Perhaps no Hawk has been booed louder while he was on the team than Josh Smith was in the 2013 first round series against the Indiana Pacers. Every time the 6-foot-9 forward’s hands touched the ball from any inch beyond the free throw line, the city shared the harmonious crescendo of “nnnnoooOOOOO” as Smith set his feet, looked up to the basket and slung ball with his left hand, in most cases, against the rim. In other scenarios, Smith grabbed defensive rebounds and only saw his team’s basket on the court. He had tunnel vision on the floor during the years that Kodak Black was only a pre-teen. He had capable point guards like Mike Bibby, Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague on his side, yet he decided to continue to push the break by himself to the basket. In more times than not, the one-man fast break led to a stiff pass into the stands or a dribbled ball off of his foot and over the heads of photographers who sat on the baseline. After the play, Smith generally walked back up the floor with his hands on top of his head, curling his upper lip under his nose as perhaps a sign of frustration before getting back on defense.
The Atlanta Hawks lived with these repeated moments in the game because Smith was special. He was one of the most, if not the most athletic player in the league during his prime years with the Hawks. Smith jumped so high that he made the sport’s phenom LeBron James’ abilities look normal. He could rebound. He could steal. He developed a nice post game after spending a summer with Hakeem Olajuwon. His handle even got better as the years went on. He still couldn’t shoot, however. He averaged a high of 33 percent from beyond the arc during his time in Atlanta and he had a 52 free throw percentage his last season with the Hawks.
Smith’s post-Atlanta journey has been rough to say the least. He’s played on four different NBA teams and even went to play in China for a few months since receiving those last courtesy claps from the fans in Phillips Arena walking off the floor after that 81-73 Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers in 2013. He got to live out perhaps the defining moment of his career, however, during one series. The Houston Rockets were in the second of their third elimination game against the Los Angeles Clippers in the the second round of the 2015 Western Conference Playoffs. Houston was down by 19 with a little over 14 minutes remaining in the game and it was Smith and Corey Brewer that helped the Rockets force a Game 7. The game was everything Smith attempted his entire career. He had a block, a steal, zero turnovers and went 4-for-7 from three-point land. The Rockets outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the fourth quarter and went on to win the series in Game 7.
Smith was cut from the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday, which was less than two weeks from when he first signed with the team. The Hawks are back to square one by being a bad team after having one of the longest postseason streaks in all of professional sports. The franchise’s only souvenir for the accomplishment is one divisional title banner.
It’s time for J-Smoove to come home, because Smith is Atlanta. He grew up on the Southside in College Park and he rose with up the prospect rankings with Dwight Howard from the SWATs. He played high school ball in the Northwest suburb of Powder Springs before transferring to the basketball star player making-machine of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.
He was drafted by his hometown team at the age of 18. He witnessed some of the franchise’s worst years and one of the best in that 2009-2010 season with Jamal Crawford and seemingly endless alley-oops and cross overs. Smith played with the type of emotion where it was only second nature for him to rep Atlanta as if it meant everything. Having his father at every game might’ve helped surface that love for the town he was playing in as well. Smith was Atlanta. Although he was sometimes out of control, he was exciting and fun enough to where we secretly enjoyed him while the rest of our friends complained about the traffic. Smith’s numbers in his prime mirrored Paul Millsap’s during his best seasons in Atlanta, but the way that Smith filled up his stat sheet was so much more entertaining to watch. Smith was The Highlight Factory. He was crunk music, baggy tees and fitted Braves caps in all colors. He, Lou Williams, Marques Georges-Hunt, and Howard are as Atlanta as one can get in the NBA and with the other options being too good to be on a team that are rebuilding, the best available option to have that hometown flavor with is Smith. Out of respect, Smith’s career should be able to ride off into the sunset with a Hawks jersey on instead of in some foreign letters on a random team overseas’ stitches. Because although we booed and said we hated him, there was a part of us that still loved him deep down.
It’s time for Josh to come home.
Rashad Milligan – @jeff3006