As Kenyon Martin sat just behind the free-throw line, the world had no idea what Josh Smith would do next. Smith darts down from center court, leaps in the air, catches the toss from a seated Martin, and swung the ball back around windmill style. Boom. The Pepsi Center exploded, along with the TNT crew calling the All-Star festivities. Kenny Smith immediately proclaimed, “The dunk contest is where you make your name… His name is gonna be starting to become famous around here if he keeps doing dunks like that.”
In the next round, the 19-year old from College Park put on a vintage Dominique Wilkins jersey and dazzled the crowd – again – with a windmill tribute to the Hawks legend.
As he took home the title of 2005 Slam Dunk Champion, Josh Smith also took home another title: fan favorite. While the origin of the nickname “J-Smoove” is less than concrete, the high-flying young forward would soon earn the moniker.
At the time, it’s likely that he had little effect on me, a clueless 8 year-old who had little interest in professional basketball. Now, coming up on 18, I feel I can finally grasp just how big of an impact that one player had on some of the young stages of my life.
The puzzling nature of Josh Smith’s career in the ATL has left me speechless at times and with a mouthful of arguments at others. He left me awestruck one day and confused the next.
When asked about Josh Smith last fall, Bob Rathbun, the Hawks TV play-by-play man, was quick to give praise by saying that “he rarely missed a game unless he was injured. [He] started for basically nine years, and filled the stat sheet like no other forward in the history of the franchise, Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins included.”
J-Smoove was such a unique figure in Atlanta; likely a once-in-a-generation type athlete, basketball player, and member of the community. But he leaves us with doubts; doubts that seem to linger on wherever he continues to play.
Lang Whitaker once wrote on The Classical, “If Allen Iverson was The Answer, perhaps Josh Smith is The Question, at least among NBA fans. What kind of player is he? What kind of player should he be? What kind of player will he become?”
Everyone in life has their own “what-ifs?” that drive them crazy. Some are personal, some are professional. Others involve things out of their control. For me, the juxtaposition of Josh Smith’s issues with my past personal doubts and challenges was perfect harmony.
Josh Smith left Atlanta more than a year ago. In that time since, I’ve been able to picture every scenario of his career if different what-ifs had been fulfilled. In that same time since, I’ve found myself thinking about my own life in a deeper way, realizing that solace could be found through the visualization of my own life lessons.
What if we found a way to trade Josh Smith’s basketball IQ with that of Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul?
What if I traded my self-confidence from when I was younger with that of Nick Young’s? (Note: This might be an unhealthy level of self-confidence, but you get the idea)
What if Josh Smith took constructive criticism to heart and actually learned from it?
What if I had noticed my own personal mistakes when they happened and worked to avoid those situations in the future?
The late Bil Keane, author of the long-running newspaper comic The Family Circus, once said, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
Josh Smith’s departure last summer left me in a place to think about life; think about the what-ifs that had been glazed over in my memories. Thanks to my looking at the past as a place for reflection and self-improvement, as well as looking to the future as a time where anything is possible, the present is indeed a gift of God. I’ve had one of the best years of my life, thanks – in a strange way – to the departure of my childhood hero that left me in shambles.
Josh Smith’s legacy in Atlanta is one that represents a nearly decade-long era of Hawks basketball; an era that is looked upon as a disappointment compared to what it could’ve been.
Josh Smith’s first season in Detroit – and the Pistons’ season in general – has been described with the words “disaster”, “train-wreck”, and “failure”. The strange spacing of Detroit’s super-big frontcourt allowed Smoove, now 28, to play to his self-proclaimed strength’s and hover around the three-point line. His shot chart tells the whole story. (courtesy of Nylon Calculus)
He hoisted up 265 shots from behind the arc – the highest number of his career – and converted just 26% of those opportunities. Combine that with a career-low in field-goal percentage (42%), player-efficiency rating (14.1), and offensive win-shares (-1.4) and Smith had one of his worst seasons as a pro.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, a cultural revolution was occurring. Once Danny Ferry traded away Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in July of 2012, it was clear that the franchise was evolving – sooner, rather than later. After another first-round exit in the spring of 2013, head coach Larry Drew and Josh Smith both had expiring contracts. Ferry let Smoove walk and brought on well-respected Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer to right the ship. The metamorphosis into a promising franchise was beginning; “Spurs East” was officially underway.
Ferry and Coach Bud have made it known through the past two off-seasons what the Hawks are looking for: unselfish, hard-working players that are looking to come in and do the dirty work to help the team win. A clear team identity has been set.
Under Larry Drew, the same concept went ignored. After a loss in April of 2013, LD uttered a myriad of words that seemed like an attempt to shed the blame away from himself.
“Here we are 77 games into the season, and we don’t know who we are. When we go all the way back to training camp, with all of the changes that we made, one of the things that I made a point of was for our guys to understand who we had to be. We had to be a team that would be gritty, we’d have to be a team that would bring a blue-collar mentality every night we step out on the floor, particularly on the defensive end. And somewhere along the line, we have forgotten who we have to be.”
This would never happen today. The old Hawks are no more. These Hawks are sneaky, aggressive, and here to stay. Danny Ferry didn’t want to follow the path of the Hawks under Woodson and Drew. He set up the team for success in a different way; a way that had been foolishly skipped over in the construction of the 2000’s Hawks.
The Hawks have shifted from a group of players that wore the same jersey to a team in every sense of the word. That wouldn’t have happened without losing Smith to Detroit. Alternatively, without losing Smith to Detroit the Hawks would still bear some resemblance to the “old Hawks”.
The old Hawks represent a state of disarray. From the ownership questions to draft busts. From the isolation-heavy offense to the continuous early-playoff exits. Smith’s imprint on the team and the fan-base was, without question, remarkable. He was the hometown guy. He was the man who brought special plays to the Highlight Factory. The slow decline of his popularity among avid fans had much to do with his jump-shot and his inability to learn from his weaknesses.
He was the final piece of the puzzle to be removed. The old Hawks are gone.
The new Hawks are consistency defined. Sure, they aren’t the “perfect” basketball team from San Antonio some might say they’re trying to emulate, but they’re placing one foot in front of the other down a mystical path that leads to a region long unheard of in Atlanta: success.
The old Hawks/new Hawks is a striking metaphor for what’s taken place within myself during these past 12 months.
Much like the old Hawks, the old me is long gone. The transition of qualities is similar and I can’t help but think that the person the old me once loved with the greatest admiration is responsible.
Josh Smith came into my life during the fall of 2010. For the next three years, I became a transient Atlanta Hawks fan/die-hard/writer living half-way across the country. He gave me something to love when I wasn’t completely comfortable with everything else. He treated me to highlight plays when I needed a quick jolt of adrenaline and joy.
In 2013, he left me stranded in a place where I felt most vulnerable: my thoughts.
While his Atlanta exit might have been immensely saddening, it was one of the best things to ever happen to me. The departure of J-Smoove gave me a rare opportunity to rebuild myself from the ground up.
If Smith stays in Atlanta for four more years, I don’t see myself facing the same life obstacles that were thrown in front of me last summer. His silent dismissal was, in a way, a wake-up call for me. I chose to go against my idol and change things for the better, something that he had failed to do. There’s no denying the adjustments I’ve made, the weaknesses I’ve learned from, and the faith I’ve built up in myself to grow as an individual, searching to make a positive impact on those around me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the “old me” left the same day that Josh Smith left Atlanta for good. And for that, I am eternally grateful to my lifelong hero.
Without Josh Smith, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
The 2005 Dunk Contest (that I ended up watching for the first time in 2010, forgive me) launched me to new heights. It gave me something to look forward to. It gave me a hero, a hidden mentor, a sense of pride in the form of Josh Smith. His appearance – and disappearance – in my life gave me a newfound confidence to tackle any challenge that lies ahead.
Confidence is key, something that I’ve realized along my year-long journey through thought. Confidence comes from everywhere you look: yourself, your loved ones, your places of comfort, investing in hobbies, such as writing, that drive you to look at yourself in a different way.
That confidence is over-flowing in me and, more importantly for the purposes of this website, the Atlanta Hawks, according to a recent quote from Coach Bud. He summed up nearly everything I had hoped he would say. It truly hits home on both sides of the equation for me.
“I love our players. I love our team. (The first year) was a really great experience. We all have a lot of room for improvement, a lot of room for growth, the coaches, the players, the entire organization. But I think we are building it with the right kinds of players, the right kind of people.”
This chunk of words from Bud epitomizes who I am aiming to become; both in my own personal sense and in my “Atlanta life”, as well. It represents two different people inside, both fighting for the same goals. Both looking at the future with more confidence than ever before. Both excited about what next challenge approaches them. As the Hawks grow, so do I.
Atlanta’s head man continued to say, “I really think we are in a situation where we are just going to keep getting better and better.”
For both our sakes, I sure hope so.