INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- JR Smith stood in front of a throng of reporters Wednesday and spoke openly about his daughter, Dakota, who was born five months prematurely.
She remains in the hospital as her dad preps to play another basketball game.
As the Cleveland Cavaliers guard shared intimate details about the crisis his family has been steeping in the past three months, Smith picked up a reporter’s smartphone that was sitting on a stand in front of him, recording his news conference, to illustrate a point.
“I can’t even lie to you,” Smith said. “When I first had my daughter on the second day of January, she was no bigger than this phone.”
Smith’s hand is so large it nearly enveloped the phone, completely covering the screen. He once held a human life that was so small. Smith is proud to report that his daughter now weighs 4.7 pounds, up from the 1 pound she weighed when she was born.
The playoffs haven’t started the way Smith wanted them to. At least not personally. While he is buoyed by Cleveland’s 2-0 series lead over the Indiana Pacers in the first round, his contributions -- six points in Game 1 and just three points in Game 2 before leaving at halftime with a hamstring pull -- have been meager.
But Smith's life outside the game has been improving ever so slightly, as Dakota was able to drink out of a bottle for the first time last week.
“You can’t separate the two because it’s life, and for me it goes hand in hand,” Smith said of balancing his hoops with his heart. “The life I live is because of basketball, and one of the reasons I’m able to provide and have a family the way I have is because of my basketball stature and what I’ve been able to do at this point in my life. For her, that’s No. 1. That comes before this game or any other game. She’s doing good. We can’t complain. She’s doing unbelievable numbers. The doctors say she’s off the charts. We just have to take it day by day, and hopefully one day soon she’ll come home.”
Usually parents of a newborn count their baby’s age in months. Smith uses days for his daughter.
“I’ve got an unbelievable wife,” Smith said of Jewel Harris, whom he married in August. “She made sure I was the first person able to give her a bottle. I can’t say enough about her because she’s been there literally all day, every day since. It’s the 108th day she’s been there. For her to let me do that or let me do certain things is really cool and I appreciate that.”
Smith, 31, fractured his right thumb in late December, about two weeks before Dakota was born. As he recovered from surgery that caused him to miss 2½ months of the season, he stayed behind in Cleveland, missing out on road trips with the team.
Of course, the silver lining was that it meant more time around his family when they needed him most.
“I’ve thought about it,” Smith said when asked about the twist of fate. “My wife and I talked about it. I’ve talked about it with the guys. Had I not gotten hurt, I probably still would’ve missed the same amount of games. That’s no disrespect to my teammates or this organization. But for me, my family comes first. And if you can’t accept that, then I don’t know what else to tell you. That should be No. 1 for any and everybody before any occupation.”
When asked if the Cavaliers ever discussed the possibility of a healthy Smith missing games to tend to Dakota, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, “That was a serious situation, and if JR needed to take time to be with his family, then that would’ve been understandable by me and I’m pretty sure the players and the organization. Whatever he needed, we would have been there to support him.”
A similar refrain is being heard in Boston right now. Celtics star Isaiah Thomas is mourning the death of his 22-year-old sister in a car crash while trying to contend in a playoff series his team trails 2-0 to the Chicago Bulls. Thomas’ pain is felt by Smith.
“That’s an unbelievable thing to go through at this point in time in your career and life,” Smith said. “Just to lose someone like that, and then still have guys depending on you; it’s a very tough situation and I feel for him so much, just from a man-to-man standpoint. Not even as an athlete, just as a person.”
It’s been a tough season for the entire Cavs team off the court, far tougher than the 10-14 record they had to finish the regular season. Channing Frye lost both of his parents in November: his mom to cancer, his father a week later. There have been plenty of injuries, such as Smith’s thumb, and others in the organization have dealt with serious health ailments, either personally or suffered by family members.
“We’ve been through it as a team,” Smith said. “We’ve been challenged off the court, we’ve been challenged on the court. We were challenged with injuries. If there’s any team or group of guys who understand how to persevere and get through what we’ve gone through, it’s this group of guys. I don’t even know how many guys we’ve had on the roster just coming in and out of the season; it’s been a lot. Obviously, we’re not making any excuses for ourselves, but we do pat ourselves on the back for that because it’s not an easy thing to get through, especially coming back as defending champs. It’s nothing we take lightly, nothing we take for granted. Just try to get better as people and players every day.”
Smith says “everything is on the up and up” with Dakota thanks in large part to the neonatal doctors and nurses who treat her every day at the hospital. He calls them the “real heroes.” And Smith is doing OK himself, as an MRI on his left hamstring came back negative; he says he will “absolutely” be ready to go in Game 3 on Thursday if called upon.
And as the Cavs’ playoff run sets sail, Smith has found a use for his smartphone for something other than a sobering reminder of everything he’s been through the last couple months.
“I change my alarm to ‘It’s a Beautiful Morning’ every time I wake up,” he said.