By: Stacy M. Brown
When the NBA came courting J.R. Smith during his senior season at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, the scouts kept telling him one thing.
“They always told me I could go back (to school) whenever,” said Smith, who had committed to the University of North Carolina.
So, after finishing as the co-MVP at the McDonald’s All-American Game in 2004, Smith opted to head directly to the NBA. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard played professionally for 16 seasons and won NBA titles with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.
The 35-year-old is retired now and about to embark on a new adventure, enrolling at North Carolina A&T State University, one of the nation’s top HBCUs, to pursue a degree in liberal studies. Maybe those NBA scouts were right after all.
“So, this is whenever,” said Smith, shortly before he split the fairway with his opening drive during the pro-am at the Wyndham Championship.
The 6-foot-6, 200-pounder starts classes on Aug. 18. He is also waiting on the NCAA and to sort out his eligibility, and when it does, Smith, who plays to a 5 handicap, is looking to join the Aggies’ golf team.
“It’s a big deal for A&T. It’s a big deal for him,” said Richard Watkins, who coaches both the men’s and women’s teams and was in Smith’s gallery on Wednesday. “It’s not very often that somebody in his position really has an opportunity to have a thought, a dream, an idea, and to be able to go ahead and move in that direction.
“He’s a former professional athlete, but (it’s) a unique set of circumstances. He didn’t go to college, never matriculated, the clock never started.”
Smith, who wore an A&T shirt as he played in the pro-am, said he started thinking about going to college during a trip to the Dominican Republic with Ray Allen, an 18-year NBA vet who is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“He was talking about some of the things he was doing by going back to school, challenging yourself and stuff for us athletes,” Smith said.
He also talked with Chris Paul, who plays for the Phoenix Suns, and his older brother C.J., who grew up in nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Chris Paul played at Wake Forest but never graduated and is working on a degree in communications at Winston-Salem State, another HBCU.
Smith started playing golf about 12 years ago after attending the late Moses Malone’s charity event. According to a 2014 Q&A in Bleacher Report, he was just riding in a cart when Malone told him to get out and hit the ball. After that first drive, which Smith said went about 300 yards “dead center,” he was hooked.
Smith has often been seen in the gallery at PGA TOUR events, following friends like Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.
“Golf is one of those games that has you feeling really high and or can bring you down to your knees and humble you,” Smith said. “And to have that feeling and knowing that all of the game’s pretty much on my own hands and I don’t have to worry about teammates to pass the ball and receiving passes and playing defense so, I can play my game and just have fun.”
On hand to watch Smith tee off the 10th hole was Wyndham Championship tournament director Mark Brazil. The TOUR event will help support a women’s tournament for eight different schools, including four HBCUs, in October as well as a similar event for the A&T men in the spring.
“Chancellor Harold Martin is on my board of directors, and I just started thinking it would be really cool to kind of give back and with all the things we’ve been doing with Harold Varner’s HV3 Foundation, this would be a nice extension,” Brazil said.
While Smith, who is moving his family of five to Greensboro, says it’s been a long time since he was in a classroom, he’s ready for the new challenges at A&T.
“I’ve got no free time now,” Smith said. “Raising kids and going to school, my schedule will be full. I can’t wait to be a part of the HBCU family.
“I’ve really been embraced by everybody so far on campus. I’m looking forward to start going to football games and repping Aggie Pride.”