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). Funny thing is that I told someone the other night that I feel more than a professional athlete who then became a college athlete. Although I don’t feel like I went to school, I feel like one of those guys. However, I can still relate and understand a lot of these guys’ mindsets and mentalities, as I have been there in certain situations. I feel like a college student. It makes me feel normal talking to the guys in my group about their study hall experiences and other stuff. 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 man. Watkins stated that he is a great teammate. He’s a great teammate,” Watkins said. They don’t know what they were thinking, because he is a great man. If you look at them, it’s obvious that they love him very much. A few weeks back, he celebrated his birthday. His girlfriend surprised him with a birthday party. They were all in. They set him up. They got him. 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 for him to be one of our guys,” Watkins stated. “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. Smith stated that it’s one of very few things you don’t have to worry about other animals. “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. It was just me trying to forget that I can’t drop another ball. I try to focus on each swing. I take my time and try not to hurry. The most important thing I have learned is patience.
“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 is hard. It’s difficult to get from one place to another. 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 stated that Smith was first informed by 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 points were easy. Can we get you eligible? Can we establish your amateur status? Can you help the team improve on the course? If those three are true, we can do more than just talk. The part that isn’t often told is that he was already enrolled in school and had been accepted. He was already at A&T. He planned to come 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 took little breaks from the group. I was like, “Bro, what are your doing?” I don’t understand why you keep going there. Are you calling your family? Is your wife aware that you are here? Smith asked, “What’s the matter?” Smith said, “Nah, I’m still studying.” “I’m studying lectures and other stuff like that.” Once I heard him say it, I was like, “Watching lectures?” You’re Ray Allen. You’re Ray Allen. 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. You need to challenge your thinking and work habits. It was a great book. It was the first time I heard a NBA player speak positively about going to school and positive reasons for doing so other than just to give their momma an education. So, I thought, “You know, I’m doing something.” So why not give it a try? And Smith took on a new challenge.
The response from the NBA community was both vocal and positive Smith stated. Smith stated that he expected a call from Chris Paul shortly after Tuesday’s final round.
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 all talked about going to an event. It would be incredible,” Smith said. “I received a lot great feedback. Chris Paul told me that the guys were discussing it in the locker rooms and that they were excited about it. They were also 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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidKehrliTN