By David Droschak
In some ways, J.R. Smith’s life has come full circle. Once a teenager in a man’s world as a high school player drafted in the NBA first round, the two-time world champion now finds himself as a 30-something guy, surrounded by a group of much younger, college teammates.
Smith, 36, who played 16 seasons in the NBA and won championships in 2016 and last season alongside LeBron James, has retired from hoops and has enrolled at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, joining the golf team as a walk-on.
“I looked up to guys like Baron Davis, Darrell Armstrong, David Wesley, P.J. Brown and Rodney Rogers when I first started in the NBA in 2004,” Smith said. “It feels good being the older guy out here. You get to still learn so much because these young guys have grown up doing this (playing golf) all their lives. I get to learn a different type of work ethic from them, and what their aspirations and goals are, and how I can help to try to make them better men moving forward.”
Smith’s net worth is reportedly $35 million, but he decided to enroll in college under the advice of former NBA players Ray Allen and Chris Paul, both of whom played college basketball. Once deciding on getting an education at an historically black university and selecting the Aggies, Smith began to ponder the idea of playing college golf.
Paul’s bother, C.J. Paul, called North Carolina A&T golf coach Richard Watkins to float the idea of Smith walking on to his program, which was launched just five years ago.
“I didn’t know who C.J. was talking about at the time, but I kind of gave him my position on walk-ons,” Watkins said of the telephone conversation. “At my program, a brand new program that is not very good, at an institution that is not known for golf, people want to come and walk on all the time that hadn’t been recruited by anybody. To me, if somebody else didn’t want you at their program why do I particularly want you on mine?”
However, an impromptu foursome soon thereafter that involved Watkins, his assistant coach, the school’s compliance officer and Smith, took place at Deep Springs in Stoneville. The wheels then began to see if Smith would be eligible under NCAA rules.
He was, and Smith began a serious golf practice regiment at Bryan Park and Forest Oaks in order to attempt to qualify for the team’s four fall tournaments.
“I don’t think he has missed a day playing or practicing since he’s been here,” Watkins said.
Smith is no gimmick. He can drive the ball in excess of 300 yards and has a passion to excel in a sport he has never really played competitively.
“J.R. was always pretty good, now he just has to learn how to play golf. That’s it,” Watkins said. “He has to understand and get used to and learn things in qualifying for tournaments. There are no gimmies … no pickups.
And there is one other hurdle Watkins believes Smith will need to address – walking 18 holes. Golf carts are not permitted in college golf competition.
“Come on, the man is worth $35 million, he’s never walked a round of golf in his life,” Watkins said laughing.
Anthony Ford, a sophomore on the team from Atlanta, at first believed a friend was playing a joke on him about Smith joining the program.
“I thought somebody was making it up, but when I got here there he was,” Ford said of the slender 6-foot-6 Smith. “It’s cool to see how much work he’s willing to put in and how much he is expecting out of himself and the team. It’s going to be a blast.”
Smith, who wears a size 15 golf shoe, really doesn’t know what his expectations should be during the infancy of his competitive golf career and college educational experience. He is anxious to find out, though.
“I feel like you can always get smarter and gain some perspective of life and for me I’ve been a professional athlete, made tons of money, so I don’t really need the typical experience,” Smith said. “At a certain point, at the end of the day, you still want to challenge yourself, get smarter, try to educate yourself on as many fronts as possible.
“As far as golf, it’s much more mental for me,” Smith added. “In basketball, after a while your athletic ability can take over and you can make a different impact on a game. Playing golf, it’s more cerebral and making putts and leaving bad shots behind you and trying to focus on the next shot. In that aspect it’s a lot like basketball because as a shooter for me it’s always about the next shot – whether you made one or missed one – and setting yourself up to be in better position to make the next shot.”
Smith said he picked up the game about 12 years ago when he was riding around on a cart at a celebrity event with NBA legend Moses Malone. The foursome kept goading Smith to tee one up.
“I ended up swinging and hitting the ball 300 yards down the middle of the fairway and fell in love,” Smith said. “Later that day, I bought three sets of clubs. After that I’ve been hooked.”