A Visit To J.R. Smith's Hometown
J.R. Smith has bounced around the NBA in search of a home. He's found one in Cleveland, but the place he belongs most is a sleepy town in New Jersey's horse country.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The road into Millstone Township, New Jersey leads you past a sign depicting two deer, two horses, eight trees, and a red barn set amid a vast sprawl of open land. Below are the words: "An Environmentally Concerned Community." It boasts of the town's 6,008 preserved acres and notes the town's incorporation in 1844. Stay on the one-lane Prodelin Way toward the town center and you will pass Fox Fire Farm, where stalls are available; you will see horses roaming at Bright Meadows Equestrian Center and a sign, near McCaffrey's nursery, demanding "Get US out! of the United Nations," echoing the slogan of the arch-conservative John Birch Society.
There is no mention anywhere that this quiet town in New Jersey's horse country is where J.R. Smith grew up. In the absence of one, it's hard to imagine how anyone could guess.
But this is it. Millstone is where J.R. Smith honed his shooting skills and developed the unshakeable confidence that has defined his mercurial NBA career. Millstone is where Smith returns each summer to be with the many friends and family members that still live there.
"Cleveland is just like Millstone," said Earl Smith, J.R.'s father. "It's no different. It's like where he grew up at." This is not strictly true—Millstone has 10,000 residents, 90 percent of which are white—but Smith has nevertheless made himself at home in Cleveland. In so doing, he's resurrected a career that foundered in New York after a promising start that included a Sixth Man of the Year award two seasons ago, when the Knicks won 54 games and a playoff series for the first time since 2000. Smith has since admitted he became distracted by big-city diversions and tired of the losing. When he was traded before the team's January 5 game against Memphis, the Knicks were 5-31.
In Cleveland, Smith has reunited with LeBron James, a friend since high school. As teenagers, Smith and James attended the 2002 ABCD camp at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University together. Smith also played as a kid against teammate Kendrick Perkins. He's developed a strong bond with others on the Cavaliers, too, something that Earl Smith said was missing with the Knicks.
"The guys hang out together, the guys do stuff together," he said. "It's a team thing. It's not when you leave practice you all go your separate ways. When they leave practice, they already have plans what they're gonna do for the night, where they're gonna go, where they're gonna eat. It's different."
After the Cavaliers swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals last month, Smith posted a video on Instagram of him, James, Perkins, Kyrie Irving, and Iman Shumpert sitting in a hot tub shirtless, wearing hats, drinking champagne, dancing and singing "Flicka Da Wrist" from Chedda Da Connect.
"Look at the flicka da wrist," Smith screamed.
"Woop!" James echoed. If it wasn't quite Millstone, it looked a lot like home.
Earl Smith, a former guard at Monmouth University in New Jersey, taught J.R. how to shoot when he was three years old, and his son was soon hooked. "When he was five, he was beating all my brothers in HORSE," Earl Smith said. "I'd tell him, 'Get behind the dashes.' He'd put 'em out because they couldn't shoot beyond the dashes, but he could. And then from the sides, the corners, he had that arc. And that's what he did. He put them out."
He never stopped shooting, just as his father had always preached.
"They said I never saw a shot I didn't like," said Earl Smith, recalling his playing days. "I was always taught, 'If you're open, shoot the ball.' You don't pass it or turn it over. I guess coaches didn't like that, but I taught my sons how to play the game the right way."
J.R. Smith wasn't only a basketball star. Greg Mordas, a family friend from Millstone Township whose son, Matt, grew up with Smith, remembers Smith dominating any sport he tried. Mordas coached Smith in flag and Pop Warner football, where he played wide receiver. He also excelled in baseball.
"Let me tell you something," said Mordas, who went to high school with future NFL stars Joe Theismann and Drew Pearson. "If J.R. wasn't playing NBA basketball, J.R. would be playing split end in the NFL. And if he wasn't playing in the NFL, he would be a relief pitcher in the big leagues. He's probably the most talented athlete that I've ever been around."
That dazzling athleticism has certainly helped him stick in the NBA, but Smith's shooting ability is his singular skill, and an extremely valuable one. Smith's shooting was enough to make him a first-round pick out of high school in 2004, but a number of other factors, many unrelated to basketball, have kept Smith on the move ever since. He's played for four organizations, clashed with management and coaches, and been suspended and fined numerous times. In 2007, Smith was behind the wheel in a car accident, in Millstone, in which one of his friends was killed; he admitted to reckless driving and served a 30-day sentence in 2009. Smith has never made it easy for himself or anyone else, and has made his share of enemies. But he remains popular among (some) fans and teammates for his humor, candor, and unpredictable style. Or, in other words, for his ineffable and unique J.R. Smith-iness.
None of his career stops were more perplexing than New York, where the highs and lows of his tenure offer a microcosm of his entire career. After being named the league's top reserve in 2012-13, Smith signed a three-year deal with the Knicks and envisioned a long career with a team 60 miles from his hometown. He then underwent surgery on his left knee in the offseason and missed the first five games for violating the NBA's anti-drug program. Chris Smith, his younger brother, also made the Knicks' roster to start the 2013-14 season, a surprising decision considering that the younger Smith was not generally held by evaluators to have NBA-grade skills.
When the Knicks released Chris Smith in late December 2013, J.R. voiced his displeasure on his Instagram page. He posted a quote from the movie Casino: "You know the sad thing about betrayal? It never comes from the enemy." To this day, the Smiths have not forgiven or forgotten how the Knicks treated Chris.
"It was a mess," Earl Smith said. "To me, I don't know why they didn't play him. They gave everybody else an opportunity except him. It didn't make sense."
The Smith-Knicks marriage never recovered from the strangeness surrounding Chris Smith's retention and release. It fell apart in ways alternately tense and goofy. In January 2014, the NBA fined Smith $50,000 for untying Shawn Marion's shoelaces and then, after having been instructed to knock it off, trying to untie Greg Monroe's shoelaces two days later. Coach Mike Woodson called the act "unprofessional" and benched Smith for the next game. The Knicks finished 37-45 and missed the playoffs, and the rest was the rest.
While he seems to have found a setting and a role that work for him, J.R. remains an enigma. He was suspended for the first two games of Cleveland's second round series against the Chicago Bulls after he punched Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder during the wild final game of their first round series. Since returning, Smith has come off the bench and shown flashes of his talent, including an 8-for-12 performance from three-point range in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He also authored a number of strange defensive decisions in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, and has generally alternated stretches of dizzying dominance and near-total invisibility.
When the playoffs end, Smith will return home for a while. He will almost certainly spend many days on the golf course, playing a sport with which he's become obsessed. In an interview with Golf Digest, Smith mentioned that the best golfer among his basketball friends is Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, his rival during the NBA finals.
"People talk about hitting the ball 300 yards," said Mordas, the longtime family friend. "Well, I've been out on the golf course a couple of times when J.R.'s hit it and I've lost sight of it because it was going so high and far."
This summer, he and Chris plan on opening a "Team Swish" store in Millstone Township that will sell sneakers, sweats, shirts, hats and other apparel. Earl Smith, a mason, built the 1,192 square foot store on the land where he grew up before a fire damaged his house. On Monday afternoon, Allison Mains worked in the store painting replica jerseys on the walls. She grew up in the same neighborhood as the Smiths. "They're a good family," she said. "They were always playing ball in the yard. That's all they did."
Vesuvio's Family Restaurant, a Smith-family favorite in a strip mall next to the future location of "Team Swish," is still a regular stop for Smith when he's in town. The Costagliola family, owners of Vesuvio's for the past 28 years, have photos hanging of themselves next to J.R., Chris, and Earl. There are also framed, autographed photos and jerseys from the Smith brothers. Mary Costagliola, who owns the restaurant and strip mall with her husband, taught J.R. Smith in first grade. "He was a good kid in school," she said. "He loved to joke."
At Vesuvio's late last week, there were flyers promoting Smith's ninth annual charity golf tournament on August 20 in nearby Lakewood, where he played high school basketball for two years. By then, Smith may be an NBA champion, an accomplishment few could have predicted just a short time ago. "It's awesome," Mary Costagliola said. "He comes from a wonderfully supportive family. It's thrilling to see him do so well."
Team Swish isn't finished yet, but it is shaping up as a sort of Smith family shrine, and a home within the larger home that Millstone has always represented for the family. The store's interior is laid out like a court, with two regulation-sized baskets at opposite ends. Mains has painted J.R.'s uniform from Cleveland, Denver, and New York and Chris's Knicks uniform on the walls; there's also the football uniform of younger brother Dimitrius, a 6-foot-2, 295-pound defensive tackle at Monmouth University.
A blue, yellow, and black sign hangs over the front desk. That custom-made counter resembles a scoreboard, and features a clock, fouls, timeouts remaining, possession arrow. "Team Swish" is listed as the home team.