BURLINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA | After an 8-over-par 79 that included a couple of bee stings but no birdies in the third round of the Elon Phoenix Invitational golf tournament last Tuesday at Alamance Country Club, J.R. Smith sat on the open tailgate of his black pickup truck and reflected on his first college golf tournament.
After 16 seasons in professional basketball locker rooms, including two seasons that ended in champagne-drenched NBA championships, Smith’s latest locker room had no benches or roof.
His North Carolina A&T men’s golf teammates sat cross-legged on the ground behind his truck, their tournament complete while their 36-year-old freshman teammate sorted through what he had learned over 54 holes with a pencil in his hand.
Wearing navy joggers, a light blue and white striped golf shirt and with a pair of white A&T slides replacing his golf shoes, Smith sighed and settled into his makeshift seat.
He had attracted a few dozen spectators over the two-day event who wanted to see how a straight-to-the-NBA-from-high-school basketball player who once averaged more than 18 points a game for the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden would do stepping not just into a different game but a different world.
No. 5 man on the golf team.
Smith wanted to see the same thing.
“I don’t think I can really hang my head on one thing I did really well today,” Smith said. “So, I’m just eager to get back out to the range and get better. Tournament golf is obviously different than just playing casual golf.”
It would be unusual enough for a 36-year-old to be playing college golf but Smith’s background makes his story unique. Six years ago, Smith was the shirtless star of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship celebration, stealing a bit of Lebron James’ thunder by flashing his abs seemingly everywhere he went in the aftermath of the title. He won another NBA title with the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, Smith is coping with college classes and, after rounds of 83, 78 and 79, he faces another round of qualifying in hopes of being one of the five Aggies who will tee it up at the UNCG Grandover Collegiate tournament in Greensboro, N.C., this weekend.
This is not a publicity stunt, though the attention has raised the profile of the men’s golf program at North Carolina A&T, the largest HBCU in the country.
Nearly 20 years ago, Smith committed to play basketball at the University of North Carolina but instead went straight to the NBA. His basketball career over, Smith – who has been playing golf for more than 10 years – wanted to get his college degree.
“He was already at A&T,” golf coach Richard Watkins said. “Golf was an ‘oh by the way.’ His mind had already been made up that he was going to go to college. He was committed to doing it, and he was committed to not only going back but committed to finishing.”
“He’s a great teammate. You look back at some things that were said about him in the NBA. Nobody’s ever said ‘I don’t want to play with that guy.’” – Richard Watkins
Watkins had three questions for Smith: Would he be academically eligible to play; would he have amateur status after his pro basketball career; and could he help the team?
Check, check and check.
“I have dealt with him pretty much like any other prospective student-athlete,” Watkins said. “Honestly it’s been less (challenging) than anybody on the outside can imagine, because he’s a great guy. He’s a great teammate. You look back at some things that were said about him in the NBA. Nobody’s ever said ‘I don’t want to play with that guy.’”
In September, Smith’s teammates threw him a surprise birthday party. Walking down parallel fairways at Alamance Country Club last week, a teammate spotted Smith and shouted, “How’s it going Freshy?”
That’s what you get when you’re a freshman, even if you’ve already made millions before taking your first college class.
As a golfer, Smith is a good player who understands how much better he can get. He has a long, fluid swing and, at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, he can move it off the tee.
He’s a solid iron player but he caught a couple off the hosel during his third round, causing his score to add up. Around the greens, he has soft hands and played a number of impressive pitch shots over mounds and into tight pin positions. He putts well but admittedly struggled getting the ball to the hole last week.
“I mean there definitely was nerves,” Smith said of his first true competitive event.
“It’s easy to just sit there and talk about it but you got to go out there and do it and hit that draw or a cut. It’s tough. You work on shots on a range and then you try to implement them in as you’re playing.
“When you’re playing with your boys, just trying to pull it off is one thing but in competition and where it has to work is different. I’m even more excited now about the next opportunity. I can’t wait for the next qualifier.”
When the inevitable question came about how different golf and basketball are, Smith said there is muscle memory involved in shooting jump shots from the corner and hitting drivers but that’s about it.
“I can run to the corner and get spot-up corner shots all night but you can’t hit driver on every hole,” he said. “I haven’t gotten enough swings in to where I feel like I can go from the range and transition onto the course.
“I have that feeling in basketball. You’re getting certain touches before the game and you know you’re going to have a pretty good game. I’m yet to have that right now on the golf course so that’s what I’m looking for.”
With the Elon tournament over, the other teams were packing their vans for the ride back to campus. Smith and his teammates took their time, sitting around talking about how they played and what was next.
For Smith, he appreciates the tutors who are helping him get comfortable with the academic side of college. The idea of going to school was hatched a few years ago when, on a trip with former NBA star Ray Allen, Smith noticed his friend would duck out of sight for an hour or two at a time.
When Smith asked Allen what he was doing, he told him he was watching lectures and doing schoolwork. Why, Smith asked?
“He was just telling me about challenges and challenging yourself and competing with yourself,” Smith said. “Challenge your brain and challenge your work habits and stuff like that and it really took hold.”
Is it possible for a 36-year-old two-time NBA champion to feel like a college kid?
“I do. I really do,” Smith said.
“I definitely feel like a college kid just talking to the guys in my group about homework and study halls and what they’ve got to do and stuff like that. It makes you feel good. It makes me feel normal.”
A few minutes later, Smith closed the back of his big black truck and headed back to school.
Another class, another study period, another qualifier awaited.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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