Every now and then we receive mail from our loyal readers that’s a passionate account of a favorite player, game or experience involving the Denver Nuggets. In this case, it was all three. Tom Ley is a writer for several different websites and was planning on posting this article about his favorite player, J.R. Smith, in one of those publications before he reached out to us, figuring Roundball Mining Company might be a better medium for this type of story. We’re certainly glad did, as his perspective on the now China-dwelling Smith is nothing short of a thrilling and yet, poignant examination of J.R. Smith’s tenure as a Nugget.
by Tom Ley
When the Denver Nuggets take the floor for their season opener, they will be doing so without one of the most explosive players to have ever worn a Nuggets uniform. I am talking, of course, about J.R. Smith. The mercurial shooting guard will be stuck toiling away on basketball courts in China until March, at which point it’s very unlikely he will return to Denver.
Now, I’m left trying to decide how I will remember him.
What I want to remember is the J.R. Smith whom I last saw play on Dec. 23, 2009. I was at the Pepsi Center that night, and I watched the Nuggets defeat the Atlanta Hawks in a 20-point blowout. It wasn’t a boring game though, because J.R. Smith wouldn’t allow it to be boring. That night he decided to unleash an ungodly amount of three pointers, sinking 10-16 on the way to scoring 41 points. It was perhaps the most spectacular athletic display that I have ever had the privilege of seeing in person.
Smith’s three-pocalypse was awe inspiring because of how unapologetic it was. He wasn’t content to just score 41 points, he was determined to amaze the crowd at Pepsi Center that night, whether we liked it or not. Once he realized he was hot, Smith just kept shooting, each attempt getting further and further away from the three-point line along with the ever increasing purity of his stroke. He pranced, swagged, thumped his chest and roared at the crowd. He wasn’t just shooting three pointers, he was launching tidal waves of energy that uplifted his audience out of what should have been a lethargic regular season game.
Smith had that knack, the ability to bludgeon the crowd with a spark of virtuosity. Even when his approval rating among Nuggets fans was at its lowest, his potential for the spectacular always made me feel like I was about to be amazed right before he entered the game.
That night in December he impressed me like he never had before. At one point I remember leaping up from my seat, holding out three fingers on each hand as yet another long-distance bomb sailed toward the basket. When the ball finally went in I felt awkward, yet kind of bad-ass at the same time. Smith was the only Nugget that could make me do something like that during a relatively meaningless regular season game. Of course, Carmelo was infinitely compelling to watch, but his game lacked the raw energy that Smith’s did. Carmelo was a methodical technician on the court, whereas Smith was an unchained dervish, launching shots and flying into the lane without hinges.
Unfortunately, Smith wasn’t just a three-point phenom. As much as I’d like to remember him only as he was that night in December, the calamity and dysfunction that hovered over his career in Denver gets in the way.
First there was the car wreck.
In June 2007 Smith decided that it would be a good idea to drive 67 mph in a 35 mph zone, a mistake that was compounded after he ran a stop sign, struck another vehicle and ejected his passenger and himself from the car. Smith suffered minor injuries, but his passenger, who was just 21 years old, was killed. Smith served 24 days in jail, in large part because he had already racked up 28 points against his license from a litany of speeding tickets.
Then there was the nightclub incident.
Like all late-night encounters with the law, this was characterized by details murky as they were stomach churning. Although he was never officially charged, Smith was accused of assaulting a woman in some manner that involved spraying champagne and pulling hair.
Then there was the brawl in New York.
What everyone remembers from that night is Carmelo Anthony’s infamous back-pedal punch, but it was J.R. Smith who, after finding himself on the business end of a hard foul, lost his mind and tackled Nate Robinson into the crowd, escalating the situation beyond anyone’s control.
I could continue, but if I were to go into detail about every instance where Smith got into a fist fight at a pick-up game, was in some sort of legal trouble or went on one of his week-long “No George Karl, screw you,” on-court sulk-fests, I’d be left with an epic catalog of dumbass behavior.
Clearly, it wasn’t easy to root for J.R. Smith, but for some reason I desperately wanted to because I knew how much he could have meant to the Nuggets. He could have been that explosive playmaker the team always needed — the one who could hit open threes, defend like a pissed off bird of prey, who played like a demon in the open court and facilitated for the rest of his teammates. (Seriously, watching him run the pick-and-roll with Nene was a thing of beauty.) He had the potential to be all of these things, and that’s what made him so alluring. You see, with potential comes an inherent moment of purity that is a player’s climactic realization of his own abilities. This rare moment of genuine reverence is something fans would die to see. We all want to be there when the switch is finally flipped because we know watching that player will never be quite as satisfying as during the moment when the light first comes on.
Smith, though, seemed determined to do everything he could to deny us that taste of purity. It was impossible to just invest in J.R. Smith the basketball player. Each transgression, combined with those sleepy eyes and ridiculous tattoos functioned as constant reminders that the power and grace of his game would always exist within the sad, dark sideshow that was the rest of his life.
As much as I’d like to remember Smith the way he was that winter night when he rained threes across Pepsi Center, possibly giving us all a glimpse of his potential being fulfilled in the processes, I know that will never be the case.
There is one other thing I remember distinctively from that night, however. During the game, I sat behind three of the drunkest guys I have ever seen in my life. Two of them spent the entire game babbling and spilling beer on one another, while the third just sat in miserable silence with his head buried in his hands. They hadn’t the slightest clue about what was unfolding in front of them, and at the time I felt righteous in condescending them. How could these jerkoffs get black-out drunk and completely miss the show Smith was putting on for all of us? They weren’t real basketball fans.
These days I can’t help but think about those guys and wonder how it is they remember that night. I imagine they remember it as some kind of sick, sloppy joke. And maybe, just maybe, they were right. Maybe I was wrong to condescend them. Maybe that’s the way that J.R. Smith was supposed to be remembered.