The Cavaliers guard said when his daughter Dakota was born five months premature on Jan. 2, she was no bigger than that device.
Wednesday, on Day 108 of her hospitalization, Dakota weighs 4.7 pounds. Her breathing tube was removed a month ago. On Friday, she reached another milestone, taking a bottle for the first time.
“She’s doing unbelievable numbers. The doctors say she’s off the charts. We just have to take it day by day and hopefully one day soon she’ll come home,” Smith said.
His wife, Jewel Harris Smith, has watched over their daughter constantly, so Smith was touched that he was the one who first got to feed her.
“I’ve got an unbelievable wife,” Smith 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.”
But Smith also appreciates the support he’s received from his teammates and the care Dakota has received from the neonatal unit. He’s come to terms with the fact that the 36 games he missed after fracturing his right thumb on Dec. 20 was a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve thought about it. My wife and I talked about it, I’ve talked about it with the guys,” Smith said after practice Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “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.”
The 13-year veteran knows that had Dakota not made progress, he might not be playing in the postseason.
“For her, that’s No. 1. That comes before this game or any other game,” Smith said. “That’s my first priority. Fortunately in this situation coming down this home stretch of this season and for her, everything is on the up and up. If it turned for worse, I can’t say I’d even be standing right here because I wouldn’t be here. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he would have understood if Smith needed time off to be with his family.
“That’s a delicate situation. Family is first and when you’re going through certain situations all we can do is be there to support you and give you a helping hand in whatever you need,” Lue said. “That was a serious situation and if J.R. needed to take time to be with his family, then that would’ve been understandable by me and I’m pretty sure the players and the organization.”
The last time he spoke about Dakota, Smith said he expected she would have to reach her original due date before being discharged from the hospital. He said now he and his wife are almost afraid to ask when that might happen.
“We haven’t gotten to that point. My wife and I often think about it and it kind of makes us nervous,” he said. “We don’t want to ask and then they keep telling us, ‘Push it back, push it back.’ But we do want to ask. We don’t want to just go there one day and, ‘Well she’s ready to go.’ It’s a very thin line. It’ll take care of itself.”
Smith said Dakota’s situation made him feel for Boston Celtics’ star Isaiah Thomas, whose 22-year-old sister Chyna died in a car accident early Saturday in their home state of Washington.
“That’s one of the reasons why I felt so tough and hard for Isaiah. That’s an unbelievable thing to go through at this point in time in your career and life,” Smith said. “Just to lose someone like that and then still have guys depending on you, it’s a very tough situation and I feel for him so much just from a man-to-man standpoint. Not even as an athlete, just as a person.”
Smith praised the doctors and nurses taking care of Dakota.
“It’s amazing for her to grow to be where she is now and have everything develop. 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.”
Smith is not the only Cavalier who has endured hardship off the court. Channing Frye lost both parents within a span of a month last October and November.
“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.
“Obviously, we’re not making any excuses for ourselves, but we do pat ourselves on the back for that because it’s not an easy thing to get through, especially coming back as defending champs. It’s nothing we take lightly, nothing we take for granted. Just try to get better as people and players every day.”
Lue said he respects Smith for the way he’s juggled his time at the hospital with Jewel and Dakota and with his team, saying basketball serves as Smith’s “sanctuary.”
“It’s a tough situation to deal with, but I pray for her every night,” Lue said of Dakota. “He’s in my prayers, along with his family. They’ve been doing a good job of getting through it. Whatever he needs to do, whatever he needs, I’m going to be here for him.”
On Thursday, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series with the Indiana Pacers in their first-round playoff series by winning 119-114.
The two teams will return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Game 4 on Sunday. Tip-off will be at 1 p.m. The game will be televised on ABC.
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