CLEVELAND -- With temperatures dropping into the mid-30s in Northeast Ohio, Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith and his “Team Swish” turned into “Turkey Fairies," as they called themselves, and delivered an early Thanksgiving surprise to the homeless.
Smith and a crew of about a dozen associates, including his fiancée, Shirley Harris, and his brother, Chris Smith, distributed coats, hats, gloves, scarves, socks, underwear, T-shirts and sneakers at three Cleveland-area locations, including a men’s shelter downtown.
Following a playful debate with one of the homeless men who swore he could take Smith one-on-one, Smith spoke to ESPN.com about the cause, becoming a part of the Cleveland community, recent accusations of choking a 19-year-old in New York and his relationship with LeBron James, among other topics.
There are so many charitable causes a player could try to take up, why did you choose to do an event like this, specifically?
Smith: For one, it’s freezing outside. And for people who literally have to live outside or go into shelters, who don’t have their own home, who can’t get in the car and turn the heat on, it’s important. Because, you know, you can literally die like this. That’s one of the most important things about it. Yeah, feeding people, giving people money and all of that is one thing, but this is giving them something that they really need as opposed to what they want.
What’s it like being there to actually see these people’s faces, get a hug from someone, pose for a picture, having that personal interaction?
Smith: It’s better than hitting a 3 at The Q, to me. Because I think just to see somebody who really cares about you off the court -- I mean, yeah, it’s great that you’re J.R. Smith -- but to give them something like that, a scarf or something when they’re really about to go back outside and sit outside, it will actually help them. That’s way better than anything basketball-wise.
You’ve played on a handful of teams during your career, do you already feel some sense of connection to the community here?
Smith: Yeah. For me, it feels like home. It feels like [New] Jersey. The way they welcomed me with open arms when I got here, it’s only right for me to return the favor because I feel so connected to them more than any place I’ve been.
We’ve talked about this before, whether who you are as a man really matches the perception of you that’s out there. Not that you’re doing this for reporters to cover it, but how much is something like this a side of you that people don’t know about?
Smith: I mean, this is who I am. At the end of the day, I don’t really do it for the [publicity] and all that. We would have done it anyway. But this is just who I am. It’s how I was raised. My parents instilled this into myself, my brothers. Fortunately I found a fiancée who feels the same type of way. So, this how we grew up.
This time of year in particular, it’s not only cold in Cleveland, but the holidays are coming up. Did that motivate you at all, that feeling? That seems to be when people miss their family the most and maybe lick their wounds the most.
Smith: Absolutely. Because in order to be homeless, at this point you hit rock bottom. Everybody knows that. But you have nobody to turn to, nobody to go to. During the holidays, this is what everybody looks forward to -- family, spending time with the family, Christmas trees, eating dinner at Thanksgiving. I mean, it’s nothing but family. And to be out there on your own in a sense, that’s tough. And to feel like you’re forgotten about or no one really cares about you or something like that, whatever the case may be, that’s tough. And for us, that’s what we wanted to show: You’re not forgotten about. Even though we probably reached maybe 200-300 people today, there’s still millions of people in this situation every single day. And people just walk past every day thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s a homeless person.’ Or don’t even see them and just keep it pushing. That’s tough.
Making the transition to your Cavs family, do you feel especially a part of things here? And in particular, what has LeBron done for your career as a teammate? It seems like he straight-up always has your back.
Smith: From the time I’ve gotten here, it’s been like that. It’s crazy because you meet people throughout your life and they leave for a certain part of time and then they come back and they can make the biggest impact like somebody who’s been there the whole time. I’ve known ‘Bron since I was 16 years old. From coming here to working out with him and then we’re both in the pros. He had his schedule, I had my schedule, so we lost contact for 12, 11 years, and then you come back in somebody’s life and they just keep making an impact on you as a person, not even as a player. I think that’s huge. Because I’ve had people that have been with me the whole time just leaching on, as opposed to just trying to help you get better as a person, not only as a professional.
After the alleged incident that came out last week, which you and your lawyer denied, do you feel like the Cavs supported you?
Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I think they had my back 110 percent. Other places that I’ve been, it definitely wouldn’t have gone down like that. And I appreciate them for that because they know what type of person I am. I mean, this is the first place I’ve been where I’ve started off with a clean sheet and they looked at me as the person that walked in the door every single day and has been consistent with them as opposed to whatever everybody else has said that comes along with it. With just that alone, that speaks volumes and I just look at every day as an opportunity to keep living up to that expectation that they have for me, as well as that I have for them. That goes for the players, the organization, the GMs, the coaches, everybody. Even the community. The way they’ve welcomed me, it’s only right for me to return the favor to be that person that I’m supposed to be.
Finally, there was some talk today at shootaround about the Golden State Warriors. You were great from January on when you came to the Cavs but you struggled in the Finals. How much has that weighed on you or stayed with you ever since June, especially seeing what the Warriors are doing now and considering they could very well be the team you have to get through to achieve your team goal this year?
Smith: I hope they are the team. I wouldn’t want it no other way, because we get another chance at it for one and to beat the team that beat you, I think that’s a sweeter feeling. For me, personally, I don’t really look at it as not having the best series or whatever. I mean, I’ve had shots fall against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals and there was praise. And then you miss shots and there’s a downfall. So it’s a give-and-take. I wasn’t the only person out there missing. It wasn’t like I was out there playing one-on-five, but it’s cool. I’ll take that. I just got to get better every day.