Culture of Hoops

Heart Of New York: Meditations On J.R. Smith

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

J.R. Smith is the New York Knicks. Not in the way Michael Jordan was the Chicago Bulls or Johnny Carson was late night television, but in the sense that everything one could say about the Knicks franchise applies equally to Smith. Both are chronic underachievers, consistently frustrating and yet, somehow impossible not to root for.

Watching J.R. Smith dominate a game is a lot like being a Jewish mother and watching your son win gold at the X Games. You’re glad that the world is finally seeing what you’ve known about your baby all along, but the giant wave of anxiety that washes over you with every action he takes sucks most of the joy out of the experience. “Why are you doing that? OH MY GOD NOOOO—YESSSS!!!!” It’s exhausting. In the end, you’re happy, but mostly because it’s over.

The same can be said for a majority of Knicks games. Just when it looks like they’ve got the win in the bag, an opposing talent greater than or equal to Jarrett Jack will cut what was once an insurmountable lead down to two, and the Knicks will barely hold on after a last-second three rims in and out. Again, not a satisfying experience whatsoever. The best you can hope for after a Knicks win is a vague sense of relief.

These similarities help to explain why J.R. Smith has become the team’s most beloved player in about a decade. Fans love him for the same warped, self-destructive reason they love the Knicks. As far as I know, he is the only player in franchise history to inspire his very own rap, which features such inspired lyrics as “I love Novak, but if it weren’t for me he’d be driving a bu-ack.”

Much like their estranged Mets and Jets fan cousins, the Knicks faithful are hopelessly drawn to the lovable losers: their teams have won a grand total of two titles in the last forty years. And while there’s always respect for the truly great—your Derek Jeters, your Mariano Riveras … mostly New York Yankees—Knicks fans and their ilk simply prefer to make things difficult for themselves. They worship at the altar of discount demigods, praying that the likes of Vinny Testaverde, Benny Agbayani or Latrell Sprewell can somehow manage to take them to the promised land.

What sets J.R. apart from these other New York sports folk heroes is that when he’s right, he’s one of the most talented players in his sport. He can score from anywhere on the court, handle the ball like a point guard and is capable of superb defense. And yet, these gifts are precisely what makes the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year so uniquely maddening—his highs make his lows (see: 2013 NBA Playoffs) look like the fiery depths of Mordor.

Yes, the man has his share of flaws, but the one thing you can’t knock—and perhaps, his most endearing quality—is his loyalty. Smith signed a bargain $2.8 million contract with the Knicks in 2012 when he easily could have gotten more money elsewhere. And although he opted for free agency last week, it seems likely that the same thing will happen this offseason.

But regardless of what uniform J.R. Smith is in next season, the next time he enters a game in Madison Square Garden will be to a standing ovation. Of course, New Yorkers are hoping that when that happens, he’ll be wearing orange and blue. Because to be a Knicks fan and not want him back would be a paradox.

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