by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
Imagine that you’ve spent your entire life working toward one goal. Every day, sweat and hard work and more sweat and more hard work, all in the pursuit of a single quest. In the mornings before the sun has come up and in the evenings after the sun has gone down. Never a break, never a day off. Maybe if this were all just for your own benefit and not also for your mom and dad and future wife and family, there would have been a day where you would have just decided to stay in bed or go to a movie instead. But alas, it is not. That’s why you chose to attend three different high schools in four years. And to leave the community of McEachern (GA) High that you, to this day, so dearly love and support, for the greener Virginia pastures of Oak Hill Academy.
But now, finally, all those sacrifices and all that perspiration have paid off. You have achieved your dream. It is the happiest day of your life.
And now imagine that at that precise instant, when those feelings of elation and relief and euphoria are flowing through your body, someone reaches out, grabs that moment out of your hands, throws it on the ground, and stomps on it.
Again and again and again.
This is the scenario posed by Josh Smith as he stands outside the visitor’s locker room in Washington, DC’s Verizon Center before a January 12 game between the Atlanta Hawks and hometown Wizards.
He’s talking, of course, about the day he was drafted back in 2004 when, moments after hearing David Stern announce that the Atlanta Hawks had taken him with the 17th overall pick, as he was walking to the stage to shake the commissioner’s hand and place a Hawks hat on his head, Smith and everyone else sitting in the Theater at Madison Square Garden and at home watching the Draft on TV, heard ESPN’s Jay Bilas diss Atlanta’s selection.
“If you had to pick which guy was most likely to be a bust in the first round, it would be this guy,” Bilas said.
As far as awful sports clichés, “chip on the shoulder” ranks right up there with “we wanted it more” and “God was on our side.” But when Smoove, as he’s known around the NBA, describes that Draft night moment as the equivalent of “a parent giving a kid the Christmas present that he’s always wanted, and then taking it away and smashing it on the ground,” well that just seems like the sort of experience that could actually lead to some sort of chip being on a shoulder, something that Smith says he’s been carrying with him ever since.
Of course, when an athlete talks about playing with a chip on their shoulder, what they’re really talking about is confidence. Belief in self and in their skills, no matter what outsiders say. In sports, though, confidence can be a funny thing. Too little of it and you’re a choker, a person who can’t handle the big moments. Too much of it and you’re a me-first player. The key, like most things in life, is to find the balance between the two extremes.
This is not an easy thing to do when less than 10 seconds into your NBA career you’re told that you stink, which means that 20 seconds into your NBA career an internal decision has been made that you are never going to let anyone tell you what you are and what you are not.
Back when he was in the ninth grade, Josh Smith’s AAU team, the Atlanta Celtics (a squad that also featured future NBA players Dwight Howard, Randolph Morris and Javaris Crittenton), was competing in a 17-and-under AAU tournament out in Las Vegas. During one of the games, Celtics coach Karl McCray didn’t like the way Smith was playing and told his star small forward to take a seat on the bench. Smith, as you would imagine, was furious. Seeing this, McCray decided to take advantage of the opportunity and pose a challenge to Smith: He would be subbed back in and stay on the court for as long as he could play turnover-free. “He played the rest of the game,” McCray remembers today, “because he refused to be taken out again.
“You tell him he can’t do something and that’s just putting an obstacle in front of him that he’s going to overcome.”
Dave Westerfield, who coached Smith at McEachern High School in Powder Spring, GA, has similar memories. “I used to have battles with him all the time about things like taking too many three-pointers,” Westerfield says between laughs. “The thing is, I’m not really sure it did me any good because it would just make him want to do that stuff more.”
This attribute, seemingly, carried over into Smoove’s first few seasons in the NBA, and as a result, things were not always, well, smooth. He and former Hawks coach Mike Woodson had their issues—Smith was once suspended by his former coach for cursing at him—and, as you well know, the 6-9 pogo-stick of a forward’s shot selection was often questioned. Now, though, at the age of 27 and in his ninth year in the League, Smith says he feels like he’s finally found his niche. That he finally feels comfortable in his own NBA skin and with his role on the Hawks.
“The game is going at the right speed for me right now,” he says. “When you first come into the League, there are times where you get pulled out for doing things that the coach doesn’t want you to do, and then you start second-guessing yourself. Then you start wondering, Can I really do this? But you always have to stay confident and believe.
“You know, I came to the conclusion that I’m going to come out of the game anyway, so I might as well do the things that I know I’m capable of doing.”
As soon as he finishes his thought, teammates Kyle Korver and Zaza Pachulia walk by. “Stop lying, Smoove,” they say. Thirty seconds later it’s Devin Harris yelling out, “He’s lying.” Smith, ever the joker himself, starts smiling and laughing at the impromptu interruptions.
Clearly Smith is comfortable in his new role of team leader. That he has said role is no accident, either. This past off-season, newly hired general manager Danny Ferry decided to rebuild the Hawks. Among the biggest moves were Joe Johnson’s trade to Brooklyn and Marvin Williams’ to Utah.
The result was change, on the court, in the locker room, in the playbook. And yet one of the few things that remained was Smith, who has rewarded his new GM by continuing to play the steady, effective all-around basketball that he has for most of his career. As of mid-January, Smoove was averaging 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals and 3.8 assists per game for the 21-15 Hawks. When he’s on the floor, Atlanta is 9 points better per 100 possessions than when he’s not, and his versatility on the defensive end has helped the Hawks hold opponents to just 100.6 points per 100 possessions, the eighth best mark in all of the NBA.
“He’s a very unique player that gives us a different dynamic that most teams don’t have,” Ferry says. “He just impacts a game in so many different ways.”
When a GM says something like this, he’s not just talking about a box score or basic fantasy stats. He’s talking about the actual game of basketball. About moving without the ball and defensive rotations. In fact, Smith’s knowledge of the latter is what Kenny Atkinson, who is in his first season as an assistant coach in Atlanta after spending four in New York, says he’s been most impressed with. “And all that negative external stuff like being uncoachable and a bad teammate and things like that,” Atkinson says, “I just don’t see it.”
The Hawks fall to the Wizards that Saturday night, 93-83. It’s an ugly, dull game—most of the fans spend the majority of the evening peering into the arena’s luxury boxes so that they can watch the Baltimore Ravens pull off a double-overtime NFL Playoff victory over the Broncos—and it’s also Atlanta’s fifth loss in six games. Smith did not play well (11 points on 4-13 shooting), as being forced to guard the two inches taller, 25 pounds heavier Nene seemed to wear him out.
In the long run of the season, this night and performance probably won’t matter or be remembered. The question, though, is whether subpar games like these make Smith worry about his chances of making the All-Star team—something that he has yet to do in his career, and also something that, if he’s truly still carrying Bilas’ words around with him, would serve as the ultimate achievement. At the time SLAM spoke with Smith, this year’s All-Star rosters—which he found out a couple of weeks later would, once again, not include him—had yet to be announced.
“I’m not even worried about that stuff,” Smoove says, “because if you do, that’s when selfishness would kick in and you start worrying about getting an extra rebound or more points or doing things that aren’t in you’re DNA.” Smith says the only opinions that matter to him are those belonging to his teammates and to the Hawks’ coaching staff. Everyone else can think and believe whatever they want.
That answer leaves one last question: What’s with all the “he’s lying” comments from his teammates? Is that an inside joke?
“They say that because they know me,” Smith answers, smiling again. “They know I don’t lie. That’s why it was funny. Because I’m always telling the truth.”