilliant too.

If Denver made Smith out to be a bad boy, doomed to waste his boundless potential, New York made him into a meme. The Knicks enabled Smith to a Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2013, but they also enabled him to rack up more than $460,000 in fines (for stuff like untying opponents’ shoes) by the time his salary was dumped on the shores of Lake Erie.

And then he became this sort of eccentric elder statesman. Not overnight, of course. He blossomed as a perimeter defender, and even a facilitator, but the transition wasn’t easy. Things with J.R. rarely are. Here he is, talking about passing in May 2015. Passing.

He won a championship not too long after this. He cried on the court, and again at the podium, and it was beautiful.

He spent all Summer Sixteen — during which he wasn’t trying to hear shit — shirtless, and the people of Cleveland, so grateful to have something sports-related to parade about, made shirts to be shirtless with him. And that was beautiful, too.

It’s strange to think he could be on the way to a repeat when "J.R. Smith, NBA champion" still feels so new. It’s even weirder to think that, given all that came before, Smith has been a consistent and bracing presence on the floor for Cleveland throughout this year’s playoff run. Even still, it was Smith who got turned completely around on his defensive assignment at the end of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, leading to Cleveland’s only loss so far this postseason. (He still scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds.)

He can be a hush-mouth perimeter defender or a revolving door. A discerning shooter or a high-volume one. Smith can go from shiftless to stalwart, and vapid to considerate, but you have to stick it out to see which. If you can’t accept him at his J.R. Smith, you don’t deserve him at his J.R. Smith.