It's a Friday afternoon in late April in Las Vegas, and numerous draft hopefuls—mostly second-round prospects—are going through drills at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy to improve their chances of getting picked in late June.
One player standing 6'2" is out of place among the group. But there are many reasons why he's here, not afraid to stand out in a gym filled with recent college players.
Public ridicule. Anxiety attacks. Emergency room visits. Death threats. The struggle has been real for 27-year-old Chris Smith for almost two years.
Without a basketball paycheck for a while, Smith is still fighting for an NBA opportunity, more than a year removed from a gut-wrenching season in the league, and months since being an afterthought in the D-League and overseas.
While his brother J.R. prepares for a turn in the Finals for the first time in 11 seasons, Chris finds himself still trying to erase a reputation that saw him mocked around the NBA and become a scapegoat for much of the losing that has afflicted the Knicks in recent years.
But now, J.R., who has endured his fair share of criticism for ill-advised shots, elbows, tweets and more, has found nirvana in Cleveland, excelling as the team's sixth man on the biggest stage of his career. And younger brother Chris, who's played in only two NBA games, finds himself hoping to get a call back to the NBA.
"I texted [J.R.] a couple weeks ago and said, 'This is our year,'" Smith said. "'This is our chance to win. I'm going to win in my aspects and you're going to win a championship.' That's exactly what I told him."
Smith's challenging personal and professional journey for now, though, has him in Las Vegas, where he's training about six days a week. The next steps for him would be a summer league opportunity, which could come after the draft, and then a training camp invite this fall.
"If Chris shows that he's changed and he's got it together, somebody will give him a chance," said Andrew Moore, director of professional player development at Impact Basketball, where Smith does most of his working out. "No one wants to miss on a guy that they had written off this early in their career, so I think everybody is always open. But it's going to be a war for him. Nothing will be handed to him, so he understands the odds are against him."
Now with the Knicks' situation behind him, and J.R. on a different team, Smith is ready for a fresh start.
"I just feel like it's probably the best opportunity that I'm going to have right now coming up," he said.
Before a dark cloud hovered over Smith, he was just one of the rookies on the Knicks. He first joined them in 2012 for training camp after going undrafted that year out of Louisville. His time was mostly overlooked, though, as he recovered from surgery to remove bone fragments in his left knee.
It wasn't until the following year that Smith became a national topic for the wrong reasons, as questions emerged about how he and J.R. joined the Knicks together. The public didn't think Smith deserved to be on the team. He even admits that he was initially leaning toward not taking the deal to avoid any negative backlash.
"I would say 80 percent at the time yes, but then the other 20 percent was like, 'Everybody wants an NBA jersey on their back,'" he said.
Even though J.R. helped pave the way for Smith, there wasn't a "package deal," which the New York Post reported at the time, according to two sources familiar with the Knicks' thinking. The brothers signed separate contracts that weren't "contractually binding," according to one source, who said, "The goal was to win, and [the Knicks] thought that [Smith] could be a part of that."
In the beginning, there was some jealously and resentment in the locker room toward Smith's generous deal, according to the Knicks sources. Of his two-year, $1.3 million contract, $491,000 became fully guaranteed on the final day of training camp. Most players with nonguaranteed deals are assured of their full-season salaries on Jan. 7. But for the most part, the early negativity surrounding Smith didn't linger. Then-teammate Beno Udrih said Smith was humble and came to work.
"We didn't really care that [Chris and J.R.] were together," Udrih said. "It probably would be different if Chris comes in there and starts acting like he owns the place, but he didn't. He was a great teammate. He just wanted to learn and get better. He wanted to get more minutes, but he was just in a tough situation. He's between a 1 and 2. He always was a scorer, but he's never been a point guard, so he's got a problem that teams can't fit him. A lot of times, he just goes one-on-one and coaches hate that. He just has to slow down."
Nov. 13, 2013, was when the real fallout started for Smith. That night, Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings tweeted, "Wait wait wait JR smith brother is in the NBA but @PoohJeter & @BBROWNLAU isn't. Call me hater but not Rollin!!!" The brothers both responded on Twitter, leading to J.R. getting fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing hostile and inappropriate language toward Jennings.
"[Jennings] felt his friends, [Pooh Jeter and Bobby Brown], were better than me pretty much," Smith said. "I felt like that kind of ruined the situation I had going on [with the Knicks]. Everybody started making me seem like I was a nuisance with my brother playing bad and just being around the team. That's when the real media chatter started like, 'Why is Chris Smith around?'"
Five days after Jennings' tweet, the Knicks assigned Smith, who hadn't been playing, to the Erie BayHawks D-League team. He made the best of his starter role—requested by the Knicks—averaging a respectable 11.3 points on 50 percent shooting in six games. He had one 28-point performance, and on Dec. 17 the Knicks recalled him because of injuries to point guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni.
But in mid-December things for Smith took a turn for the worse, as the Knicks continued to lose and coach Mike Woodson chose not to play him. "Woody didn't really give Chris a fair shot because he didn't think that he deserved to be there," a Knicks staffer said. Disdain from the public continued against Smith, with some of the chatter unfairly putting the blame on him for the team's losing and suggesting that his roster spot would be better served with a center, perhaps Jeremy Tyler.
"I didn't really get scared," Smith said. "I would just say some stuff back like 'I'm going to pray for you.' Then I stopped responding because it was causing too much stress."
That stress came in the form of panic and anxiety attacks, fueled by not only fans and reporters, but the self-imposed pressure to live up to J.R. and his Knicks contract. On the court and at his apartment, there were moments when Smith couldn't breathe, overthinking how people perceived him and feeling uneasy about his future.
"I started having bad anxiety attacks," Smith said. "I called my parents in the middle of the night, waking up drenched in sweat. They would tell me, 'You've got to relax, you've got to relax.'"
"The team wasn't as successful as they thought they could be," said one source familiar with the Knicks' thinking, "so people were placing the blame on him and other things as a distraction. I could see why it was very hard for him."
In December and January, Smith ended up in the emergency room three separate times during the night because of his anxiety attacks. With J.R. always at his side, Chris would receive IV fluids and other medicine to relax him.
"I was sitting right next to him all night [at the hospital], and I'm still going to practice and playing in games," J.R. said. "He's always had nervous energy since we were kids. He's always felt like he has something to prove. He always heard, 'You'll never be like J.R.' That was his biggest thing he wanted to overcome—to make it in spite of me. He doesn't like when we go to the store and I buy him stuff. He wants to get it on his own to where one day he can do the same things for me and everybody else."
On Dec. 31, the Knicks waived Smith so they could sign Tyler. The BayHawks reacquired Smith off waivers on Jan. 7, 2014, and he ended up playing 17 games, while seeing his minutes and production continuously plummet. He was still dealing with his emotional episodes and had a negative attitude, according to those around him, feeling he was manipulated by only being a pawn piece through J.R.'s re-signing. "I felt that way a lot," Smith said.
At one point, Smith had a heated exchange with then-BayHawks coach Gene Cross, demanding to be traded to another D-League team. "He was frustrated with so many different things," Cross said. A trade never happened, and Smith and the BayHawks came to a mutual release on March 4, ending his Knicks-related tenure. Leaving the team is Smith's biggest regret to this day.
Smith was out of a job last spring, and some friends and Knicks teammates started separating themselves from him. Iman Shumpert and Carmelo Anthony didn't, however, and Melo texted him after he got released, saying, "Control what you can control."
"I just felt like people kind of neglected me because I wasn't on the Knicks anymore," Smith said. "Then I just said, 'I need to get away from New York, man. I just need to get away from this negative energy.' That's partially why I love being on the West Coast [in Las Vegas and Los Angeles] because a lot of people know me and respect me."
But his new living quarters didn't change his NBA perception. Smith was once again relegated to living in another player's shadow leading up to last year's Vegas Summer League. According to a source knowledgeable of Smith's situation, part of the promise made for the Mavericks to meet with Carmelo Anthony during free agency was that Smith would play on their summer league team. Both were represented by agent Leon Rose. But Anthony returned to New York, and Smith didn't make the summer squad.
Regardless, not getting a summer league opportunity devastated Smith. It was the final straw to what had been a tumultuous season. He took about a month off from basketball and training—the longest he's done so in his basketball career. By late summer, he had packed on 27 pounds from not working out, eating late and partying, and weighed 227.
"I have mixed feelings about all his opportunities," J.R. said. "I think there are teams that know he can play, but they want to shy away from the media side of what was said in New York. But at the same time, I think it's on him, too, because he has to put in that work with a team or a group of guys that's respectable."
While Smith was sitting around last summer, he met regularly with his pastor friend, Carl Lentz, who consults with dozens of NBA players. Lentz, who baptized Smith along with David Lee and Landry Fields in 2013, helped him keep his faith and stay committed to the game. Smith got involved with basketball clinics and speaking engagements for youth players last fall in NYC, which taught him some valuable lessons.
"Now I understand basketball is more mental," Smith said. "Now that my mind is in the right place, I can actually play the point guard spot. Because when I was not working out, I was training little kids and that's where I learned my patience from. I was also running my camps just to keep money flowing, and now I have more of a business mind. Somebody told me I should go work on Wall Street. I could coach, too."
Smith now feels he's in a better place; even some friends have apologized and are reconnecting with him. He's shed most of his extra pounds, raised his catch-and-shoot percentages and worked on his biggest weakness, the pick-and-roll. J.R. agreed, saying, "He's doing a lot better with reads and passes."
Looking ahead, Smith's goal is to weigh around 195 heading into June and July, when Moore and his staff will look to schedule NBA team workouts for him in Las Vegas.
"I do think he can play in the NBA," said Idan Ravin, Smith's longtime personal trainer who's worked with more than a dozen star players. "There's room for a strong, defensive-minded guard who's athletic. There are so many factors outside of his control. It's not a reflection on his ability."
However, Smith still has his doubters. After not being one of the 122 picks in last fall's D-League draft, Smith was cut from Kosovo's KB Peja basketball club in early March after only two games for not playing well and being overweight. In fact, he was never paid the $30,000 he was to receive for his three-month deal.
"He hasn't shown he's an NBA player," a scout said. "As a point guard, he's not a ball-handler and distributor. And as a 2-guard, he's a below-average shooter and he's not quick and slithery enough to slash. And he's not a lockdown defender at either position. So when you talk about any of his skills for the NBA level, he hasn't been ready yet. He needs to improve his point guard skills and defend point guards to get a shot."
There are some close to Smith who view his story as a troubling commentary—that the Knicks misled him to believe he was an NBA player, through the J.R. re-signing, and he could've avoided all of the heartache by coming to grips with his future much sooner.
But Smith refuses to put his NBA dream to bed, training with former point guard John Lucas in Houston from March to April (when he hung out with James Harden, who told him to "keep grinding") and in Las Vegas for the past month. In Houston, he even sometimes participated in basketball drills with eight-year-olds who needed the court time.
Smith is scraping at the bottom of the basketball barrel, hoping for an escape from his basketball hell, hoping to break through a perceived block from the NBA that he may never be able to do.
"I just feel like my back is up against the wall and whatever stone is thrown at me, I'm just willing to take it at this point," Smith said. "Some situations humble you more and they help you grow as a person. I used to be bitter in certain situations, but now I'm not bitter anymore. I just feel like I've grown to be a better person. I want to win, and I know how I'm going to win. And I feel like I'm taking the right steps towards winning again."