When two-time NBA champion J.R. Smith landed a beautiful approach shot on the green of the third hole at Alamance Country Club on Tuesday, he quickly received approval from one of his North Carolina A&T teammates on a neighboring hole.
“Way to go, Freshy!”
Smith, now tackling a new challenge following a 16-year NBA career, laughed and took a moment to soak in the feeling of being J.R. the college student — “just one of the guys,” as Aggies coach Richard Watkins put it.
“That’s the nickname for all the freshmen,” Smith said after shooting an 8-over-par 83 in Tuesday’s third and final round at the Elon Invitational. “When I was in the NBA my first year, they called me ‘Rookie’ or ‘Rook,’ and now I’m ‘Freshy.’
“I really do (feel like a college kid). It’s funny because I was telling someone the other day, I actually feel like I’m not just a person who went professional then (became) a college athlete. I feel like I’m one of those guys who just didn’t go to school, but at the same time, I can still relate to a lot of these guys and their mindsets and mentalities because I’ve been there before in certain situations. So, I definitely feel like a college kid. Talking to these guys in my group about study halls and what they got to do and stuff like that, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel normal.”
Smith, playing in his first college golf tournament, shot a 27-over 240 during the three-round event at the Burlington course, finishing 81st out of 84 competitors.
“He’s a great guy. He’s a great teammate,” Watkins said. “If 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.’ I’ve never read where somebody accused him of being a terrible teammate. And, if they did, they don’t know this one, because he’s a great guy. You look at them and you can tell they like him a lot. He had a birthday a few weeks ago. His girlfriend threw him a surprise birthday party. The guys were all in on it. They set him up. They suckered him perfectly. That’s how they feel about him.”
That feeling was evident after Tuesday’s final round, when Smith sat in the bed of a black pickup truck, holding court and having a good time with his Aggies teammates who surrounded him.
“It’s cool to see him be one of the guys,” Watkins said. “That’s the really cool part, and they embrace him.”
Elon claimed the team title at the event, shooting a 31-under 821. Elon’s Pedro Rabadan, North Carolina’s Dougie Ergood and Appalachian State’s Jake Lane each shot 10-under 203 to finish as co-champions.
Smith stirs up hornets’ nest
While Smith wasn’t in contention, his final round still registered as eventful. On his third hole of Tuesday’s round, the 12th hole at Alamance Country Club, Smith was stung by hornets after inadvertently running over a nest with his pushcart when searching for his ball in the pine straw.
“First of all, to get stung on the basketball court or in an arena never happens. That’s one of the very few things that you don’t got to worry about is other animals,” Smith said. “When I got stung, I was just like, ‘No way.’ I started trying to turn it into a positive, like, ‘OK, this might be like your equivalent of the (Michael Jordan) Flu Game or something like that.’ ”
Smith admitted he was nervous for his first collegiate tournament, but added he’s more excited than ever about his future as a college athlete.
“Definitely, there was nerves,” Smith said. “For me, it was just trying to block out the fact I can’t just drop another ball. Just trying to mainly focus in on each and every swing. I try to really take my time, try not to rush. That’s the one thing I’ve learned the most is really the patience of every shot.
“It’s easy to just sit there and talk about it, but you’ve got to go out there and do it, and hit that draw or cut. It’s tough. Even just going from the range to out here is different. Obviously, you work on shots on the range and then you try to implement them as you’re playing, but when you’re playing with your boys, just trying to pull it off is one thing, but then competition, where it has to work, is different.”
An ‘Oh, by the way’
Smith enrolled at North Carolina A&T in August, and later that month received clearance from the NCAA to compete as a collegiate golfer. Watkins said he was first notified of Smith’s interest in joining the team from C.J. Paul, the brother of 11-time NBA All-Star and Winston-Salem native Chris Paul.
“(Smith) called me and we talked,” Watkins said. “My three things were simple. Can we get you eligible? Can we establish your amateur status? Can you help this team be better on the golf course? If the answer to those three is yes, then we can do more than talk. And, the part of the story that doesn’t get out there enough is that he was already enrolled and accepted in school. He was already at A&T. He was coming to A&T regardless. Golf was an ‘Oh, by the way.’ ”
A trip with friends to the Dominican Republic for a golf tournament led Smith to becoming interested in going to college, he said. While on the trip, Ray Allen, the two-time NBA champion and 10-time All-Star, would leave the group at times to attend online college classes.
“He kept taking little breaks away from the group. I’m like, ‘Bro, what are you doing? Why you keep going over there? You calling the family or something? Your wife don’t know you’re here? What’s going on?” Smith said. “He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m studying. I’m watching lectures and stuff like that.’ Once I heard him, I’m like, ‘Watching lectures? You’re Ray Allen. Why you going back to school? You have the utmost respect of anyone I know.’
“He was just telling me about challenges and challenging yourself and competing with yourself more than just as an athlete. Challenge your brain and challenge your work habits and stuff like that. I really took ahold of it. It was one of the first times I’ve ever heard another NBA player talk about going to school in a positive light and good reasons of doing it other than to just give their momma a degree. So I was like, ‘You know, I’m not doing nothing. So, why not try it?’ ”
And with that, Smith decided to take on a new challenge.
The response from the NBA community has been both vocal and positive, Smith said. After Tuesday’s final round, Smith said he was expecting a call any minute from Chris Paul.
A group that includes Paul, LeBron James and several other NBA players hope to make it out to see Smith play in a collegiate event, he said.
“In our group text, they were all talking about coming to an event, which would be amazing,” Smith said. “I got a lot of great feedback. Chris Paul was telling me the guys were talking about it in the locker room and guys were really looking forward to it, looking for my scores. So, I got to take care of business so that when I see them, it won’t be too much backlash.”
David Kehrli is a sports reporter at the Burlington Times-News and USA Today Network. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidKehrliTN.