By: David Anesh
In many ways, the two couldn't be less similar. One dribbles and cuts to create his own shot. The other catches in rhythm and waits for the perfect moment to strike. One went straight from high school to the NBA. The other went to a local university for four years.
From afar, it may not seem like J.R. Smith and Steve Novak have much in common, but in a recent interview with MSG’s Tina Cervasio, the two pegged as “The Odd Couple” sat down to discuss this misconception.
It started early on when Smith and Novak were both born into basketball families. Smith, born and raised in Freehold Borough, New Jersey, played for his father’s team at Lakewood High School. Novak, from the small town of Brown Deer, Wisconsin, played for his father’s team at Brown Deer High School. There is certainty that both players’ upbringings had a huge impact on who they are today.
Said Smith: “When I grew up, my dad was my coach, and Michael Jordan was my favorite player—my idol, my role model. Until once I really understood who my dad was, and who he is now, I was like, ‘This is my idol, this is my role model.’” Novak couldn’t agree more. “I’m just a huge believer in where you get in life has so much to do with how you’re raised, who raised you…what opportunities your were given. There’s no doubt that I am where I am today because he [my father] was a high school basketball coach when I was born…I grew up in a gym. I grew up shooting, being at a hoop by myself with a men’s ball trying to chuck it up as high as I could when I was just a little guy.”
Both Novak and Smith also want to continue the path that both of their fathers started to pave. Novak mentioned in his interview, “I have a son, and little nephews, so they’re all gonna be little ballers too.” Smith responded by saying, “I just can’t wait to have my boy and start the same thing.”
Since joining forces on the Knicks last season, the similarities that Smith and Novak share with one another have grown even more. They thrive playing off each other. Their on-court success is rooted in their deep respect for each other’s game. When Smith drives through the lane and draws a double team, he’s thrilled that’s its Novak on the receiving end of his kick-out pass. Even when he’s on the bench, Smith said, “We got a little joke going that whenever he’s open, find him. I’m yelling, ‘Find him, find him, find him!’ Before you know it they find him and he’s hitting 6-7 threes a game.”
Their mutual feeling of respect is apparent. While discussing Smith’s game, Novak said, “He doesn’t get enough credit for how multi-dimensional he is. Guys know he can score in streaks, but he can be a really, really, really good defender…and the way he passes the ball and sees the floor, I think is so valuable because he can truly play the point guard spot, but he’s big enough to bang with some 3’s and 4’s. It’s just such a valuable piece to a team when you can play so many spots.”
Smith has highlight reels with electrifying finishes and passes. Novak is a pure shooter and it’s a beauty to watch when his feet are set. Their chemistry during games is undeniable. Thriving together on the court has led people to wonder if there is more than meets the eye with these two off the court.
The relationship continued through last season, into the summer and going through free agency. Both wanted to return, but neither knew if he would be back with the Knicks. Novak spoke of their off-season contact: “People are always surprised, for whatever reason that me and Smith stayed in touch in the summer…I guess part of it is he passes me the ball so much [laughing].” Smith took a more sensible approach when asked what they spoke about. “For one, free agency. We were so nervous and scared that we wouldn’t be on the same team anymore, and we got so close within that little time that I got here at the end of the season last year…”
Coach Mike Woodson, along with the new veteran players on the team, gets a lot of credit for fostering a harmonious culture within the locker room this year. It’s quite evident that this humility and modest approach to the game shows through with Smith and Novak. “He’s just such a humble guy, there’s nothing you can say bad about Steve”, said Smith. “I think it helped his confidence out. I mean Steve is so…he likes to talk, I like to talk. It makes it great for us, our relationship, especially as shooters. You know, we do shooting drills every day after practice together.” Novak went on to say, “It’s just kind of funny the reputation he [Smith] has. I feel because he has such a big heart, and he’s a smart kid, and a good guy. Sometimes friends are just…I don’t know what draws people to each other, but he’s just a good guy.”
It’s clear that this year’s Knicks squad has shown up to play the team game the right way. They pass, they defend and they put in that extra effort when it is needed most. A team’s on-court persona is fueled by their off-the-court character; all distinctive personalities must gel. When you look at J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, it’s no wonder it was so easy for this team to unite.