Thursday, September 20, 2012
Grantland: The Miseducation of J.R. Smith
By ESPNNewYork.com staff
Earl Smith Jr. found salvation in his jump shot. Smith could always shoot, and in basketball a shooter can live forever. In college, he clashed with his coach at New Jersey's Monmouth University, unable to understand why the second team remained the second team, even when they were routinely drubbing the starters in practice. When he'd finally had enough, he confronted his coach, said everything he wanted to say, and stormed off. That was the end of Earl's college career. But his shot never left him. He frequented Belmar's Jersey Shore League for the next decade, making cameos in other semipro leagues, popping up whenever a team needed someone who could stretch a defense.
In 1985, Earl passed on his genes, his basketball acumen, and his name to his first son: Earl Joseph Smith III. He placed toy hoops in every nook of the house. He taught the boy to bend with his knees and push with his arms as he shot. By the time the boy turned 3, he could sink free throws on a regular basis. Earl instructed the boy to do push-ups — not too many, but enough to build strength — and to use the form as an inverted model for his jump shot. When another son arrived two years later, the brothers practiced plays coordinated to numbers. They gave and went on one. They picked and rolled on two. They jabbed and back-doored on three.
"Defense was the last thing I taught them," Earl explained, "because you can make it without defense."
Earl wasn't wrong. The elder of the two brothers now admits that his father "taught me every fundamental that I know, especially my shooting technique." That jumper sustains his NBA career — but it doesn't define a successful one. You know the boy as J.R. Smith, a perplexing, polarizing player and personality. Smith is one of the last members of the NBA's much-debated prep-to-pro generation. He's made money in bunches, more than $25 million in his career, and he will find a team long after his athleticism erodes — like his father, he will always be able to shoot. But he's also defined by something that isn't tangible: untapped potential. Eight years into his star-crossed career, coaches and fans still don't know what to make of J.R. Smith.