The gaming community within the NBA is steadily growing, with the league’s hiatus only helping to give players more time to refine their skills on the sticks without basketball taking up so much of their time. J.R. Smith, for example, has long been an avid gamer, growing up with “Nintendos and Ataris” but has really gotten involved in recent years with the boom in online gaming.
“Where it got to the multiplayer level and being able to play online, it just blows things out of the water,” Smith told Dime. “But I’ve always been into games, like ever since as long as I can remember I spent like four, five hours a day playing video games.”
While he continues working out to be ready for a hopeful NBA return next season, Smith is also taking this down time to game more and joined the Call of Duty League’s New York Subliners to stream Warzone on the CDL’s channels a few weeks back. Smith held his own with the pros, but said it was a humbling experience to see how far he has to go to become an elite gamer.
After the stream, Smith spoke with Dime about the experience, the communal aspect of gaming, why quarantine has been so hard for him, thoughts on The Last Dance, and why he wants people to stop comparing greats like LeBron, Kobe, and Jordan and just appreciate what they all have brought to the NBA.
How was the stream and what’s it like playing with pro Call of Duty players?
Man that sh*t was dope, man. Because for me, playing with them is like regular people playing basketball with me. So, like, as a person who really watched people’s YouTubes and streams to try and get better at the game — and I feel like I’m an avid gamer — it’s like being a kid in a candy store playing with a bunch of pros. Like, I’m used to playing with my boys, and it’s just like, some people’s skill levels just aren’t there, some people’s attention span just isn’t there, and at the level that I would like to play at, it’s just refreshing. At the same time, it’s humbling, cause I’m like, “I got a long way to go.”
When you play with pro gamers, what are the things you’re able to pick up and see as the differences between what they do and their approach compared to a casual gamer?
Well, when I was asking them about the keys — there’s certain keys you can get to go in the bunkers and stuff like that, and they don’t even go for those. They just going for kills and wins. Now, we’re playing to try and reach a certain goal, but sometimes you get caught up in going for certain parts of the game and it gets all strategic. But when you play with them, they’re going for straight kills and kill as many opponents as they can, and at a high rate as well. One person can go over there and get two or three kills or even a whole team wiped, and it’s like, just one person on one side. On the team I play with, the whole team has to go over and fight the other team.
Are there guys in the NBA you enjoy playing with? I talked to Devin Booker about some of the guys he plays with and know a lot of guys play. Who are some of your favorite guys in the league to play with, cause I know there’s an avid gaming community in the NBA?
You know what’s funny, I never really played with guys , not Call of Duty. I played 2K with Kyrie before and stuff like that, but I’ve never played Call of Duty with any of those NBA guys. I think they running from me.
I see you’ll hop on social media at times and see if fans want to play online with you, whether it’s COD or 2K. Do you feel like gaming has helped you build more of a connection with fans and how important is having that sense of community, especially over the last few months where we’ve all been isolating and under stay-at-home orders?
Yeah man, it’s funny because for me it’s a blessing in disguise with all this staying at home and everybody being on games and stuff like that. It’s like, all my friends are back home in a tough neighborhood, and you know, when you go outside you can get in trouble and other things. So having my friends being online consistently has been huge for me. So that’s what’s been my main focus, honestly, is just trying to get my game up. Trying to get my channels poppin’ so people can tune in and see what’s going on, just watching and kicking it.
How have you been holding up these last few months? I know you’ve got some young ones running around and that’s always an adventure, but you’re also training and trying to keep in shape. What’s the isolation period been like for you?
It’s tough, man. So I’ve been in L.A. I actually just got back from New Jersey yesterday, and I’ve been in L.A. for the previous three months before that, and I hadn’t seen my kids cause they’re in New Jersey. So it’s been tough because of the travel situation and stuff like that, not knowing what’s going to happen and schools and everything being closed. So it’s been tough for me because I’m all the way out here and my kids are in Jersey, and the fact that I’m out here training and stuff, and they’re just finally home. They’re out of school and have all this free time, and I gotta miss months of that because of something like this cause airports were shut down for so long and I couldn’t travel, and you didn’t know if you could actually go outside and if you’d catch it or not. So it kinda spooked me a lot with that, so it’s been crazy.
I do want to talk a little basketball. Any player on a championship team has a special connection to a city and its fans, but especially so in a place like Cleveland winning the first title the city’s seen in decades. How would you describe your relationship with Cleveland and Cavs fans after that 2016 title?
I mean our connection is just remarkable, man. Just the team and the city, was just a perfect fit. Especially going in as an underdog to Golden State, just a big powerhouse in the West, won so many games and stuff like that, and Cleveland being a blue-collar city, you know, hard work and hard-nosed, and we were that team in the East — diving for loose balls, getting loose balls, and playing physical — so it kinda coincided so well. Even now, we get so much love and so much strength when we go back.
Do you still have a shirtless JR t-shirt?
[Laughs] I still have a few, but I don’t wear ‘em. My mom will give ‘em out for family and stuff like that and the kids.
I know you were watching The Last Dance what were your biggest takeaways from that and all the Jordan footage we got out of it?
Man, from watching all of the tapes growing up — Come Fly With Me, all those — and then watching this, it kinda felt sad because it was a capping of his legacy. You know, he’s already in the Basketball Hall of Fame and all that, and then he finally comes out with the documentary and it’s the last thing that we ever see or hear from Michael Jordan from like himself and out of his words. I took it like it was kind of sad seeing something that I didn’t really think about until it actually came out and I actually watched it, because obviously with the anticipation of it coming out everyone was like, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s see it, let’s see it.”
And now, when I was watching it, it was just like, some of the stories and stuff like that it was like, damn, that’s exactly what happened. That’s it? That’s no more Bulls nothing? Y’all gonna stop showing highlights or something? What’s going on?
The practice footage was really interesting and a rare look for fans at that part of the NBA. No one is compared to Jordan more than LeBron, but when people talk about that hyper-competitive style they talk about Jordan and then Kobe, but I know LeBron has that kind of drive even if the public facing image doesn’t show that as much. How would you describe what LeBron was like in those moments, in those closed door settings and practices, because he’s also a super-competitive person?
I mean, for one, LeBron practiced every day. So whenever people always try to talk about the rest thing and stuff like that, for the miles that he’s done and still to compete with his peers day-in and day-out on a game level as well as in practice, there’s a lot to be said for that. And then just the way he attacks the game with his mentality. He knows he’s great, but his greatest aspect is he knows how to play the game the right way. Now Jordan, in my eyes he’s the GOAT, he attacked it like, I’m going to win this game or I’m going to get us over the top every single time. And Bron’s mindset is, the team’s going to get us over the top every single time.
I understand in a way, any other time someone like Kobe, they would always say, “Kobe’s selfish. He’s this, he’s that,” before the last couple months and a year and a half seeing Kobe off the court. Nobody was, like, the biggest Kobe fan as far as his mentality and his quote-unquote “person off the court” cause they didn’t know him. Everyone was scared of him and thought he was just this wild, vicious person that was just a fierce competitor, and they didn’t know until unfortunately after the situation that he was a great person, a great dad, he had a great family, he coached his daughter’s team, stuff like that. So it’s just stipulations come out through people’s careers because we only see them for that two and a half hours on the court or on TV and we just judge them off of that instead of knowing them as a person.
Like, Jordan’s so high on a pedestal people feel they can’t relate to him. When this guy first came into the league he got a regular apartment, he drives a regular car, and does regular things just like everyone else. It just so happened he excelled and was so amazing at what he did that people put him on a pedestal to where they try to tear him down as much as they possibly can. And within all of the greatness we seen from The Last Dance all you hear is, “Oh well he called Horace Grant a snitch,” and this and this, and creates so much turmoil within it, and then you compare legacies. It’s like, why can’t we appreciate what his greatness was and what he created, because realistically, he paved the way for so many — more than anybody in basketball history he paved the way. He changed everything. So why can’t we just respect him for that instead of trying to compare his greatness to anything else? I think that’s the biggest thing I took away.
To bring it full circle, you mention fans don’t get a chance to get to know athletes through the games. Like, you see what you see, but is that something that you like about when you have these avenues like Twitch streaming and fans get the chance to see you off the court, talking, being a regular person and doing things regular folks do. Is that something where you think gaming and being able to stream is something that can help bridge that divide a little bit?
A hundred percent, especially with gaming. So many kids and so many people are playing a game. I think I seen this a week or two ago where like, 60 million people are playing Call of Duty. I mean, you come in contact with so many different people and so many walks of life. I’ve created some great friendships that I truly value off of playing video games and stuff. It’s crazy because for so long you heard your parents saying, “Get out of the house, stop playing video games,” and there’s like, 13-year-olds making millions of dollars playing Fortnite. Like what are you going to tell him? You going to tell him to go to college? I made a million dollars, what are you going to say? You gotta clean your room? Mom I just bought this big ass house, I’ll get a maid and everything else, you gonna tell me to clean my room?
[Editor’s Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity]