The Redemption of Earl Swish

The Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith during the team's NBA Championship celebration. (Photo by Phil Masturzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

In my 2013 report card for once-and-always-Knick J.R. Smith, I quipped that the knucklehead guard—mitochondrially driven as he is towards doing pretty much everything the bar-none hardest way possible—was “the guy who stops in front of a an airport walkway for 20 minutes trying to hail a terminal taxi”; would “spend five days mowing his lawn with toenail clippers, only to ride a John Deere down to the mailbox because he’s too exhausted to walk”; and that it was “entirely possible he’s ordered Domino’s delivery and driven to pick it up.”

On the corkboard of blogger slights, these are Post-Its long since shingled over, pushpins dislodged to showcase hella-harsher barbs. Both because this is what We The Mean-Through-Screens pay ourselves to do, and because J.R. Smith seems so patently disinterested in admitting that 11 years might be a bit excessive for a Friars roast, thanks. Certain dudes just can’t help themselves, the justification goes—why begrudge us the same at their expense?

And then you witness a moment like Earl’s post-Finals presser. You see how the thousands of minutes and some-fold more malignings can strip one’s soul as bare as his body. You watch this heaving catharsis; this prodigal redemption; this son knelt in humbled glory before the father; and start to see the lingchi for the cuts. What should’ve been Smith’s fuck-the-haters vindication buckled, instead, to a flood of pent-up penitence. On a night when Cavalier tears fogged the lenses blind, J.R.’s somehow seemed more regretful than relieved. Never had so many felt so bad for a first-time NBA champion. In the wake of such sheer basketball chaos, Smith’s display wasn’t merely weird; it was palpably disorienting.

That Game 7 fell on Father’s Day only deepened the emotional heft. Earl Sr., standing part way up the pressroom’s rightmost aisle, doing everything he could to keep it together; reporters, doubtless jarred from neutrality’s perch by the night’s bough-snapping gusts, clapping seconds past the hug; the younger Earl, legacy rewritten as if by world-wandering apostles, finally ducking out and into what was, without question, the greatest fucking night of his life.

To the surprise of none, the sad-surreal portrait gave way, hours later, to a much more familiar image: Earl, naked save for sweatpants—definitely above, quite possibly beneath—preening atop a flight of air stairs. Here, at last, was the J.R. Smith of Twitter folklore: Vegas haze about his eyes, Cristal coursing fast and hard enough to spin an offshore turbine. This time, though, the cartoon betrayed the corporeal substance below. The wisecracks still flew, but in a spirit akin to ribbing a booze-hound uncle two years on the wagon: You choose your jokes a bit more carefully, squeeze the shoulder a bit more gently.

We love to tell ourselves, as a matter of both ethics-shirking convenience and actually sounding about right, that the snarks we traffick are little more than throwaway whims—aerosol sprays drifting harmlessly into space. Not knowing the poison quickly coalesces at the bubble’s edge, beyond sight and therefore science, heating us to evermore-hostile throes. What we hear as one-off notes are instead sustained, as by an endless inner breath, to cacophonous din. J.R. could’ve caulked his ears with rock wool, and the leering lull would register all the same.

The retorts, of course, are easy: When you’re making grain silos of coin to play a game; when your upbringing is as middle-class stable as curbside pickup at Applebee’s; when you Instagram bare asses and text dick innuendo to strangers; don’t blame the court for jeering on the jester. “We are what we pretend to be,” goes the old Vonnegut epigram, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And if there’s one edict of which Earl Smith, Jr. was destined to run afoul—whether in 26-foot hucks down two with 20 ticks left and the shotlock turned off or 4-A.M. run-ins with gum-running minors—it’s the whole “careful” thing.

We’ve long reserved a special place in heckling hell for adults that act like children, mind you, and anyway someone so oblivious to their own line-steps probably shed the self-awareness gene halfway to the egg. This isn’t wrong, as rationalizations go. If J.R. Smith’s allowed his vices, and as many second chances as sad trombones, then we should be allowed our J.R. Smith, goddammit. Unless you know another drug that can conjure a gorgeous go-ahead step-back and a face-raking flagrant-2 before the P.A. guy ends the “ith.”

Only, maybe, not after Sunday. Not after one of the most genuinely throat-choking shrives in sports history. Not after J.R. Smith: World Champion, in spite of all the ear-girding beams and gloats that title denotes, met a joyous moment haunted by ghosts of unforgiven sins. After that—showing that he cares, not just about winning, but about his image in the eyes of those who behold simply to berate—this goofy hoops harlequin’s no longer a clown.

As the mythic scope of these Finals comes further into focus; as Cleveland comes to disbelieving grips with triumph; as LeBron James and Stephen Curry and all the other narrative nexuses watch the threads weave their lasting tapestries; hell, as J.R. Smith enters a summer that might well melt his liver; there’s a non-zero chance the latter’s soul-bearing words become an esoteric aside. Such is the tradeoff—glory for fading fringes, history for footnotes—of playing part in the bat-shittiest championship series the league has ever known.

Only, maybe, not after Sunday. That, in an always-has, always-will kinda way, is the beautiful thing about J.R. Smith: He’s J.R. Smith. Had it been any other player wrenching at that podium and snorting back snot every other word, the moment would’ve garnered, at most, fleeting courtesy clicks. But because it was Earl, a guy whose story’s been interpreted with woeful faithlessness, the juxtaposition—between the devil-may-care and damn-he-really-does—cleaved our notions to their cores.

Maybe, after Sunday, it’s time we realize that J.R., knowingly or not, may have heard us all along. Every word, the forgiving and the flaying, building towards some hellish clamor he couldn’t ignore anymore. Until unbridled bliss and unspoken regret made him heed the din, head on through swollen eyes, and so forgive himself his sins. And maybe then, after Sunday, forgive us all the one of waiting so long to truly see him as he is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jim Cavan is a Columnist and Senior Editor for The Cauldron, an affiliate of Sports Illustrated. His work has appeared at the New York Times, Grantland, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and TASTE of the Seacoast Magazine, for which he serves as Beer Editor (this is a real title).

Jim lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters, one of whom walks on four legs and angrily lunges at passing trucks. Let him know if you want to buy a screenplay.