By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Life has given J.R. Smith perspective during a personally trying season.
The pursuit of a championship doesn’t compare to the path he’s traveled.
For the first time on Wednesday, Smith, the Cavaliers’ mostly misunderstood shooting guard, whose tattoos and hard-edged look mask his softer side, spoke in greater detail about his family’s ordeal following the premature birth of his daughter, Dakota, in January.
She’s been fighting from the moment his wife, Jewel, gave birth five months early, and Smith pointed toward a microphone stand in front of him to convey her astounding story.
“She was no bigger than this phone,” he said, recalling the first time he held his tiny daughter.
When she was born, Smith was sidelined with a broken right thumb that required surgery and kept him off the court for three months. Looking back, the injury may have been a blessing for Smith because it allowed him to be where he was most needed with a clear conscience.
But Smith, who missed 36 games while recovering, said his complete devotion and attention would have been with his loved ones even if he was healthy.
“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “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.”
Smith’s now dealing with a hamstring issue that kept him out of the second half of Game 2 against Indiana. He’s listed as questionable for Game 3 on Thursday night as the defending champions try to take a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference opening-round series.
And while he’s determined to play and committed to the Cavs, Smith’s mind is never far from his daughter. She remains in the hospital more than 100 days after birth.
“You can’t separate the two because it’s life and for me it goes hand in hand,” he said. “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.”
Smith said she had her breathing tube removed last month and now weighs 4.7 pounds. Last week, Smith got to feed her with a bottle.
“I’ve got an unbelievable wife,” he said. “I can’t say enough about her because she’s been there literally all day, every day. For her to let me do that or let me do certain things is really cool and I appreciate that.”
He’s also grateful for the support of teammates during an uneven season following their title run. Smith hasn’t been alone in dealing with hardship as forward Channing Frye lost both parents within a span of a month last fall.
“We’ve been through it as a team. We’ve been challenged off the court, we’ve been challenged on the court. We were challenged with injuries,” Smith said. “If there’s any team or group of guys who understand how to persevere and get through what we’ve gone through, it’s these 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.”
Smith has higher praise for another team — the doctors and nurses who have given his little girl a chance.
“Things they really do in that building or around the globe, those people are really life changers,” he said. “I mean I go out there and perform in front of 20,000 people, but the pressure they’re under is second to none because people are looking at you like, ‘That’s my child. I’ve got to depend on you to look after my child in the most vulnerable state and I have to depend on you and rely on you.’
“Those are the real heroes.”
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