Fan Mail, featuring Tom Ley

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.

One night in December: A J.R. Smith memoir

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.

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Kalen Deremo

Kalen was born in Durango, CO, in 1988 and graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 with a degree in journalism. He's now an itinerant hoping to travel as much as possible before eventually succumbing to the "real world." Aside from writing Kalen likes movies, music, spicy food and the great outdoors. Edward Abbey is his current idol.

Latest posts by Kalen Deremo (see all)

  • Matt Henry

    Wow, I’d give you a standing ovation for that piece if it wouldn’t make typing so inconvenient. Am I alone in wishing that J. R. stays in China? I mean, I know it sounds kind of harsh, but when you think about it, it’d probably be the best thing for his career. For one, in China tatoos are considered to be a respectable form of art. There are probably very few distractions in China, which will make it that much more difficult for JR to destroy his life off of the court. And, in that country he does not have to deal with the reputation he built for himself, but can instead focus on building the legacy he always deserved. And finally, over there he can be the scoring champion he was always meant to be. Whatever, decision he makes I’m certain he’ll always be remembered by the few who loved him, and the many who hated him.

  • Jason

    I agree wholeheartedly with this fan post. JR Smith has always been the one player on the Nuggets I most enjoyed watching play. And even though there were times you were left shaking your head, you knew, deep down inside, that he was going to make up for it. Smith will forever be one of my favorite NBA players.

    It does make me sad to think about the “what if’s…” This guy had the talent to be in the top 5 Shooting Guards in the league, but didn’t have the mentality for it.

    But I for one, will miss him.

  • chronicnugs

    Enjoyed this piece. JR and Kmart were my two favorite players. I was always at odds with this because I consider myself a bit of a purist. Still, Kenyon’s ferocity and JR’s explosiveness won me over despite their personal and professional shortcomings.

    I’m excited for a new chapter in Nugs history, but I sorely miss the contributions made by these notorious Nuggets.

    BTW, not trading JR from my 2k12 team EVAR.

  • Mangs

    Tommy, great article!! I’ve gotten in countless arguements with family and friends about JR’s game. Most arguements stem from people labeling him as a ballhog and/or a headcase and that the team would be better off without him. Dude did like to jack it up, but all the great players have confidence in themselves that they’re going to make every shot and continue to fire it up. MJ and Kobe are the two biggest examples. I think even thought JR did a lot of deplorable things off the court as you mentioned, he got a bad rap as a basketball player. In watching his game develop throughout the years I think he made great strides in his defense, passing and playmaking.

    However, I think if JR would’ve played for a different coach his game could’ve been and hopefully still can be what we all hope for. George Karl has no doubt stunted JR’s growth as a player. Continually jerking him in and out of the lineup. Leaving him out of the game countless times at the end of the games. Repeatedy berating him publicly and basically treating him like a little kid. How could this not mess with his game?

    I will miss JR playing in a Nugget’s uniform but hope that whatever the future holds for this talented athlete he finds his way and finds a team that trusts in his abilities and allows him to flourish. The Nuggets and their fans will eventually realize they miss him even if some of them won’t want to admit it.

    • Tom

      Mangs,

      GK’s complicity in Smith’s unfulfilled potential is something that I failed to touch on, but it is a point that I wholeheartedly agree with you on.

      I have to think that Smith could have been handled better by another coach and turned into a highly productive player. If teams can get guys like Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest to play to their potential, then surely someone can do it with Smith.

  • KW

    I don’t know whether to blame JR or GK for the on court drama. I’m nervous about seeing JHam go the same way.

  • Warner

    Definitely a nice article… Any true Nuggets fan has had the “JR Debate” either internally or with fellow Nuggets fans. As for the last few comments, I don’t know what to think with Karl/Smith and the potential effects it had on Smith’s game. For me, it’s basically the old chicken and the egg dilemma. I don’t know if Karl sparked the flames between the two which contributed to a long, dysfunctional relationship (which would not be the first time for Karl) or if Smith’s antics lead to it all. I’m sure it’s some combination of the two, but I do agree that for Smith to truly excel, he’s going to need a fresh start somewhere else. Personally, I think it’s better for him to go as well. I think this team was partially built upon an idea that Smith would eventually mature and turn into a solid nightly roll player which he never really did. This team is too young for him to stick around cause I don’t want him to become a form of mentor. I hope he does well elsewhere but the act of juggling the living circus known as J.R. Smith has run its course in Denver.

    • Warner

      Also, what if we acquired Nate Robinson? He’s accustomed to coming off the bench and can fill a similar roll that J.R. attempted to do. I feel he’s way too talented to be buried on OKC’s bench and he could provide some life for this team. Just a thought…

      • jake

        Nate robinson would be totally unnecessary and redundant on our team. Yes, he can shoot and is explosive…. but we are a beneath the rim back court already. I don’t care if nate won the dunk contest, and I watched Ty dunk on all of the lakers last year…. we are already small with Ty and Andre. Nope.

        Hopefully we sign AAA and Gary Forbes. And settle the back court down for the next 3 years.

  • Peter

    Nice article, although some things were hard to stomach, I can’t dispute anything you wrote. I love the Nuggets and have always been a big supporter of JR. I always hoped that one day he would figure it out. His flashes of brilliance on the court always gave me that hope, but once even Chauncey couldn’t reach him I thought maybe there is no saving this guy and he is who he is. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have done at least somewhat better with a different coach, but how much we don’t know and it’s probably fair to place equal blame on coach Karl and JR. Anyway I wish JR the best of luck and hope that he can still figure it out one day.

  • Steve

    Last week after seeing J.R. had put up 55 and 22 in a game in China I shared it with a friend of mine who replied with “And think if he was actually trying, he doesn’t even want to be there.” That put J.R.’s career here in perspective to me. He’s been one of my Favorite Nuggets for years, but I’ve realized the two defining aspects of his career. He can be one of the most dangerous scorers AND he never came close to meeting his full potential. All you can ask is why? Coach Karl seems to get everything he can out of Afflalo, similar to Dahntay Jones in the 09 playoff run. I’ve come to feel at least in the Melo-era, J.R. had no problem playing a background roll, making a highlight dunk once a game, dropping 30 or so 4-5 a season and collecting his check. I think the true greats in the league would still devote their lives to the game even if they made minimum wage instead of millions but I have to wonder if J.R, has that true love and passion for the game. I just don’t know what else would be holding him back.