America at Large: Education and golf playing a key part in JR Smith’s reinvention

The former NBA champion has earned a walk-on golf spot at North Carolina A&T

JR Smith made his collegiate golf debut at the Elon University Phoenix International. Photograph: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

JR Smith made his collegiate golf debut at the Elon University Phoenix International. Photograph: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

 

Like any gung-ho freshman golfer, JR Smith has been using social media to humblebrag about his new experiences as a student athlete at North Carolina A&T. One minute, trumpeting an 85 on his liberal studies mid-term exam, the next tweeting a gif of the red-shirted Tiger Woods wearing his Sunday game-face, alongside the boast, “Pulling up to the range at my first college tournament”. So far, so undergraduate. The only difference here is that, in a previous life, Smith won two NBA titles during a 16-year pro career and pieced together a resumé that included having to deny alleged links to the Bloods street gang.

The 36-year-old shooting guard, formerly known as the most tattooed player in the NBA (quite a competitive category that), made his collegiate debut at the Elon University Phoenix International at Alamance Country Club in North Carolina last Monday.

He arrived in a Bentley, wearing a long sleeve sweater covering up the “Through the Fire” mantra that adorns his right arm, not to mention the images of his mother and Jesus emblazoned across his chest. We know so much about the topography of his skin because his bare-chested celebrations are part of modern basketball lore.

“Being on the first tee in golf is like when they call the starting lineup in basketball, and now in golf they call the lineup and it’s just you by yourself,” said Smith who had to come through qualifying to earn the right to play. “It’s all on you out there. It’s a lonely feeling, but it can also be an empowering feeling if you gain some confidence.”

With television cameras tracking his every shot and Twitter aflame with updates about his progress, the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year carded 83 and 78 over two rounds. If his scores were disappointing and too high to count towards his team’s tally, it didn’t really diminish his achievement in starting this remarkable first act of his second life. Exactly 12 months to the day, his six-foot six frame was bounding off the Los Angeles Lakers bench as they clinched the NBA title with a Game Six victory over the Miami Heat at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Florida.

A bit-part player on that occasion, he’d joined the Lakers in mid-season at the behest of LeBron James, with whom he’d won his previous championship as a Cleveland Cavalier. Despite the reduced role, still a lovely bookend to an undulating and at times controversial career. It began with him skipping college to go straight from high school to the pros way back in 2004 and culminated in earnings just shy of $90 million. Enough left in the bank for a superannuated baller to while away his days doing exactly as he pleased. Or to try something completely different.

“Being able to compete and challenge myself academically is where my heart is right now,” said Smith when it was announced he’d enrolled at North Carolina A&T and played his way onto the golf team as a walk-on. “Being able to play golf at the same time is even better, so it gives me an incentive to keep my grades up.”

Smith appears to be deadly serious about getting himself educated. He’s poked fun at those questioning his intent by declaring he will be using proper punctuation in his tweets from this point on and dismissing allegations he was surely paying somebody to do his schoolwork. A far cry from his NBA pomp when he once fell foul of the authorities for taking to Twitter to threaten to send his “street homies” to Detroit during a beef with the Pistons’ Brandon Jennings.

The world of professional sport is full of stories about competitors who coulda, woulda, shoulda played at the highest level in a different code. As a favoured hobby of so many, golf is a regular foil for these yarns. Aside from Michael Jordan obsessively playing 36 holes a day and Charles Barkley wringing an entire television series from his attempts to improve his swing, there was giddy talk for a while there that Stephen Curry could make it on the PGA Tour. Playing off scratch, that Curry failed to impact when he entered a minor satellite tour event emphasized the difficulty involved in reaching the top in another game.

Even if Smith always enjoyed a reputation for being a fine recreational golfer, having the guts to enter the ultra-competitive college environment and to win a spot on merit took humility and talent. It’s not the highest level but it’s the place where plenty of tomorrow’s pros are honing their skills. Witness Spain’s Pedro Rabadan, one of Smith’s playing partners, shooting 65 and 66. And the North Carolina coach, Richard Watkins, told the media afterwards his oldest player had learned very quickly any type of tournament play is very different to teeing it up with pals for fun.

“I was nervous, I was,” said Smith. “I didn’t really know what to expect. More than anything, it’s just being able to go out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and get my ass kicked. It was actually a very humbling feeling. Again, I’m ready to go to that range to work on it. I had fun. But I don’t like losing.”

He may not like it but there’s probably a lot more of it in his near future.

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