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David Ramsey: J.R. Smith, former Denver Nugget, will be long remembered in basketball infamy

June 1, 2018 Updated: June 2, 2018 at 7:25 am
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Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith (5) reacts against the Atlanta Hawks in the second half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Fundamentals? J.R. Smith always rejected the fundamentals. He plays to his own bizarre rules, his own chaotic beat.

When he competed in downtown Denver from 2006-2011 for the Nuggets, he was so fun to watch because he offered a basketball riot every night. Coach George Karl was yelling at the outer limits of his lung power, begging J.R. to follow standard basketball procedures, but J.R. seldom, if ever, listened.  

.

He has a big tattoo, hidden in his circus of other big tattoos. It reads “King of New Jersey,” a state that, as far as I know, is not under the authority of any monarchy. Still, the tattoo sums up Smith. He’s a basketball emperor who follows his own authority, and no one else’s. He was, is and always will be a wild man on the court. That’s how he arrived in the NBA in 2004. That’s how he will depart.

On Thursday night, Smith wandered into the signature moment of his career. LeBron James had delivered a basketball masterpiece, one of the top half-dozen performances in NBA Finals history, and the Cavaliers soared on the brink of a stunning upset on the Warriors homecourt when Smith seized an offensive rebound with four seconds left and for an instant faced a flat-footed and startled Kevin Durant.

If Smith had understood a rather fundamental fact about the game – that it was tied at 107 – he would have attacked Durant at point-blank range and scored the game’s winning points.

But Smith didn’t understand. He believed his Cavs led by a point. (Don’t listen to his laughable and inaccurate contention that he knew the game was tied. It’s clear he did not.) The game’s most lovably confused player suddenly required a clear mind, but J.R. doesn’t do clear minds. That’s not his thing.

Smith transformed almost certain victory to overtime defeat. Is he solely responsible for the Cavs loss? No. He only deserves 98.7 percent of the blame. In 30 years, J.R. will remain a basketball villain, his career remembered because he forgot.

These words are being written by a J.R. fan. For the past decade, I’ve been hugely entertained by J.R.’s goofy game. He takes ridiculous shots from 25 feet in heavy traffic and drops them, again and again. Surrounded by mournfully somber opponents and teammates in massively important games, he plays with the loosey-goosey joy of a kid in a Saturday morning YMCA league.

Off the court, J.R. has changed from the NBA’s ultimate party man to family man. He and his wife have four daughters, and by all reports he dotes on the girls who made him a man. His girls understand a basic truth about dad.

Two years ago, an ESPN reporter asked Demi, then 7, about her father.

“I’m just proud of him,” Demi said, “because he made the championship without getting kicked off the team.”

On the court, J.R. refused to grow up. He still launches ridiculous shots. And he still rebels against authority. This season, he launched a cup of hot soup at Cavs' assistant coach Damon Jones. His refusal to grow up explains why he’s a cult hero to basketball adventurers and a despised rogue to basketball traditionalists.

When J.R. grabbed that rebound on Thursday night, he needed, finally, to perform as a basketball adult. In the game, and in life, you are who you are, even when you wish you were somebody else.

J.R. recently told GQ Magazine how he hoped he would be remembered.

“I guess if I could write my ending, it would be: ‘Even though he was a quote-unquote knucklehead, he finally got it right.’ ”

Um, sorry, J.R., but you wrote your career epitaph on Thursday and it goes something like this:

He was a quote-unquote knucklehead who remained a quote-unquote knucklehead until the end of his basketball days.

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