OAKLAND – We know the mischievous J.R. Smith (untying an opponent’s shoelaces during a free throw). We know the wisecracking J.R. (“You can’t have it all,” Smith told GQ about LeBron James’ disappearing hair).
We know the playful J.R. (taking selfies on stage with James in a postgame press conference). We know the no-conscious, free-shooting J.R. (when in doubt, shoot the ball, he says).
It’s time to know more about the caring, kind-hearted, loving J.R. Smith.
Smith and his wife Jewell Harris’ infant daughter Dakota was born five months premature in January and weighed just one pound.
“When I first had my daughter on the second day of January, she was no bigger than this phone," Smith told reporters during the first round of the playoffs.
Smith and Harris have been open about their difficult ordeal. They posted a touching video when they told the world their story and shared heartening photos, including ones the day Dakota left the hospital in May after nearly five months in the neonatal intensive care unit. They also bought flowers on Mother's Day for every mom with a child in the NICU.
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“It’s great to have her home,” Smith said Wednesday, a day before his Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “All our thoughts and prayers and wishes came true fortunately, and she’s doing well. She’s good. She’s a bundle of joy. She smiles all the time. She’s always hungry, so that means she’s getting bigger, so that helps. Overall she’s doing great.”
Life-changing events provide enlightening perspective, magnifying the difference between the important and the insignificant. Live long enough, and light shines bright on the meaningful.
The 31-year-old Smith knows.
Is pressure making a three-point shot in the Finals? Is pressure matching up against Warriors guard Klay Thompson?
“Going through everything we went through, I really don’t consider this stress,” Smith said. “I consider it as much fun and play as possible. That’s the stressful part worrying about her and everything as far as medical. So this stuff is play time. This is easy.”
Life is tough. Basketball is a game.
“Just not having control over what’s going on in your life,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports when asked about the most difficult part of Dakota’s first days. “You have to put your belief ahead of everything.”
The most joyous part? “Bringing her home,” Smith said.
Smith’s growth since joining the Cavaliers in a 2015 trade has altered his image — from talented but imprudent knucklehead to trusted, respected and reliable teammate who's committed to defending rather than just chucking shots.
Smith, who averaged 6.6 shots and shot 44.9% on three-pointers and had an impressive plus-19.1 net rating in the first three rounds of the playoffs, is a necessary part of Cleveland’s success.
Smith has found a home in Cleveland with the Cavaliers, turning what was a decent career into one that includes three Finals appearances and one championship.
He has sacrificed, eliminating golf from his schedule during the season, though his golf outings are legendary. He once golfed 54 holes – 36 one day, 18 the next – in Orlando and played in a game against the Magic after that.
But he didn’t want golf to be an excuse why Cleveland came up short of a title in 2015 or if they come up short again this season. “I put golf away until after the season,” he said.
It's paid off the past two seasons, as Smith has dedicated himself to defense while still providing a scoring threat.
A year ago inside Quicken Loans Arena before the Cavs championship parade – and before Smith decided shirtless was the way to go – he talked about his defensive changes.
“More than anything, I just wish I did it a long time ago and made that turn,” he said.
Why now and not earlier in his career? “I’m not sure,” he said. “Probably right team, right situation, everybody buying in and putting pride aside.”
Just days before the parade, he helped Cleveland win the first championship in franchise history, scoring eight of his 12 points in the third quarter of Game 7. Following the game, with his dad Earl in the press conference room on Father’s Day, Smith gave his parents a beautiful spoken-word gift.
“My parents, my family, that's the biggest inspiration in my life,” Smith began. “I've been in a lot of dark spots in my life, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to get out of it. But they are who they are. They fought with me. They yelled at me, they screamed at me, they loved me, they hugged me, they cried with me, and they always stuck by my side no matter right or wrong. …
“The cars are nice, the houses are nice, but none of this matters without them. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. I don't know where I would be, honestly. If it wasn't for them, if it wasn't for the structure and the backbone that I have, I wouldn't be able to mess up and keep coming back and being able to sit in front of you as a world champion.”
His mom, Ida, cried. His dad gave him a hug.
“It was very special to me,” Smith said.
That's the J.R. Smith you should know, too.