Friday, December 21, 2012

J.R. Smith, Reigning King of The Four Point Play

Jamal Crawford, of the Los Angeles Clippers, and formerly of the Atlanta Hawks, and formerly of the Golden State Warriors, and formerly of the New York Knicks, and formerly of the Chicago Bulls, is a top-level player. But he's never sniffed an All-NBA selection or won a 3-point title or even logged any minutes as an All-Star. He's never won a scoring title, an award his skills might suit. He has largely earned the reputation of a ballhog, or as they say in Brooklyn slang, a "nut." That's because he's always trying to get his.

Like a mutant who strayed from the gentle paws of Professor X into the denuding gaze of Magneto, during his years as a New York Knickerbocker, alongside the now-reformed (then-husky) Z-Bo, Crawford adopted bad habits by association. His 2012 revelation, that he had only practiced shooting, ostensibly, his main positive contribution to the game, the first time that summer, was more trite than nervy. Of course Jamal Crawford doesn't practice shooting. Why would he? His handle is bananas. You had me at "Crossover" Jamal. His natural form is definitely good enough for 25 points in a given game. Some people are, much to the dismay of the layman, ridiculously talented in proportion to their level of success. Classic underachievers.

An underachiever reaches classic status when his demonstrable talent languishes so much that it works against his stated goals. When Dwight Howard injured his back compensating for a dearth of post moves with leap after bone-crunching leap, that was a Classic Underachiever's problem. Working at his up-under, hook shot or free throw shooting (pick one), might have saved Howard hundreds of games, but now...he'll never know.

Crawford makes hay of defenders, but has played as much defense in his life as George W. Bush has solved word problems. Watching Dwight Howard trot his sunken shoulders to the free throw line, Clyde Drexler described, is like watching Dwight Howard take a chemistry test. Praying for mediocrity. Fretting nullity. A bad scene. At the community theater. Either of these players could have made more of an impact with some conscious development of their given advantages. But they didn't. Somehow, I relate.

Crawford's Clippers are in the top 3 teams in scoring. This basketball journal is called The Four-Point Play. Jamal has 34 of them, most among active players. For better or worse, underachievers are good for unpredictable specks of flair across an otherwise uneven record. Perhaps the most confounding of the underachievers, and this year's TFPP Favorite Player, is Earl Junior. The folks round here call him J.R.

I believe if I were an NBA player, I would be J.R. Smith. That is to say, I have — not to mistake anything here — none of the talent he has at basketball. My step-back jumper is reliable out to 15 feet. I have done a 360-something on the court before, but it was not a dunk, and I hurt my knee awful. And I was playing against my homegirl (who beat me). But in life, I am the J.R. Smith of this writing game. I started out an All-America right out of high school, published my first articles at 20, ghost-wrote my first book around the same time and got a royalty check of six-pence for it. Then there were some lost years, like really smoky, hazy, blurry years of doing very little writing except once a year, when I'd pretend to write a script with a friend of mine. Then in 2008, something clicked. I knew I needed to write about basketball and about music and about culture. But I had lost so many years underachieving, I needed to rebuild the faith of an audience. I had to practice my step-back against tougher competition. I had to listen to my coaches. Play defense. I had to put writing over friendship, in some cases (still hard to do but I try). Before Earl Jr. got to the Knicks, I made jokes about him, while secretly longing for him to arrive here and don the blue and orange. If any city could clean him up, bring him closer to home, offer tough love and ridiculous praise for even his small successes, it would be New York. We have a way of throwing out the trash and keeping the recyclables.

J.R. Smith is having his best season in the NBA as a New York Knick, in this improbably serendipitous season. He's passionate, honest about his underachievement to this point, and playing his role, while adding some of those dramatic moments that make games eminently more watchable and truthful. So, J.R. if you're out there, writing a status message, or uploading a picture of your latest hotel visitor, I appreciate you. Even underachievers can be classics.

Steve Novak will ESKIMO KISS you for hitting that game winner, bro.

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