Josh Smith’s entry into Clipper-land was the second biggest Clippers story of the summer. His story was not as dramatic as the DeAndre Jordan exit/mind change/ house arrest. But it was compelling that Josh Smith took less money to come to the Clippers, rejecting the Houston Rockets offer because, in his words, the Clippers can win it all.
He sat on a stool in a press conference with his other new teammates amid the camera lights and confessed he believes the Clippers have what they need this season to make their first Western Conference Finals berth. Nothing new or unusual there, pretty standard introductory press conference fare. Until Josh Smith said this.
“It wasn’t about the money because of the Detroit situation, but at the end of the day, I do have a family so it is going to be a little harder on me this year. But I’m going to push through it and try to do something long term after this year.”
Perhaps it was lazy to jump to the conclusion that this was a Latrell Sprewell I have to feed my family moment and that Smith was whining about having to subsist on $7 million a year. It’s easy to see how it happened though. He begins with the word money and he ends with the words harder on me. The conclusion was natural.
Sometimes intentions go awry.
In a Players’ Tribune piece, Smith calls himself “old school” because he’s not on Instagram or Twitter and he doesn’t pay attention to social media. It was his family who let him know what people were saying about him, how he was being mischaracterized and, frankly, the narration made all the sense in the world because social media is about perception more than it is about reality.
In May, an insightful piece in Grantland by Jonathan Abrams shattered the caricature of Josh Smith as it re-introduced the career of Smith’s father, Pete, who still has trouble displacing his anger. Routinely, Pete Smith gets pretty pissed off that his son is the repository for other people’s expectations and presumptions particularly when Josh Smith leads a quiet off-season life out of the limelight.
Pete Smith was an athlete himself, the first black at Valdosta State. He was drafted and played in the ABA and ended his career with the Nets but was never elevated to the status of his son.
Josh Smith has never been what his critics wanted him to be. More significantly, he has never been able to overcome the worst thing ever said about him.
“If you’d had to pick which guy was most likely to be a bust in the first round it would be this guy. He has no right hand and he can’t shoot.” Jay Bilas said that on draft night.
Despite Smith’s achievements in Atlanta he continued to carry his flaws around his neck as he was identified with malice. He was a player with unacceptable flaws. Young players are allowed to outgrow their original narratives but Josh Smith’s stuck: he takes bad shots, can’t shoot, too emotional, doesn’t think the game, team killer, cancer, immature, so bad Detroit had to eat his salary.
It’s not that Smith is the NBA’s whipping boy, he isn’t loved enough for people to really care besides the basic Josh Smith eye roll when his name comes up, an example of an underachiever who doesn’t quite understand the NBA game. Because in the NBA you are either great or you are average; the middle class is reductive territory, filled with land mines and critics and everyone taking shots with their pent up anger.
The complex truth of summer gossip or summer conjecture or summer criticism is that while it’s all water under the bridge, at some point, there is a family who has to digest it all. Josh Smith’s family was outraged by this last straw of Smith being nothing more than a pile of 6-9 greed without an ounce of gratitude or perspective or memory.
“This is my third team in less than a year. I was talking about how moving affects my family. But the headline about greed was the one everyone ran with. The whole thing about it being ‘harder on me’ comes down to family. It seems obvious to me but maybe I could have said it more clearly. If you know the NBA you know that moving to a new team is a decision that affects the whole family. That’s even more true when you are signing a one year deal because there’s less stability because you know you might be moving again in a year.” The Players’ Tribune.
He ended his thoughts in his personal essay by throwing out a truth: NBA players are reluctant to talk because often what they say gets misinterpreted and flung here and there and by then it’s too late. Of certain athletes, everyone wants to believe the worst. It’s a reflection that makes sense. Athletes have a lifestyle we can’t imagine and so we have to do the death by paper cut thing, consistently tearing them down like Jenga blocks. But, even as there is truth in our peculiar disconnect with talent and success, there is the lie as well: we hate what they have, we love what they have.
Expect more of this. Because Josh Smith plays in Los Angeles and is of his time, this social media time, this slash and burn time with all of its complicated rules about who deserves love and forgiveness and who deserves to be beaten up, the media will shine its light upon him. It will be good and it will be bad and because it is sports Josh Smith will be expected to shrug it off. But if he fails with the Clippers, his family will hear and read about it first. And be pissed all over again.
photo via llanosnba